Truman Goes To Turkey

I recently returned from a trip to Turkey organized by the Truman National Security Project in conjunction with the New York-based Turkish Cultural Center. I was one of eight of Truman’s National Security Fellows selected to participate in a series of meetings with political leaders, civil servants and businessmen. Funded by Ploughshares, the Truman Project is a national security leadership institute that recruits, trains, and positions a new generation of progressives across America to lead on national security.

The meetings, organized by Osman Oztoprak of the Turkish Cultural Center and Princeton Scholar and Truman Fellow Joshua Walker, served to give the Truman Fellows a better understanding of Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy and illustrate Turkey’s unique position at the crossroads of East and West. The Truman fellows traveled around Western Anatolia, stopping in Istanbul, Izmir, Antalya, Konya and Ankara.

The Truman delegation included experts on the Middle East, human rights, development, energy security, American foreign policy, and military issues. I added my background in nuclear policy to the mix and our combined span of area expertise made for lively and dynamic discussions.

I focused my questions on the NATO non-strategic nuclear weapons housed on Turkish soil and Iran’s nuclear program. The answers to my questions varied widely, depending on to whom we were talking. Some people expressed concern over Iran’s regional ambitions, while others dismissed any potential threat noting that the Turks and the Persians had not had a conflict for the last five centuries.

While no one we spoke with would confirm the existence of tactical nuclear weapons in Turkey (one general flat out denied their existence), it was clear that given the neighborhood, most Turks feel more comfortable with the weapons on their soil, even if the benefits are more psychological than strategic.

When I asked one political official about Turkey’s response in the event of Iran going nuclear, he said, “We would arm, immediately.” While I am certain that is not the official line of the Turkish government, I think it is the truth.

The exchange illustrated for me why containing Iranian nuclear ambitions is of critical importance for the safety and stability of the area. An arms race in the Middle East could be catastrophic for the region and for the world. Many of the Turks we met said that their nation could aid in our efforts to bring Iran to the table. We should take them up on the offer.