Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. (ret.) Philip M. Breedlove looks back at his experience managing the US-Turkish defense relationship in an interview with the Atlantic Council’s Rich Outzen. General Breedlove was a key player in US-Turkish relations during a turbulent period.
Defense Journal by Atlantic Council IN TURKEY (DJ): You worked with the Turkish military a fair amount, interacting at both operational and political-military levels. What lessons did you learn about the Turks, the bilateral relationship, what works and what doesn’t work within it?
Gen. (ret.) Philip M. Breedlove: My career was bookended in a way by Turkey. Early in my career, I found myself at İncirlik [Air Base] a lot. During that time, I made a lot of very close associations and acquaintances. I got to know a lot of the Turkish leadership down there personally. I found them to be good, faithful, understanding partners.
When I came back as the three-star numbered Air Force commander [Third Air Force], İncirlik was home to one of my wings. I would conduct regular visits, and when our talks focused on the mission at hand in İncirlik, we had willing, wonderful partners. Yet we were starting to run into some of the difficulties associated with not being able to operate out of Turkey during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Then, of course, I was chosen to be SACEUR [Supreme Allied Commander Europe]. We were starting to see the front end of Washington’s friction with [Turkish] President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, though I still found on the personal level that my interaction with Turkish peers was very good. Turkey had undergone a change of political philosophy in a few years, more clearly challenging the principle of Western alignment.
I found that as I related to the ambassadors and civilian officials, they were less warm than the officers perhaps, but they were very professional. Turkish statesmen are very professional; inside of that word is a lot of things [smiling]. They were insistent…really good at presenting their side of the story, and [had] an amazing sense of historical recall. They were adept at leading off conversations with historical precedents and anecdotes. They were professional and, yes, difficult.
DJ: What did you find to be the key challenges in dealing with allies within NATO, especially Turkey?
Breedlove: The first thing for [the United States] to remember in dealing with an ally, in this case Turkey, is that in an alliance it is a peer-peer relationship. We need Turkey geopolitically; the physics, the geography, the place that Turkey finds itself—we need them onside. We need them just like they need us; this is not a lopsided relationship. Their control of the Dardanelles and of access to the Black Sea—these are very important things, and even though we have drawn down our forces a bit at İncirlik, it remains an incredibly important airfield for anything you need to do in the Middle East. So, we have to start from that—geography and a peer relationship.
What causes the complications in working from that basis? Well you’ve got politics on both sides. In Turkey, you’ve got the politics of Erdoğan, very different from what preceded it. In the United States, all too often we take what should be bipartisan geopolitical and geostrategic issues and subject them to the priorities of domestic politics. We allow petty politics to dominate the geostrategic narrative. Recently, we’ve seen a bipartisan body formed in Congress to watch and attend to China policy and issues, to build effort across the aisle for something that works. Perhaps we need something like that for Turkey.
DJ: Domestic concerns in both countries impact the framing and conduct of bilateral relations. This is perhaps natural, but creates challenges for “relationship managers”—diplomats, military, bureaucrats, and others. Given your experience as one of the managers, how did you account for the role of domestic factors in foreign policy decisions?
Breedlove: In Turkey, before the  coup attempt, the military had a different relationship with the government than after. The military was respected, but not only protected the people from external enemies, but from internal disorder as well. The attempted coup represented a major dislocation in civil-military relations, and prompted a redefinition and restructuring. Things have changed, and the United States needs to understand that—it won’t go back to a situation where the Turkish military drives the bilateral relationship. [We] also need to understand that some, but not all, problems go away if there is political change. We’ve had our own presidents who prompted allies to say, “If it weren’t for that guy, things would be great.” All governments have their challenging times, and we are certainly going through one of those now.
DJ: Turkey has developed important power projection capabilities in recent years and has demonstrated those in Libya, Syria, the Caucasus, and is engaged in Central and South Asia, the Balkans, Africa. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Do Turkey’s Western allies view this as a threat or an opportunity?
