Turkey and the United States: A Delicately Balanced Political Dance

American flags of 1917 and 2017, and 4 leaders

Both Turkey and the United States have a long history of doing a delicately balanced political dance.

The American Ambassador and the Ottoman Minister of the Interior

Henry Morgenthau, US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, often dealt with Talat Pasha, Minister of the Interior, before and during the first half of World War I (1913-14), and throughout the Armenian Genocide (1915-16) until Morgenthau was replaced and returned home in 1916. (The Americans entered the war in 1917.) Talat tried to convince Morgenthau that Armenians had “enriched themselves at the expense of the Turks,” and were determined to “establish a separate state.” While the former may have been true of a few merchants, it was not true of the vast majority of Armenians, who were peasants (as were the vast majority of Turks and Greeks, too). Before the genocide, the majority of Armenians living in the Empire were loyal Ottomans, and were supportive of the administrative reforms that were to be instigated in the six eastern vilayets. After WWI (1918), the Armenians who were left wanted independence from Turkey in eastern Anatolia.

Talat was also very interested in American money. Only six weeks into Morgenthau’s posting, Talat told him that “there was no money in the Turkish Treasury” and if Americans would give them “a small temporary loan” of “only $5,000,000”, that would tide them over. Though Morgenthau told Talat he would see what he could do to help, he quickly learned that the American government and American investors did not regard the idea “as an attractive business undertaking.”

After the genocide, Morgenthau wrote that Talat “made what was perhaps the most astonishing request I had ever heard:” He asked that two life insurance companies, New York Life Insurance and Equitable Life of New York, give the Empire “a complete list of their Armenian policy holders” because, with the Armenians “practically all dead now and have left no heirs to collect the money,” the Ottoman Empire would be the rightful beneficiary. To his credit, Morgenthau lost his temper and refused.

But Morgenthau no saint either. He was almost as loose with this tongue as the current American president, though he waited until he left his post to published his memoirs, where he described Turks as, among other things, “dull witted and lazy.” And money was without a doubt an issue for the Americans, too. Companies such as Standard Oil and the Singer Sewing Machine Company had invested millions in Turkey, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions owned millions of dollars worth of property. It was important to the United States of America to maintain good relations with the Ottoman Empire to ensure not jeopardizing American interests. Hence, the US never declared war on the Empire.

The Current American President and the Turkish President

Today US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet at the White House. The delicate dance continues, though at least one of the leaders has no diplomatic experience and relatively little idea of diplomacy.

The United States and Turkey have been allies since WWII, and up to now, through NATO. With the Truman Doctrine of 1947, the US declared its intention to guarantee the security of Turkey and Greece, which at that time were threatened by the Soviet Union. Since then the US has contributed significant military and financial support to Turkey. However, since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the resulting war, the relationship has become less and less close.

One of the recent reasons is that another ethnic group wants its independence from Turkey. This time it is the Kurds, who want a homeland in the area of eastern Turkey, northern Syria, and northwestern Iraq. The most visible group that has been fighting Turkey for independence is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and has been declared a terrorist group by Turkey, the US, and European Union. Another group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is a Kurdish militia which has fighting ISIL/ISIS in Syria. Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK, so when the Trump administration announced last week that it would be providing weapons to the YPG to continue its fight against ISIS, Turkey was very upset.

The American support of YPG is an extension of Trump’s declaration during his presidential campaign that he would eradicate ISIS: “I would bomb the shit out of them. I’d just bomb those suckers. I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch—there would be nothing left.” In response to the announcement of supplying American arms to YPG, Erdogan said that “targeting a terror group and trying to eradicate them with another terror group is not, in my view, an ideal understanding of politics.”

A Safe Prediction

Given Trump’s commitment to “America First”, it is likely that there will be no financial support for Turkey itself. It will be an interesting meeting today, but one this is for sure: There will be no official recognition of the Armenian, Pontic Greek and Assyrian Genocides by either country. That would take an American President who believes in truth, and a Turkish President who believes in human rights.


May 17th: According an article by Nicholas Fandos and Christopher Mele in The New York Times today, there was a “brutal attack” on peaceful protester outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington DC, not long after Trump welcomed Erdogan to the White House, praising him “as a stalwart ally in the battle against Islamic extremism, ignoring Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian crackdown on his own people. A state-owned Turkish news service, the Anadolu Agency, reported that members of Erdogan’s security team were involved in the attack. The NYT webpage shows disturbing video of men in white shirts and dark suits, ostensibly the security team, kicking and punching peaceful protesters.


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Photos left to right: Talat Pasha, Henry Morgenthau, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

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