Turkey has long been a prickly ally. At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, it joined NATO, the West’s Cold War umbrella, in 1952 and served as a bulwark against the USSR in the Mediterranean. Today, Turkey has NATO’s second-largest army and hosts two of the alliance’s airbases. Turkey’s contribution to NATO is not small.
Turkey has never been a Western-style democracy. And under authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has exasperated the West with its dismal human-rights record and the stands it has taken in opposition to its NATO allies. So it is not surprising that when the Biden administration announced a plan for major arms sales to Turkey and Greece, a bipartisan opposition quickly formed to the Turkey side of the deal — a $20 billion arms package, including 40 new F-16 fighter jets.
With all of its warts, Ankara is an ally and should be treated like one. That includes receiving serious consideration for its arms requests and to be regarded like every other U.S. ally to whom we sell arms, including those that have equally disconcerting human-rights records.
There are multiple arguments in favor of such a move. First, the arms deal will strengthen Turkey’s ties to the West — militarily, diplomatically, and even for repairs and spare parts. Second, the administration wants to condition the sale on Turkey agreeing to allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO, a major strategic gain for the alliance at a time when Russia is attempting to destroy Ukraine and threatens its NATO neighbors. Any NATO member can block expansion, and Turkey is opposing the expansion because Sweden harbors Kurdish separatists it considers terrorists. An end to that standoff is in everyone’s best interests.Third, at a time when Erdoğan has moved closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin and even signed an arms deal with the Russians to buy S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, American support for the F-16 sale sends a message that Turkey is taken seriously by the Western camp. And fourth, Erdoğan is repairing his break with Israel, a plus for the Jewish state and the United States.
Opponents are unquestionably correct about the Turkish president’s stifling of human rights — the suppression and arrest of journalists, the rollbacks on women’s and LGBTQ rights, and repression of political opposition. Erdoğan has also fought America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria, helping to strengthen Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Iran and Russia. As recently observed by former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, if Turkey were a candidate for NATO membership today, it would not likely be admitted.
We don’t live in a perfect world. But even in an imperfect world, consistency is important. Many U.S. allies are not squeaky clean. Yet we regularly sell arms to allies with contemptible human-rights records, including to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Middle East regimes. That doesn’t excuse their human-rights abuses. Instead, we try to use the leverage of increased interdependence and support to spur discussion and address human-rights concerns. The same approach should apply to Turkey.