HH: As I mentioned at the top of the show, as Courtney Kube just expanded on, Americans have been obsessed with shutdowns, DACA and Davos, not to mention the Oscars. And they may have missed a growing standoff between America and one of its longtime allies and a fellow member of NATO, Turkey. Don’t blame yourself if this snuck up on you. It appears to have snuck up on the State Department as well. As President Erdogan warned the United States that he intended to keep up Turkey’s military push in Syria against America’s allied Kurdish forces there, and indeed soon may be targeting a town known to be home to American Special Forces, and of course that raises the first ever specter of NATO on NATO hostilities. Who better to turn to than Admiral James Stavridis? Presently, he’s the head of Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was formerly the supreme allied commander of NATO as well as the former head of U.S. Southern Command, and for 37 years an officer in the United States Navy. Admiral Stavridis is the author of three incredible books – The Accidental Admiral, The Leaders’ Bookshelf, and most recently, Sea Power. But today, I turn to him for very specific insight into the coalition that he once commanded, and which has now entered into a period of unprecedented stress. Admiral, welcome, thanks for joining me. Let’s begin with your general overview of what’s erupting, this confrontation with Turkey. How serious the situation? How might quickly it escalate, Admiral?
JS: We’ve got a very difficult tactical situation in front of us, Hugh. As you know, this is centered on Turkish operations in Northwest Syria, which is just south of their western and southern border. So it’s actually quite a long way away from the center of the fight against the Islamic State. But as you indicated in your overview, the Turkish forces are moving steadily to the east. That potentially could put them in a situation where Turkish military activity would impact U.S. troops on the ground. This has everybody’s attention, and it’s a very dangerous tactical situation, Hugh.
HH: Admiral, when you were running NATO, did you have Turkish troops in your chain of command?
JS: I did, and I want to begin by saying how absolutely superb and professional the Turks have been in the NATO alliance, Hugh. They have contributed ships, aircraft, ground troops in Afghanistan, the Libyan operation, in the Balkans, in counterpiracy. They’re very good in cyber, special forces. Hugh, this is the second largest army in NATO. Out of the 29 nations of NATO, only the United States has a bigger army, very professional, very capable.
HH: So Admiral, I remember from Sea Power that you have spent quite a lot of time in Turkey, and you have a lot of friends in the Turkish military. Let’s bottom line this. What happens, whether intended or unintended if Turkish forces open fire on areas where American Special Forces or regular troops are stationed, and we take casualties? What happens?
JS: It would be a disaster, and it would really undermine a strategic relationship. So the real question, Hugh, is what should we be doing right about now, and I would argue three big things. First of all, we have to get an ambassador in Turkey. We don’t have an ambassador, currently. This is verging to the point where we need almost a special envoy, at least an ambassador, and we need someone with deep experience working with Turkey, somebody like former Ambassador Frank Ricciardone, who is now the president of the Arab University of Cairo, for example. So we need a senior diplomat in Turkey. Secondly, we need a high level military delegation that can go and stay in Turkey and de-conflict this. And thirdly, we need to use NATO as a channel. The Turks respect their membership in NATO. We need to bring this to Brussels and defuse it before we have the kind of incident you’re talking about.
HH: Now Admiral, let me go large. You just mentioned the strategic stress that that would bring, any kind of conflict. There’s an emerging entente. We saw this week that Speaker Ryan was in the United Arab Emirates with Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba. And he was working there with the Sheikh as well to bring this new entente of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, as well as Israel and the United States to bear on Iran, Syria and Russia. In that emerging entente, where is Turkey?
JS: Unfortunately, at the moment, they’re kind of swinging in the middle, Hugh, and that’s a very bad place to find a NATO ally. Let’s also step back and look at how important Turkey is, the geography, they’re the connective tissue between Europe and Southwest Asia. Secondly, the economy of Turkey continues to grow. It’s strong. Their demographics are strong. By the middle of this century, Hugh, their population will exceed that of Russia. And above all, the military capability, we’ve talked about. We need to pull Turkey back toward our side of this confrontation with Iran, and you’re right, that is the big game in the Middle East today.
HH: Well so, why would President Erdogan push this, Admiral? I am at a loss for this, because Turkey was for a long time a reliable ally of Israel. They should be a partner in this new entente that has emerged against Iran and the Iranian export of terrorism and strategic weapons as well. What is it that Erdogan wants that he’s not getting from the alliance right now?
JS: Two things, Hugh. One is we underestimate the way the Turks look at the terrorist side of the Kurdish society. Currently, we are allied, and we should be, with the counter-Islamic State part of the Kurdish movement. But there is an extreme part of that, that to the Turks looks a lot like al Qaeda looks to us. Secondly, and this ties to the first point, all politics are local. A lot of this is about Erdogan appeasing his base, which is very anti-Kurdish, and frankly, is not enamored with NATO or Western Europe. So this is really about local Turkish politics, and Erdogan’s ability and desire to consolidate his own power within that country.
HH: Well then, let me bring up the bear in the room, Russia. They have stitched together Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. There is this new arc against which our new entente is poised. Can Turkey really get along with Russia? You’re a historian as well as a strategist and a military guy. Russia and Turkey, you don’t think of them as allies, do you?
JS: No, you’re rattling old ghosts in their cages, Hugh. On one side, the Ottoman Empire, which existed for a thousand years, centered on Turkey, and the other, the Russian czars who pushed to control that near and abroad around Russia. Ultimately, Russia and Turkey are not going to be the best of friends, and that is a leverage point that we should be exploiting as we work with our Turkish colleagues. This is going to require very delicate diplomacy. I think we can get this done, because in the end, Turkey’s broadest geopolitical strength will be working with the West, not defaulting to that new, as you call it, that new axis emerging in the Middle East.
HH: So let me finish by asking you if you had two minutes or five minutes with President Trump and asked him to address Russia, Turkey and this entente versus Iran, what would you advise him to put into the State of the Union this week?
JS: I would underline the threat of Iran. And I think we will hear that in the State of the Union. Iran is going to press beyond its borders. They see themselves as an imperial power. And they are absolutely committed to controlling much of the Middle East. Secondly, I would tell him rely on your allies. This is where, frankly, the America first rhetoric weakens our ability to work with allies, partners and friends in security. And thirdly, I would say Russia is no friend to the United States. And Vladimir Putin in particular is no friend to the United States. Let’s recognize that as a fact.
HH: Admiral, quick exit, do you think Donald Trump really doesn’t get that? I hear different people arguing about that, but I don’t know how anyone can be blind to the fact that Putin is not our friend.
JS: All I know is that when I hear the President talk about many other figures in the international system, he has plenty of criticism for people like Angela Merkel and others who are allies of ours. I’ve never heard him step up to the plate and talk about the threat that Vladimir Putin poses to the United States. I hope he gets that, and I hope we hear that.
HH: Perhaps on Tuesday night. Thank you, Admiral James Stavridis. Follow the Admiral on Twitter, @StavridisJ. That’s pretty easy, right? @StavridisJ. I’ll be right back.
End of interview.