WASHINGTON — The United States may dominate the globe, but it is almost alone in the war against Iraq. Even the offer of some $30 billion in aid could not procure basing rights from Turkey, a longtime ally.
The Turkish Parliament’s narrow refusal to accept up to 62,000 American soldiers was a particularly bitter disappointment to Washington. Only under great pressure did newly inaugurated Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan submit approval of military overflights for legislative approval.
Despite hope that Erdogan would open Turkey as a second front against Iraq, he so far refuses to risk his prestige to back such a measure. People in Washington just weren’t “paying attention to political differences in Turkey,” explains Abdullah Akyuz, Washington representative of the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association.
Although the Bush administration’s public reaction to Turkey’s adverse stance was muted, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas complains that Ankara was trying “to blackmail us.” But 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.”
Thus, most Turkish citizens — 94 percent oppose the war — are highly suspicious of Washington’s motives. No one, Akyuz says, defends the war “on principle, to bring democracy or freedom to the region.” Instead, “it is seen as a war to control the region.”
At the same time, Turkey remembers the expense of the first Persian Gulf War. Cutting cross-border trade with Iraq alone has cost $30 billion.
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 has fought no less viciously than Iraq against Kurds seeking independence.
Opposition was inflamed by criticism of Ankara in the U.S. “There was a huge reaction in Turkey against the Turkey-bashing,” says Akyuz. “The pressure and media coverage backfired.”
With the defeat of the basing rights proposal, the promise of additional grants and loans obviously has gone aglimmering. Yet Washington would lose too if it intensifies Turkey’s estrangement.
The formally religious Justice and Development Party is struggling with responsible governance. By contrast, in most of the Mideast, real democracy would mean support for radical Islamists and fundamentalists hostile to the West.
In fact, Turkey is poised between two futures. Ankara wants to join the European Union, but Europe remains reluctant to admit the populous, impoverished Muslim state.
EU membership is not only important for its own sake, offering a path to economic opportunity. It is also a key to helping Turkey become free as well as democratic.
The prospect of EU membership encouraged the outgoing Parliament to approve a package of reforms involving freedom of expression and criminal justice protections in order to meet EU accession standards. And, argues Serhat Buvenc, a professor of International Relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, the possibility of joining “provides sufficient assurance of the survival of reforms.”
Indeed, Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, suggests that EU membership would change “the entire context of politics.”
Washington can help. At a luncheon with Turkish businessmen I found unanimous support for greater investment from and trade with America. 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 a Qualified Industrial Zone, which would allow some goods to enter the U.S. duty free. Alas, textile state legislators care little for international security.
Instead, they listen to Jock Nash, Washington counsel for Milliken & Co., which benefits from artificially high prices due to trade restrictions. Nash prefers that Washington write Turkey a check, even though foreign aid has failed dismally for 50 years and does nothing to promote real, self-sustaining economic growth. Far better would be to help the Turkish people create real jobs by allowing them to sell goods to willing American buyers.
In fact, Washington has long pushed the European Union to admit Turkey. America should act on its own rhetoric — despite Ankara’s negative decision on Iraq.
Whatever America’s criticisms of Turkish foreign policy over the years, infidelity to the U.S. is not one. America should not blame Ankara if its elected politicians listen to their own constituents rather than to U.S. officials.
Foreign resistance to Washington’s planned offensive in Iraq has created shortsighted U.S. demands for revenge. America would be better served by working to repair and improve its ties with countries such as Turkey.
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