(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sometimes it’s hard to tell friend from foe, even if he is standing right next to you. And if you take President Donald Trump literally (yes, I know, we’ve been warned not to do that) he was suffering from such myopia during Wednesday’s press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Turkey, as everyone knows, is a great NATO Ally, and a strategic partner of the United States around the world,” he said. “And I look forward to continuing to find common ground, harness common purpose, and to advance the vital interests of our people and the abiding friendship between our nations.”
Remarkable flattery from the same man who tweeted this a month ago:
So, is Turkey friend or foe? The answer at the moment, unfortunately, is “Yes.” The Turks have launched an offensive against America’s best allies in the war against Islamic State, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Front, and purchased the cutting-edge S-400 missile defense system from Russia. The U.S. and Europe have responded with sanctions, including booting the Turks from the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter program. Erdogan hit back with threats to flood Europe with captured Islamic State terrorists. Standing beside Trump on Wednesday, he accused the U.S. Congress of using “historical developments and allegations” to “dynamite our reciprocal and bilateral relations.”
So, how does one deal with such a frenemy? For advice, I reached out to Chuck Wald, a retired 4-star Air Force general who served as deputy commander of the U.S. European Command in the 2000s. Wald, a distinguished fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, has been a leading voice of caution in dealing with the Turks and, understandably for a former combat pilot, has particular concerns about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s reliance on Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. That base, in addition to hosting military aircraft, (reportedly) has around 50 American B61 nuclear bombs. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our exchange:
Tobin Harshaw: General, I know that given the current tensions between Turkey and the U.S., you have qualms about the NATO presence at Incirlik. Can you explain?
Chuck Wald: Under Erdogan, Turkey has been a thorn in our side for the last half decade. Throughout 2014, Ankara adamantly refused to grant the U.S. permission to use Incirlik for our military operations against ISIS, which was sweeping across Syria and Iraq at an alarming pace. Eventually, after a year of prodding, the Turks begrudgingly gave in; however, we still had to contend with their sporadic demands to halt operations. When the coup attempt happened in 2016, Erdogan ordered all U.S. assets grounded for several days while he accused us of masterminding the attempt to remove him from power.
While these issues took place a few years ago, we saw recently how Erdogan routinely threatened to attack our Kurdish allies in Syria even while U.S. forces were still operating in those areas. Then, when our troops were in the process of withdrawing, reports emerged that Turkish forces started firing on those positions. Consequently, Turkey’s actions should be raising serious questions about whether U.S. and NATO forces should remain at Incirlik.
TH: If NATO did pull those assets out, where would they relocate in a way that wouldn’t harm European security or cause logistical nightmares?
CW: A few years ago, I wrote an op-ed calling for the building of a new airfield in Iraq, specifically in territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government, as part of our efforts then to defeat ISIS and drive it from the country.
I think that the most pressing concern for the U.S. now is that we have nuclear capabilities at Incirlik that no longer serve the same strategic purpose that they did in the past. Given the growing strain of anti-Americanism in Turkey and Erdogan’s willingness to move closer toward Russia, we urgently need to relocate those weapons. Ideally, their new home should be on European soil, with one option being Aviano Air Base in Italy. From a logistical standpoint, this shouldn’t be too difficult.
The U.S. also has the 39th Air Wing stationed at Incirlik. These forces, too, should be up for relocation. Readily available basing alternatives exist in Cyprus and Greece. The Greeks, in particular, have been clamoring for a deeper U.S. military presence over the last few years and have increasingly demonstrated that they want a greater role within NATO. Therefore, relocating the 39th Air Wing to Greek soil would effectively kill two birds with one stone.
TH: One of the great successes of NATO, beyond the obvious of protecting Western Europe from the Soviet Union, was keeping Turkey and Greece off of each other’s throats. Would a rebalancing of assets along the lines you suggest threaten to re-ignite that dangerous rivalry?
