Who Lost Turkey?

What to do about America's unfriendly allies


The United States is the world's only superpower. It dominates the globe militarily, economically, and politically. But it has found itself almost alone in the war against Iraq.

Washington wasn't able to win the UN Security Council votes of countries like Angola, Chile, Guinea, and Mexico. Even the offer of some $30 billion in aid did not procure basing rights from Turkey, a long-time ally. The war has barely begun and already plans are being made to punish not Washington's enemies, but its friends who did not support it in Iraq. Popular boycotts are being mounted against France and Germany; the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, has suggested that America's northern neighbor might pay a price in trade for its perfidy.

Before treating the entire world as their enemy, Americans might reflect on why international support was so hard to generate.

A case in point is Turkey. The Turkish parliament's narrow rejection of a government- supported measure to accept up to 62,000 American soldiers, 255 planes, and 65 helicopters was a particularly bitter disappointment, since it hindered America's ability to set up a second front in Iraq's north. Only under great pressure did newly inaugurated Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the undisputed leader of the Justice and Development Party (JDP), win legislative approval for aircraft and missile overflights.

Even so, Congress has declared itself ill-disposed to provide the $1 billion in grants now proposed by the Bush administration. Prime Minister Erdogan rather plaintively penned an article entitled "My Country Is Your Faithful Ally and Friend" for The Wall Street Journal. But few Americans seem to agree.

Ankara is a democracy, however imperfect, and according to some polls 94 percent of Turkish citizens oppose participation in America's war against Iraq. Unprecedented protests by a wide variety of groups preceded the vote; equally vigorous were the celebrations after parliament said no. Although many people in Washington "wanted everyone to believe that Turkey would eventually support the U.S.," notes Abdullah Akyuz, Washington representative of the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association, they weren't "paying attention to political differences in Turkey."

Ankara has had a rough political and economic ride over the last three decades. Unstable democracy, formal military coups and informal military rule, international conflict involving Cyprus and Greece, and economic crisis.

Until elections last November, Turkey was ruled by a weak coalition between left-wing and nationalist parties. As the ruling majority melted away, parliament voted for elections in which most major parties were destroyed, failing to meet the ten-percent minimum for representation in parliament. Celebrated politicians—Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Economic Minister Kemal Dervis, Foreign Minister Ismail Cem—all found themselves out of power.

Only two parties, garnering about 55 percent of the vote, survived. With little more than one-third of the vote, the JDP took nearly two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Although Islamist in orientation, it has spent its first five months in office attempting to prove its centrist bona fides.

That included providing basing rights to the U.S. for the war against Iraq. Washington was so certain of the decision that it had two dozen cargo ships sitting off-shore awaiting Turkey's okay to begin unloading equipment. But to no avail.

Although the administration's public reaction was muted, others in Washington were more free in expressing their bitterness. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) suggested that Ankara was trying "to blackmail us." Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, complained that "We spent the last 50 years defending them in NATO. And along comes this opportunity, and by three votes they decline the opportunity to allow us to come in through the north."

Sen. Rockefeller might call the war an "opportunity," but Ankara sees it as anything but that. Akyuz, a vocal friend of America who has immersed himself in Washington's political community, points out that for Turkey the war will bring only costs and risks.

"Turkey has never perceived Iraq and Saddam as a threat," he observes. Indeed, "being a Muslim country creates general sympathy for Iraq." And while the U.S. has emphasized the issue of weapons of mass destruction, "Turkey has never feared possible attacks on its soil."

Thus, a vast majority of Turks—on what issue have 94 percent of Americans agreed in years, if not decades?—are highly suspicious of Washington's motives. "The current government felt it had to side with the U.S.," notes Akyuz, but the decision was solely opportunistic, "not based on principle or the merits of the war." The goal was "minimizing the cost—the political, military, and economic cost."

No one, he adds, defends the war "on principle, to bring democracy or freedom to the region. As in Europe, it is seen as a war to control the region, it is seen as part of a bigger plan of the Bush doctrine. Many believe that control of energy is a major concern. And many believe that security of Israel is a major concern."

At the same time, Turkey looks back at the first Gulf War, which was extremely costly. Cutting cross-border trade with Iraq alone is estimated to have run $30 billion. Economic hardship in Kurdish areas bordering Iraq fueled support for the Kurdistan Worker's Party's bitter insurgency, which ended only in 1999 after 15 years of fighting and nearly 40,000 deaths. More broadly, war has discouraged tourism, a critical source of revenue for Ankara. The new conflict will fall on an economy still in crisis after the collapse of the last two years.

There also are geopolitical concerns. Notes Akyuz, "Turkey is concerned over U.S. interests in northern Iraq. How far will Kurds be able to run an independent state?" Turkey fought no less viciously than Iraq against Kurds seeking independence. This issue "shows that there is a growing distrust, a growing confidence problem" between the two governments, Akyuz argues.

It's no surprise, then, that Ankara asked for compensation for its support. So have Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, even though the latter two are at "little risk," notes Akyuz, and the former, many Turks believe, "should pay the U.S. for getting rid of its major threat in the region." Adds Akyuz, the "only ground on which you can see people defending Turkish support for a U.S.-led war" is that "the consequences [of not doing so] would be enormous for the country."

For all these reasons, popular Turkish opposition remained strong. The U.S. "made the mistake of misreading the country and ruling party," he explains. Although it is a single-party government, there is a "coalition within the party," and a number of factions oppose the war.