Breedlove: The question is one of coherent strategic action with allies. If growth of capabilities is accompanied by NATO solidarity and consultation with allies, the allies cheer. Whereas if capability growth is perceived as being driven by narrow or parochial interests, even partisan interests, many see it as destabilizing or nefarious. Taking the long view, Turkey was an ally before and will be an ally after the current period of tension within the Alliance, and we want Turkey to play that role as a capable and formidable partner. We’ll have to navigate through the present period, but again, allies of the United States have occasionally had to navigate difficult periods with our political leaders, too.
DJ: In an era of great-power competition, what are the keys to better alignment and cooperation between the United States and Turkey? Where are the opportunities?
Breedlove: This is a tough one. I suppose I understand portions of what Turkey is doing: they want to sell kit [military gear], they want to exercise influence abroad. Yet it still interests me that Ankara takes the stance it does with Russia. When you look north from Turkey and see what Russia is doing—immoral, inhumane, illegal military action in Ukraine—one would think that there would be a different approach to Russia. It would be easy to say just embrace our values and morals, but that card doesn’t play so well. The geostrategic security piece, looking at Russia’s destabilizing actions in the Black Sea and elsewhere on Turkey’s periphery, that’s where we have opportunity and work to do.
DJ: Several years ago, an argument was made in the State Department that Turkey had options with Russia, and if Washington insisted on pursuing regional policies in Turkey’s near neighborhood that contradicted Turkish interests, especially regarding the PKK [the anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and YPG [PKK-affiliated People’s Defense Units], we would see Turkish cooperation with Russia. Not out of perfidy, but out of “naked practicality.” There were few takers for that argument at the time because there were few people that believed Turkey had the leverage and agility to do so.
Breedlove: I believed it. I was fairly vocal during that period of time. [US Defense Secretary] Lloyd Austin and I were peers at the time, commanders of the two combatant commands. I still count him as a friend; we agreed on about 90 percent of our views on strategy, but YPG was not one of those things. I argued more than once that we were aligning with a group for an immediate purpose that would ultimately cause us major problems over decades and generations with Turkey. This is another one of those occasions when I think politicians played an unhealthy role in deciding how to move forward, because it was all about how to win a war, and not win the peace afterwards.
DJ: Defense was traditionally the heart of US-Turkey bilateral relations: defense industry, military cooperation, regional cooperation. These have attenuated in recent years, and other sources of traction—bilateral trade, tourism, people-to-people contact—have not taken their place, lagging Europe, Russia, and other partners.
Breedlove: Yes, in military terms the contact has decreased. This is also a problem in the United States in terms of how the military relates to other Americans: fewer people serve, the military becomes sort of a family business for some and mysterious for others. A smaller military and less overseas basing have affected relations with Turkey.
Lack of people-to-people contact is one of the biggest problems we have. In my generation we had very close contact with our peers in the Turkish military, we maintained those relationships, and we were able to keep in touch and deepen mutual awareness and understanding over time. The reduced contact is not producing the same types of contacts and friendships at present—the informal relationships. The granular contact that we used to have at the middle rank and senior rank levels, joint exercises and training especially, we’ve lost it. That would be a place to start rebuilding.
The second place is the politicization of defense industrial products. The F35, the F16, and other defense sales all went south too quickly and without due concern for long-term effects. On the Turkish side, they messaged us hard that they wanted Patriots, but we couldn’t find our way to mutually acceptable terms until they had already concluded negotiations with Russia on the S-400, which set off an unfortunate chain of events. If the US side had shown a little more flexibility on meeting Turkish terms—similar to what was offered in the end but after decisions were made—and realizing that every deal is a new negotiation…if we had approached that differently, we might be in a very different place. Turkish industries are amazing and were going to be a big part of building F35s for countries all around the world.
Lack of close personal contacts, decreasing cooperation, and deficits of trust are all mutually reinforcing.
General (Retired) Philip M. Breedlove is a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). He is a board director at the Atlantic Council.