Turkish-American Strategic Partnership on the Brink-Who is to Blame?

April 30, 2003

Turkish-American Strategic Partnership on the Brink-Who is to Blame?

After decades of calling Turkey "a staunch NATO ally," the mood in Washington , especially in the defense circles, has shifted almost 180 degrees.

After decades of calling Turkey "a staunch NATO ally," the mood in Washington , especially in the defense circles, has shifted almost 180 degrees. Turkey was initially seen as a tremendous asset for the new Iraq and even the new Middle East , while it is now seen as a liability in stabilizing Northern Iraq . So, who lost Turkey ?  

Newt Gingrich believes the State Department failed in diplomatic efforts in getting a yes from Turkey ahead of the war on Iraq . While the State Department had its shortcomings, this is only in part true as it was mainly the Defense Department that handled the negotiations with Turkey .  

For its part, Turkey was more focused on its internal political bickering-between the secular establishment and the Islamist leaning government party, the Justice and Development (AKP). And worst of all, it was not just the "Islamists" that opposed cooperation with the United States , but also parts of the "establishment," representing the military and the bureaucracy. Moreover, various actors had different interests which all together led to this outcome: the government was worried about the party's Islamist base, the President was concerned about the international legitimacy of the war and the military was suspicious of American motives.

Last week I held a number of discussions in Istanbul and Ankara about "the historic accident" of failing to get the Turkish parliament to deliver the four votes necessary to allow U.S. troops access to Northern Iraq . In twenty-twenty hindsight, Turks acknowledge that the government did not believe the US could go ahead with the war without the northern front, and without the blessing and inclusion of the "democratic, secular, Muslim NATO ally" in the region.  

Parts of the government even believed by delaying an answer to the U.S. , they would prevent the war and thereby be seen as peace promoters in the Arab world. This would improve Turkey 's Islamic credentials in the Muslim world as well. One senior government advisor said he opposed Turkey 's inclusion with the UK and the U.S. for historic and symbolic reasons-the Ottomans were the first empire in the region and in Iraq , followed by the British and now the United States is becoming the new imperial power. In his mind, such a trio would not have led to peace in the region and therefore it was best for Turkey to stay out of the "war" coalition and be part of the wider coalition.  

Turkey had grossly misread Washington 's (often conflicting) messages and seemed unaware of U.S. military abilities (despite close cooperation of the two NATO militaries).  It is now clear that neither Turkey nor the United States understood the other well.

The two sides also had different national security interests: the United States wanted to get rid of Saddam, while the Turkish establishment feared what could happen in Iraq after Saddam leaves, i.e. the possibility of long-term instability and an eventual Kurdistan . Turks were concerned that the United States may not have a plan for "the day after" and this turned out to be true. To make matters worse, while the Iraqi Kurds welcomed U.S. attacks, according to news reports, ethnic Kurdish members of the parliament voted against the United States-leading the "establishment" to conclude that these parliamentarians did not want to send the Turkish military to Northern Iraq in order to enable the formation of an eventual Kurdistan.  

Both the "government" and the "establishment" feared the opening of a Pandora's Box. The Iraqi Kurds and the Shiites came out of the box, and now they are forces that will create serious challenges to the Turks and the Middle East region as a whole. Having dealt with both major Kurdish leaders-Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Turks did not believe that Iraqi Kurds would live in peace with each other once the common enemy was gone. The government is now reaching out to Iran and Syria , two of Iraq 's neighbors with a substantial Kurdish population, to contain the "Kurdish situation."  

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul visited Syria this week and had recently Iran . While he claims to try to work for regional stability and security by consulting with these two neighbors, he seems oblivious to perceptions of his actions both domestically and in Washington . While Iran and Syria are on Washington 's black list, Gul's initiative is seen by many as an attempt to "draw Turkey closer to the Islamist world." In fact, an alliance with these two countries is worrisome to the Turkish establishment as Turkey has suffered from Syria 's sponsoring of terrorism and Iran 's promotion of an Islamist regime and Islamist terrorism. If there are any lessons from the last several months of misunderstandings leading to mutual suspicions, transparency in such "peace initiatives" will be crucial to build trust-both between United States and Turkey and the "establishment" and the "government" in Turkey .  

The second item out of the Pandora's Box is the Shiite factor in the region. Turkey , Jordan and Saudi Arabia all have a common interest in the continuation of the "Sunni" leadership in Iraq . Gul attended a foreign ministers' summit in the Saudi capital, Riyadh , on 18 April. While Gul claims his presence helped soften the summit statement, others are wondering if there is another agenda. There is talk about the Wahhabi influence in Washington 's policy circles, and there is growing concern of such influence in Turkish government circles as well. With Turkish economy not doing well, and without the $26 billion from the United States , the "Islamist" groups in Turkey are proposing tax and investment incentives for Saudi money.  

The Turkish Model for Iraq  

The Bush Administration is now promoting the "Turkish model for Iraq ," and while this sounds great in words and is the best way forward, I am doubtful that Washington really understands what that means and how Turkish democracy was established. Modern Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, military genius who fought against foreign powers in World War One and liberated the country both from these foreign powers and also the corrupt Ottoman leadership that was willing to cut a deal with them. Ataturk thus had great legitimacy among the Turkish public, unlike Ahmed Chalabi, who is seen as a U.S.-backed and corrupt individual. A better strategy for the United States would be to back someone with local credentials and who is still pro-American, but more importantly, pro-Iraq's democratic, stable, unified structure.

Ataturk's other success was to create " Turkey " where various ethnic and religious groups were put under a broader "Turkish" identity. These included the Kurds and the Arabs. To achieve this, he had to rely on strong-arm tactics, which is the only way to create a "unified nation" in this part of the world. The big question for Iraq and Washington is whether there is such a man in Iraq , and even so, whether the international community would allow measures that will be necessary to bring stability to the country-and long term democracy.  

Turkish democracy is not at all understood in the West. Most recently, when the parliament failed to pass the vote on March 1, many said, "this was success for democracy." Maybe so in the sense that no one tried to fix the vote. In fact, given that the AKP leadership (based on their claims) wanted to get a yes vote and failed to get it from a parliament it has control over, it was more a political blunder than triumph of democracy.  

While Turkish democracy is falling short of the democratic standards of Europe and the United States (though the media was freer in the Iraq war coverage), it is the only Muslim one in the Middle East . It keeps the Islamists in check, while allowing Islamic-leaning political parties participation in the political system, provided they do not take steps to undermine the secular nature of the state. Ataturk and his allies represented about 20 percent of the elite that brought the pro-Western secular democratic model to Turkey ; it was not the masses.  

Some in Washington argue that if the majority of the Iraqis want an Islamist regime, then so be it, hail democracy. That is a very shallow understanding of "democracy." There is no democratic political culture in Iraq , whereas the Ottomans' millet system was based on basic democratic norms. Even neighboring Azerbaijan , with its Shi'ite secular pro-Western model may not be applicable to Iraq , because its leader Haydar Aliyev also enjoyed great legitimacy when he came to power. Moreover, democracy in Azerbaijan is not what Washington would like to endorse-but that may be the best one can hope for Iraq . In the absence of a serious discussion of what is possible in Iraq , the way the Bush Administration is promoting democracy in the Middle East now is seen as too "evangelical" in the Muslim world.