Washington expected easy approval, and then "panicked when Turkey delayed." Potential aid figures leaked, resulting in hostile cartoons and commentaries, which were reported in Turkey. "There was a huge reaction in Turkey against the Turkey-bashing," says Akyuz. "The pressure and media coverage backfired."

Which often happens in real democracies.

With the defeat of the basing rights proposal, the promise of additional grants and loans has gone a-glimmering. Washington also has muttered about the possibility of being less helpful in Ankara's pursuit of more IMF aid. Indeed, the Turkish stock market dropped more 15 percent the day after the parliamentary vote.

Yet Washington would lose too if it intensified Turkey's estrangement. Ankara is one of the few secular Islamic democracies—along with Malaysia and, after a fashion, Indonesia.

Moreover, the government is now in the hands of a formally religious party that is struggling with responsible governance. In contrast, in most of the Mideast, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, real democracy likely would mean support for radical Islamists and fundamentalists hostile to the West.

In fact, Turkey is poised between two futures. Even the JDP wants Ankara to look west and join the European Union, but Europe remains reluctant to admit the populous, impoverished Muslim state. (Turkey's population of nearly 70 million ranks second only to Germany's.)

EU membership is not only important for its own sake, offering a path to economic opportunity. It is also a possible key for resolving the division of Cyprus and helping Turkey become free as well as democratic. Cyprus has suffered violence and division for four decades; a year of negotiations under the aegis of the United Nations recently collapsed. Ankara seems anxious to resolve the conflict, in part because a modus vivendi would make EU membership more likely. But Turkish leaders fear a nationalist backlash from pushing Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash too hard. Moreover, America's demands over Iraq, added to political reforms and IMF negotiations, may have helped create political overload in Ankara, diverting the government's attention from Cyprus.

In turn, the breakdown in talks has encouraged Europe to back away from Turkey. EU spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori says that "It appears to us very difficult that accession negotiations can start with Turkey in this situation," even though the EU had previously claimed its willingness to separate the issues. (In fact, Cyprus appears as much to be an excuse for as cause of Europe's position.) But this stance, especially if combined with greater distance from America, makes a solution appear even more distant.

The bogging down of Turkish efforts to join the EU is especially disappointing, Because the prospect of EU membership has encouraged Turkey's move toward genuine liberal democracy. Before leaving office last year Foreign Minister Cem worried about Europe's reluctance to embrace Ankara, telling me that "we bring a lot to the EU." True, but the EU also brings a lot to Turkey. There is "a governing crisis in Turkey," contends Dr. Fuat Keyman, a professor of political science at Ankara's Bilkent University: It is necessary to "transform the state and state-civil relations." The outgoing parliament approved a package of reforms involving freedom of expression and criminal justice protections in order to meet EU accession standards. The JDP supported these measures and seems likely to continue the reform process. At least, it will if doing so makes EU membership more likely.

Serhat Buvenc, a professor of International Relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University, argues that the EU is the "fault line of domestic politics." In his view, the prospect of membership "provides sufficient assurance of the survival of reforms." Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University, puts it slightly differently: "If the EU were to accommodate Turkey, the entire context of politics would change."

Washington can help. Before losing her seat in last November's election, parliamentarian Ayfer Yilmaz said simply: "We want more trade. We want more investment." A luncheon with Turkish businessmen demonstrated unanimity favoring greater access to America's market to help the Turkish economy to recover from a veritable depression. Fikri Sadi Gucum, a member of the board of directors of Cukurova Holding Co., pointed particularly to Turkey's textile industry.

In fact, the Bush administration has pushed to make Turkey into a Qualified Industrial Zone, which would allow some goods to enter the U.S. duty free. The same policy has been applied to Egypt and Jordan as a reward for cooperating with Israel. Alas, U.S. textile state legislators care little for international concerns. Explained Rep. Robin Hayes (R-NC): "National security is vitally important. I try to look at the big picture. But I have to look out for my district, too."

Even more dismissive is Jock Nash, Washington counsel for Milliken & Co., which benefits from the artificially high prices that it charges American consumers due to trade restrictions. Adopting a trade policy that helps poor countries develop jobs for their people "is just so lame," he says.

Nash prefers that Washington simply write Turkey a check, even though foreign aid has failed dismally for 50 years and does nothing to promote real, self-sustaining economic growth. Moreover, government-to-government aid always has unintended consequences. Dr. Gokhan Capoglu of Bilkent University warns that "U.S. support is seen as not support for Turkey, but support for the government," and risks creating "a backlash," thereby "making the same mistake as in other countries." Washington can offer support, "but it should not do so openly." The most obvious strategy is to support the Turkish people rather than their government—by, for instance, allowing them to sell goods to willing American buyers.

Indeed, Washington's long support for Turkey's admission into the EU seems hypocritical if it is not coupled to a freer trading relationship between the U.S. and Turkey. EU admission would create a far more complex and integrated economic relationship than establishing a freer trade regime. America should act on its own rhetoric.

And while there are good economic reasons not to provide more aid, Washington should encourage trade with and investment in Turkey despite Ankara's adverse decision on Iraq. There are many reasons to criticize Turkish foreign policy over the years, but infidelity to the U.S. is not one. Turkish troops fought alongside Americans in Korea; Ankara backed Washington in Vietnam; Turkey paid a heavy price in the first Gulf War. America should forgive Ankara if its elected politicians choose to listen to their own constituents rather than to U.S. officials in the conflict with Iraq.

Foreign resistance to Washington's offensive in Iraq has created significant, but short-sighted, demands for revenge. However, America has much at stake in its continuing relationship with countries such as Turkey. The U.S. would be best served by preparing the groundwork for improved ties in the future.