Who Lost Turkey?

Turkey has been the strongest ally that the United States has had in the Middle East since the end of WW II. The Marshall Plan started with Northern tier states like Turkey and Greece. Turkey joined NATO and was a key player in the American victory in the Cold War. As a secular government, Turkey stood against the rising tide of Muslim radicalism. To the extent that Turkey is moderating its long-term secular militancy, and moving toward fair elections, it may be providing a model for a moderate, democratic Middle East. Its economy is growing rapidly, foreign investment is in the billions. Turkey is in short, almost everything the US could have asked for in the Middle East.

But the Bush administration has, during the past five years, increasingly thrown away this asset, and now is in danger of losing a close and valued ally altogether. It is unclear what US interests are served by this repeated and profound damage inflicted by Washington on Turkey, or what Ankara ever did to us that we are treating them so horribly. (The dismissive treatment in some ways began when the US promised Turkey $1 bn in aid to offset the damage to its economy of the Gulf War in 1990-1991, but then Congress formally decided by the mid-1990s to renege on the pledge. No one has ever explained why we stiffed them.)

The threat of a Turkish hot pursuit of PKK guerrillas into Iraqi Kurdistan is starting to have an effect on Kurdistan’s economy and stability. Inflation is high and some Turkish businesses that had won bids to operate in the Kurdistan Regional Authority (KRG) are going back home in fear of trouble. Getting banks to underwrite economic enterprises is getting harder, which could result in a slowdown for Iraqi Kurdistan. This area was the last in Iraq not to be hit hard by instability, but tensions are growing.

Imagine what things look like from a Turkish point of view. Remember that Turkey is a NATO ally, that it stood with the US during the Korean War (in which its troops fought), during the Cold War, and during Bush’s war on terror. Turkey gives the US military facilities, including the Incirlik Air Force base, through which large amounts of materiel for the US forces in northern Iraq flows.

First, the Bush administration insisted on invading Iraq and overthrowing the secular Iraqi government. It thereby let the Salafi Sunni and the Shiite fundamentalist genies out of the bottle and created vast instability on the southeastern border. It would be as though a US ally had invaded Mexico and inadvertently unleashed a Marxist peasant rebellion against San Diego. Secular Turkey already felt itself menaced by the Shiite ayatollahs of Iran and by the rising Salafi and al-Qaeda trends, and the US made everything far worse.

Then, the US gave the Kurdistan Regional Authority control over the Kirkuk police force and unleashed Kurdish troops on the Turkmen city of Tal Afar. (The Turks look on Iraq’s 800,000 Turkmen as little brethren, over whom they feel protective, and don’t want them dominated by Kurds).

The Kurds promptly announced their aspiration of annexing 3 further provinces, or at least big swathes of them, including the oil province of Kirkuk, and including substantial Turkmen populations. Not only was that guaranteed to cause violence with the Arabs and Turkmen, but it would give Kurdistan a source of fabulous wealth with which it could hope to attract Kurds in neighboring countries to join it, a la German Unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall – except that this unification would dismember several other countries.

Then the Kurdistan Regional Authority gave safe haven to 3,000 to 5,000 Kurdish guerrillas from eastern Anatolia in Turkey who have been killing Turks and blowing up things, reviving violence that had subsided in the early zeroes. Despite the US military occupation of Iraq, Washington has done nothing to stop what Turkey sees as terrorists from going over the border into Turkey and killing Turks. Turkish intelligence is convinced that the camps in Iraqi Kurdistan are key to weapons provision for the PKK, and that funding is coming from Kurdish small businessmen in Western Europe.

PKK guerrillas have just killed 13 Turkish troops on Sunday and in the past few weeks have killed 28 altogether. If guerrillas were raiding over the border into the United States and had killed 28 US troops I think I know what Washington’s response would be.

The the US Congress abruptly condemned modern Kemalist Turkey for the Armenian genocide, committed by the Ottoman Empire, provoking Ankara to withdraw its ambassador from Washington. I have long held that Turkey should acknowledge the genocide, which killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more hundreds of thousands. The Turkish government could then point out that it was committed by a tyrannical and oppressive government– the Ottoman Empire– against which the Kemalists also fought a long and determined war to establish a modern republic. I can’t understand Ankara’s unwillingness to distance itself from a predecessor it doesn’t even think well of–the junta of Enver Pasha and the later pusillanimity of the sultan (the capital is in Ankara and not Istanbul in part for this very reason!)

But no dispassionate observer could avoid the conclusion that the Congressional vote condemning Turkey came at a most inopportune time for US-Turkish diplomacy, at a time when Turks were already raw from watching the US upset all the apple carts in their neighborhood, unleash existential threats against them, cause the rise of Salafi radicalism next door, coddle terrorists killing them, coddle the separatist KRG, and strengthen the Shiite ayatollahs on their borders.

The Congressional vote came despite the discomfort of elements of the Israel lobby with recognizing the mass killing of Armenians as a genocide. Andrew E. Mathis explains Abraham Foxman’s intellectually bankrupt vacillations on this issue. Foxman and others of his ideological orientation have been forced grudgingly to back off their genocide denial in the case of the Armenians by a general shift in opinion among the American public, and his change of position may have removed any fears among congressional representatives that the Israel lobby would punish them for their vote. (Turkey and Israel have long had a strong military and diplomatic relationship, which the Israel lobby had earlier attempted to preserve by lobbying congress on Turkey’s behalf with regard to some issues. But the Israel lobby is now split between pro-Kurdish factions and pro-Turkish factions, and the pro-Kurdish ones appear to be winning out. Richard Perle & Michael Rubin of AEI are examples of the pro-Turkish Neoconservative strain in the Israel lobby. They are losing.)

In 2000, 56% of Turks reported in polls that they had a favorable view of the United States. In 2005 that statistic had fallen to 12%. I shudder to think what it is now.