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LONDON — The Turkish “problem” is looming ever larger in European affairs.

It is not just a question of whether Turkey joins the European Union, as it longs to do, or is kept out by the Western Europeans. That has been a long-standing dilemma that remains unresolved.

The bigger problem is that Turkey is becoming an ever-more vital piece in the international jigsaw, even more vital than during the Cold War when it guarded the southeastern flank of NATO against the Soviet Union.

Today Turkey stands at the heart of Middle Eastern issues because of its strategic command of the region’s water resources, at the heart of Central Asian issues because of its proximity to the former Soviet republics to the east and north, and at the heart of the Iraq problem because of the escalating war with the northern Kurds.

It also stands not just at the cross-roads between Europe and Asia but at the super-sensitive religious crossroads between the languishing Christian world and the expanding Muslim world.

It also happens to have one of the largest armies in the world, superbly equipped, a rapidly growing population and one of the potentially most vigorous economies in the world, although it is currently caught in a destabilizing currency crisis.

But Turkey lacks friends. EU opinion-makers question its human-rights record and secretly regard it as “not a proper European nation.” The Muslim world sees it as a state that has been Westernized and secularized and is therefore the enemy of Islam. The Iranians vie with it for influence in the neighboring Caucasus republics. The Kurds believe that part of Turkey belongs to a new state of Kurdestan and using the terror weapon to make their point — the Kurds being the country’s largest ethnic minority. The Greeks are still at odds with Turkey over both Cyprus and territorial claims in the Aegean Sea, despite some signs of greater togetherness over mutual suffering from earthquakes.

Worse still, Turkey is being increasingly seen in Arab eyes as part of the American intrusion in the Middle East, lumped together with the hated Israel and all part of some Washington and Wall Street conspiracy. In the bizarre world of Arab politics, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is re-emerging as the defender of the Arab world, and Turks, Israelis and others are depicted as the enemy.

On top of all this comes Turkey’s treatment at the hands of the NATO reformers who, under the European Security and Defense Initiative, want to carve out a distinct European military force — the so-called Rapid Reaction Force — which gives non-EU members of NATO, such as Turkey and Norway, second-class status. Despite being one of the largest contributors to NATO in the past, Turkey will be left out of the key decision-making stages in any new European deployments

The Turks are furious and feel humiliated — and this is very dangerous. They are told that the new European force is really just a modest peacekeeping outfit and that it will make no moves without full NATO approval. But they argue that if NATO resources are going to be used — as will inevitably be the case — then all NATO members should be fully engaged on the same basis.

The one piece of good news for the Turks is that their worth and strategic importance are likely to be more appreciated by the Bush presidency than by the outgoing Clinton team, although this, of course, will merely confirm them in Arab eyes as part of the West.

It is high time the rest of the world, and especially the Europeans, took a more constructive and positive view and stopped treating Turkey as a tiresome outsider. In the same way that the EU actually needs the new democracies of Central Europe, it also needs Turkey.

Far more than is currently realized, the Turks may hold the key to peace in the Middle East and the key to stability both in the Caucasus region and in southeast Europe.

Too big and strong to be overrun or undermined, democratic yet with a powerful military class, the Turks should be seen as the bulwark against Muslim and Arab extremism, against Iranian ambitions (which are now being reinforced by longer range missiles than ever before), against the poison still seeping out of Hussein’s Baghdad, against Syrian trouble-making, as well as a bridge between Europe and more moderate forces in the Middle East.

But to play this role the Turks need full EU support, U.S. backing and sympathetic support from other world powers, such as Japan. They also need encouragement to push through economic reforms, including privatization and better bank regulation. Turkey needs to feel that the world understands the pressures on it from hostile neighbors. It needs friendship and a long-term prospect of being welcomed into the comity of nations rather than intolerant lectures.

No doubt there are many things wrong with modern Turkey. Corruption is deep (Turkey is hardly alone in that respect) and its human-rights record is badly in need of improvement, have been besmirched by police and army brutality.

But its democracy works and its elected politicians are increasingly active in challenging abuses, both past and present. The death penalty has been abolished. Solutions are possible both over Cyprus and the Aegean if the Greeks will cooperate.

The alternative is a disaffected and isolated Turkey, dragged down by internal dissent and unruly neighbors, growing Islamic militants and Kurdish terrorism — a weakening link in NATO and European defenses instead of a strong bridge between West and East.

It should be obvious which road the strategic thinkers in the EU capitals ought to be pointing toward. Yet somehow they do not seem to see it.

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