Talking Turkey…

By Robert F. Seibert

The U.S. war cabinet was handed a stunning defeat last week at the hands of the Turkish parliament. In defeating a motion allowing U.S. forces to launch an invasion of Iraq on Turkey’s eastern border, Turkey rejected a package of incentives that included billions of dollars in aid (nearly 35 billion, by some accounts) and U.S. support and influence behind its application for membership in the European Union.

U.S. decision-makers had been so certain of Turkish acquiescence that troop transports and other supply ships were on site waiting to come ashore. An invasion launched from Eastern Turkey would have permitted a relatively quick and clean seizure of Iraq’s northern oil fields, a prime objective in the proposed U.S. war on Iraq. It would have inflicted a two-front war on Iraq. And it would have left U.S. troops in control of Iraqi Kurdistan, an important geopolitical position for our invading armies.

And unlike Iraq’s other neighbors, the Turkish government has a long history of military cooperation with the West and the U.S. A major member of NATO, Turkey was a staunch U.S ally in the cold war with the Soviet Union, fought side by side with other U.N. forces in Korea and generally has been perceived as a faithful and tough advocate for U. S. influence in the Middle East.

During the Clinton years, Turkey, Israel and India formed an informal partnership that countered the fragile alliances of Arab states in the region. This axis of influence was expected to play a large and influential role in regional politics. So Turkish cooperation was all but taken for granted as its government bargained for more financial rewards for its support of the U.S. war against Iraq.

What happened?

What happened is truly ironic; the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. Just as the U.S. rationale for the invasion of Iraq turned to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, the U.S. invasion tripped over, of all things, Turkish democracy. A new parliament, elected last fall with a Muslim party in the leadership role, responding to the perceived beliefs of its constituents, voted down the government request. The U.S. war to make the Middle East safe for democracy, tripped over the democratic process in Turkey.

I’m sure it's only a matter of days before Turkey receives the treatment reserved by U.S. leaders for other opponents of its war plans. Turkey will surely be referred to as part of "old Europe", dismissed as irrelevant, ungrateful and out of touch. Its democracy will be impugned and its military defamed. We may even sink to the pettiness we have imposed on France, denying our historical association and boycotting Turkish products. Turkish Delight may be held up in U.S. ports for increasing levels of inspections, Turkish raki boycotted in U.S. bars and restaurants.

Or Turkey may yet yield to U.S. pressure and approve the troop deployment. The U.S. may yet find and meet Turkey’s price, whatever it is. But in spite of this, Turkey has good political reasons to be wary of this involvement.

First, although Turkey has a secular political system, it is primarily a Muslim nation. And as this U.S. war is perceived more and more as a war against Islam, Turkey will see more and more risk in supporting it. Turkish secularism is a hard-won political fact, and its government is correct in avoiding an alliance that might jeopardize this nascent tradition.

Secondly, this invasion through Kurdistan could have the unexpected consequence of reigniting a Turkish civil war, as the Kurds of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey combine to create an independent Kurdistan in the power vacuum following the inevitable U.S. withdrawal from the area. It took Turkey over thirty years to contain and then suppress the Kurdish independence movement in Eastern Anatolia. It does not want to experience those horrors again.

In this particular case, a valued U.S. ally is placed in a difficult position by U.S. requests. It would be better in the long-run for the U.S. to tolerate Turkey’s refusal, rather than to force them into an ultimately self-defeating agreement. The loss of Turkey’s emerging democracy would be too high a price to pay for the convenience of launching our attack from its Eastern borders.