Q&A with General (retired) Wesley K. Clark

Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. (ret.) Wesley K. Clark looks back at the fundamentals of US-Turkish strategic cooperation in an interview with the Atlantic Council’s Rich Outzen.

Defense Journal by Atlantic Council IN TURKEY (DJ): You spent a lot of time working with the Turkish military at the tactical, operational, strategic, and political-military levels. What stands out as the key to success when working with this unique ally?

Gen. (ret.) Wesley K. Clark: Clarity of mission. Clarity of requirements. Clarity of the rules. This was actually the critical element in relationships with the Turkish military and at the higher levels. Don’t be slippery, don’t be vague, don’t leave the details undiscussed. Think it through. Lay it out. It’s a very engineering-centric approach. Not, let’s say, a soft science approach to military affairs. I think it was a very effective approach, and we were effective when we understood and worked in the same spirit.

DJ: A bit reminiscent of the Prussian approach to planning, perhaps? No nonsense?

Clark: It’s no nonsense, and it’s no backsliding on a commitment once given. So, we always understood that, you know. When you are working with Turkey, if you get the agreement they will follow through. You must also follow through. You will not be given the opportunity to back away from commitments, and this is the key with Turkey. Know what you’re doing, what you’re ultimately going after. Lay it out clearly, work it out in detail, and when you shake hands on it, it’s as good as gold.

DJ: Is it easier to work with the Turks on a multilateral and alliance basis than bilaterally?

Clark: The Turkish approach is consistent—this is the way the Turks are. Work is consistent both in an alliance and bilaterally. But the differences have been in the circumstances, the environment, the exogenous issues. Turkey has always been very sensitive about its internal security, going back to the creation really of modern Turkey. Some of the key concerns and issues go back to the founding by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  Concern over the Aegean is one. We were trying to resolve cross tell [military information exchange between organizations at the same operational level] when I was a young major, then again when I came back eighteen years later.

We were working with different generations of equipment and personnel, but it was the same set of issues more or less. Turkish leadership has always been proud, nationalistic, cognizant of their heritage, and also the unique geography and position of their country.

DJ: Washington as a policy community in the post-Cold War period shifted from operating within formal alliance structures to more ad hoc or issue-based coalitions. Alliances can be cumbersome and bureaucratically challenging, but there is a payoff in terms of trust and institutional commitment. Turkey is a prime case of an ally that becomes more difficult the further afield we get from formal understandings. Has Washington lost the muscle memory, or the patience, for such alliances?

Clark: I think the Biden administration is getting very high marks for consultation. But, unfortunately, there’s a legacy that they picked up from the previous administration.

And, as you know, NATO was prepared to invoke Article 5 in support of the United States after 9/11, and the United States chose to primarily to work through a coalition of the willing rather than through NATO. We didn’t want to mess with this messy political stuff.

The policy decision was taken to work more unilaterally under the Bush administration. This was driven by [then US Defense] Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld, rather than [then US] Secretary [of State Colin L.] Powell. [Rumsfeld] was a dominant leader who didn’t want to worry too much about the diplomatic niceties that were required. He wanted people who would follow easily rather than having to work out an agreement. That was his operating style, and I think that style is what drove serious problems in our relationship with Turkey, such as our inability to bring the 4th Infantry Division through Turkey in 2003. It was astonishing—astonishingly ineptly managed by the United States and this has had consequences that have lasted for a long time.

DJ: This goes back perhaps to the issue of stating the end-state commitments up front. Ankara was pretty clear on their concerns over economic losses and destabilization in northern Iraq.  This was portrayed in the US press as haggling or “bargaining at the souk,” but perhaps it had more to do with the engineering mentality you referred to earlier, and their prior experiences with regional instability.

Clark: This was a real problem we faced with the end of the Cold War, the problem of regional instability. Of course, we were focused on the Balkans, and in the Balkans, Turkey did a wonderful job with us. But at the same time, we were dealing with the legacy of the Gulf War and the problem of Operation Provide Comfort, where we depended greatly on the Turks and operated out of the base at İncirlik.  Yet we were pursuing policies which promoted an independent Kurdistan, which was a threat to Turkey. So, you have to give the Turks credit for being able to handle an ambiguous and ambivalent situation. They were, at the time, happy to have the United States’ support, and we had overlapping interests. They certainly wanted to protect the Muslim community in the Balkans, as we did. I think they did more than they were ever given credit for officially in this, but at the same time they were very patient in putting up with the United States’ need to hem in Saddam [Hussein in Iraq].

During my time as NATO commander, we flew repetitive missions out of Turkey under Operation Northern Watch. We overflew Iraq, and in 1998 we began responding to radar lock-on with kinetic fire. Turkey was very accommodating with that. If you look at the balance of the relationship, they’ve been long-term excellent partners for the United States.

DJ: Turkey has developed impressive defense industrial relationships, operational reach, and power projection capabilities beyond its own border areas. It’s engaged in Africa, Central and South Asia, the Caucasus, and the Gulf as well as the Balkans. Is this a threat or an opportunity for the West?

Clark: I think it’s a great opportunity. It’s based on something fundamental that’s changed in Turkey, which is the development of Turkey’s home-grown engineering and higher education.

In the 1950s, when we first had our relationship with Turkey through NATO, and we were brought together as allies in Korea, Turkey was a much different place. It always had a cadre of good engineers and tools, but it was more isolated.

Turkish engineering today is working throughout the world. They were very effective in supporting us in Afghanistan. They’re working in the Middle East. They’re working in Africa. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the West to work with Turkish engineering in general, not just the military.

DJ: Lastly, what’s your fondest memory of the Turks or Turkey?

Clark: Great restaurants in Istanbul and having three kinds of lamb in the same meal, looking up and out at the beautiful architecture.  I love looking at the city whenever I fly to or through Istanbul, and watching all the ships going through the Bosporus. You get a sense of the wonderful civilization, the dynamism, the economic development. The place is a testament to Turkish entrepreneurship and character, and I feel so blessed to have seen some of this in my lifetime.

General (Retired) Wesley K. Clark is a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) who now serves as Chairman and CEO of Wesley K. Clark and Associates. He is a board director at the Atlantic Council and a member of the Defense Journal’s honorary advisory board.

Image: Supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe General Wesley Clark speaks during the morning session of the General Assembly of Atlantic Treaty Association (ATA) in Sofia, October 7. General Clark is on a two-day visit to Bulgaria. BULGARIA NATO