TCS Daily

Talking Turkey

By Ariel Cohen - July 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Washington is trying to "get Turkey right" after the Iraq war. Until the election of the Islamist AK Party in the fall of 2002, Turkey looked like the staunchest U.S. ally in the region. In the aftermath of its Parliament's decision last March not to allow the 4th Infantry Division to deploy in Northern Iraq using Turkish territory, the country looks geopolitically confused. A recent two-week trip to the region confirms it.

The old saying, "Turks have no friends, and the friends of the Turks are other Turks," implying self-reliance, is in vogue, despite secular Turks' claims that the AK Party leadership is pursuing an Islamist diplomatic agenda. As one official put it, "In the past, our leaders talked about Turkish interests, now they are talking about the Ummah (the global Islamic community)."

Publicly, officials say that they "did nothing wrong" to the U.S. Moreover, a senior government advisor complained that he was "irritated" that there is a Polish sector in Iraq, as Poland "was on the losing side" in the Cold War, while Turkey was a U.S. ally. "Poland will win contracts (for Iraq reconstruction) and Turkey won't."

The message to the delegation of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations (ATAA), a U.S.-based lobbying group, which visited Turkey in June was blunt. "The Turkish authorities clearly want us to go back to the U.S. and tell people that Turkey made no mistakes and to defend Ankara's policies before the Iraqi war," one Turkish-American leader complained. A member of the ATAA delegation declared that the moderate Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan preached to the delegation about the merits of promoting peace in Islam as a way to go to heaven.

Behind closed doors, however, Turks bitterly complain to each other that the Erdogan government committed a monumental mistake and destroyed decades-old strategic relationship with Washington.

A senior Turkish diplomat said that Ankara saw " links to Al Qaeda, no WMD, no threat... Our public opinion was against the war, especially without the second U.N. Security Council resolution, and U.S. press coverage of Turkey's bargaining for a greater compensation package hurt Turkish pride. We were being depicted like haggling rug merchants." U.S. delegations were perceived in Ankara as high-handed. "They would leave us lists of things they wanted to be done."

Turkey viewed the whole Iraq war through the lens of the Kurdish problem and feared that the U.S. would grant Kurds a state in Northern Iraq. The Turkish military even suspected that 62,000 troops that the U.S. intended to send to Iraq via Turkey would never leave Turkish soil.

Turkey has also "discovered" Turkoman co-ethnics in Northern Iraq -- a small minority it did not bother about before, but which Ankara saw as a potential, albeit small, counterweight to the Kurds. Focus on the Kurds, however, blinded Turkish officials to the importance of saving the relationship with the U.S.

Turkey's prognosis on Iraq remains bleak. Officials pointed out that Iraqis never had a democracy. "The ethnic, tribal and religious diversity of Iraq is a weakness, not a strength... On the positive side, the Iraqi Shi'a have a strong Arab-Iraqi identity; they will not be agents for Iran."

Turkey's ability to spread moderate Islam is overstated. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's, who spent 8 years in Jedda, Saudi Arabia as an economist in the Islamic Development Bank, recently gave a speech in Tehran at the Organization of Islamic Conference. The speech, written by a secular Foreign Ministry official, stated that Islam is compatible with democracy and women's equality, and was played up in the media.

However, Turkey does not have the budget, the institutions, the personnel, or the commitment to promote this model. Turkey may promote moderate Islam if it puts its own house in order. That may not be enough.

The military, for decades a steward of Turkish foreign and security policy, is split at the top. Some support Turkish accession to the European Union while many, such as the Secretary General of the National Security Council General Yasar Byukanit, remain skeptical. The Turkish military does not cherish the idea of losing its independence and being subjugated to the Common European Foreign and Security Policy -- which will be defined in and by Brussels.

Some among the military's elites have made statements about the possibility of developing an "independent" Turkish geo-strategic course, which would abandon the close relationship with the U.S., but would allow Turkey to play a bigger role in Turkic-speaking countries and develop relations with Russia, China, Iran, and Israel. Similar ideas were voiced by ASAM -- a think tank reportedly close to the 'deep state' -- the military and security services. Possibly, this may simply be a propaganda ruse to scare the U.S. into forgiving Turkey for her less-than-loyal behavior during the war.

The role of the military in national decision-making is being questioned. Businesspeople and intellectuals say that while in the past they hoped that the Turkish military would step in during a crisis and find a solution, today problems may be so complex that the Army no longer has an answer. Some Turkish liberals are demanding a reallocation of resources away from national security, and a greater piece of the national pie for civilian needs: "it is unacceptable that while education and healthcare get 3 to 4 percent of the budget, the military gets 30 to 35 percent."

Armenia remains a sore point in Turkish foreign policy, however. It does not recognize the international border; and wants compensation for the 1915 massacres. Armenia also continues to occupy 20 percent of Azerbaijan's land, causing close to 1,000,000 people to live as refugees. While the Turkish Foreign Ministry may be interested in opening the border to stimulate exchanges and trade, the military vetoed the idea until recently. This may change. Turkey now believes that opening her borders with Armenia will increase Ankara's leverage.

Iran is closer to producing a nuclear bomb than the U.S. thinks: One senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official believes that Tehran may have the bomb within six to twelve months. With that, he noted that Iran stopped exporting the "revolution" (presumably, not counting the continuous Iranian support of Hizballah and Islamic Jihad). While concerns about Iran's nukes are real, the Foreign Ministry wants to pursue consultations with their Iranian counterparts and has not voiced support for the American policy on Iran beyond the usual diplomatic interventions.

Turkey is important as an energy transit country and as a democratic and moderate Muslim state closely cooperating with the U.S. in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. The U.S. should support the Turkish bid to get into the EU because it will become the largest country of the Union, but also because it may balance France and Germany. Washington will continue to engage Turkey politically and militarily while remembering its less-than-stellar performance in the moment of need. In the short term, Turkish support in resolving the Iranian nuclear weapons program will be key in defining the future of U.S.-Turkish relations.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He visited Turkey in June under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations' Atlantic Partnership Program and the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul.

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