CW: First, I think that there’s a misperception that NATO has kept Greece and Turkey at arms’ length. In fact, Athens and Ankara almost went to war in 1964, but for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s direct intervention. Ten years later, they did, and NATO stood on the sidelines because it deemed that Article V, the mutual defense pact, did not apply to conflicts between member states. Today, Greece has taken many steps to demonstrate to NATO that it can be its “new southeastern bulwark,” such as holding military exercises in increasing frequency, size and complexity. The contrast couldn’t be starker between how Turkey has moved further away from NATO in the last five years.
Will rebalancing assets re-ignite tensions? That’s hard to say, because tensions aren’t exactly stone-cold right now, given Turkey’s continued naval provocations in Cypriot waters and Erdogan’s regular complaints about the sovereignty status of some Greek islands that are located close to the Turkish shoreline.
TH: More broadly, how can Turkey stay in NATO if it can’t be trusted at Incirlik?
CW: Unfortunately, the truth is NATO doesn’t have a suspension or ejection mechanism for its members. Incirlik aside, we’ve seen how Turkey has been actively operating against NATO interests for far too long now, buying Russian S-400s despite repeated warnings, allowing foreign fighters free passage en route to joining ISIS in Syria, etc.
I think that Turkey’s case should push NATO to put in place a long overdue system for handling those rare instances where a member is demonstrably no longer acting in accordance with NATO values or, worse, now presents a threat to the organization’s security interests.
TH: Trump lauded Turkey’s contribution to NATO at his press conference with Erdogan on Wednesday. How effectively do you think the administration is dealing with Turkey issues? Do you think the president opened the door to Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria?
CW: The fact that Turkey is acting counter to the best interests of the U.S. and NATO regarding Syria and the Kurds is an added reason for us to hold Turkey accountable for their actions. For example, we should not give an inch regarding the S-400/JSF issue.
TH: The Turkey problem aside, what is the greatest threat Europe and NATO face right now?
TH: Was expanding NATO to include the post-Soviet states in the early 2000s a mistake? It certainly angers Russian President Vladimir Putin.
CW: No, at the time it seemed to be the exact right thing to pursue. Subsequently, Putin’s actions and objectives have run totally counter to those of the U.S. and the NATO alliance. We all would like things to return to what we considered normal a few years ago, in a more collaborative world. The reality of today’s geopolitics must be addressed and nations we previously hoped to count as allies, or at least friends, have now become adversaries.
TH: Finally, I know you are very concerned about climate change. Can you explain briefly why you see global warming as a national security threat, and what the military specifically can do to deal with it?
CW: A little over 10 years ago, I testified in front of the U.S. Senate that “climate change has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale and at a frequency far beyond those we see today.” I think it’s become increasingly clear here in the U.S. — with California’s persistent wildfires, more frequent and severe hurricanes hitting the coasts, extreme flooding in the mid-west states — that those fears are already being borne out in real time.
Globally, climate change is already creating food and water shortages though land loss, droughts and flooding. Those shortages inevitably spur mass migrations, which can spark or exacerbate political disputes between adjacent nations. Diseases that were previously only found in certain places may spread to other areas as environmental conditions change. As the resources necessary for human societies become scarcer, open conflict between states becomes a very real possibility. This is readily apparent in the South China Sea, where growing competition over hydrocarbon exploration rights and fishing stocks has already seen tensions flare between China and its neighbors.
I participated in a study for the Center for Naval Analysis in 2008 that addressed many of the issues and challenges the U.S. and our allies would face due to climate-change effects. We identified both mitigation and adaptation steps that we regarded as imperative for the Defense Department to address and implement. We are beginning to see many of those predicted effects, and it will be costly, in terms of both time and dollars for the military.
Generally speaking, the Pentagon should be finding ways to reduce its carbon footprint, improve its energy efficiency, and prepare for the wide spectrum of missions that climate change will spur both here in the U.S. and internationally.
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Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.
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