Turkish Bravado versus American Bullying: A Clash of Civilizations?

March 12, 2003

Turkish Bravado versus American Bullying: A Clash of Civilizations?

The Turkish Parliament was supposed to vote "yes" on March 1 to a resolution allowing the basing of 62,000 American troops and 320 aircraft.

The Turkish Parliament was supposed to vote "yes" on March 1 to a resolution allowing the basing of 62,000 American troops and 320 aircraft. After all, the Army's 4th Infantry Division had been waiting for several days in ships offshore for permission to unload tanks and other equipment. The vote was four short, and the next vote is not likely to take place until after the war starts.  This would exclude Turkey from taking part in the creation of the main war plans. After months of negotiations between the so-called strategic allies, the failure to get a yes from Turkey is a serious failure for U.S. policy.  

Throughout the negotiations the American side did not have a hint of  the "humility in foreign policy" George W. Bush had promised as a presidential candidate. The Turks kept saying that they would not be able to vote yes until a second UN resolution passed, or at least when the U.S. made clear it would go to war, but the U.S. was too focused on the end-game to listen and understand the political dynamics in Turkey. The worldviews and the motives of the two governments were so far apart that one could talk about a "clash of civilizations" that inevitably led to a "dialogue of the deaf."   

In fact, the majority of Turks are proud that their parliament stood tough against American pressure and joined the set of countries opposing a war that few see as necessary at this point. Senior Turkish government representatives even believed that delaying a "northern attack option" for Iraq would deter President Bush from launching a war against Iraq. Many even believed that the Bush Administration was behind Turkey's humiliation in the media, and were especially insulted at a cartoon portraying Turkey as a prostitute for bargaining hard on the economic assistance package. The parliament may have stood up for the Turkish honor, but it was more like "burning the whole blanket for a flea in it," a proverb whose American equivalent would be "throwing out the baby with the bathwater." 

While the main focus seemed to be on the size of the economic package, the big questions remained unanswered. In the absence of effective dialogue, the process took over. The Turks put on a tough bargain on economic, political and military issues to address their key concerns as they had outlined (this was discussed in my earlier piece in In the National Interest, "Turkey's Difficult Balancing Act," at http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol2Issue4/Vol2Issue4Baran.html ).  The U.S. side thought that the negotiations had ended several weeks ago when the Turkish Foreign and Economic Ministers met with President Bush at the White House. For the Turks, however, all three sets of issues need more fine-tuning due to perceived historic injustices and mistrust towards the United States. If the Turkish game-plan was to delay a yes vote as long as possible, however, the Turks believed that there was no reason to believe the talks would come to a end before the start of the war.  

The tragedy for Turkey is that it would likely say yes to the U.S. after the war starts, as it did in the Gulf War, but that would be too late to receive the enormous economic assistance package the United States was willing to offer as a result of "full cooperation."  The final U.S. offer to Turkey was a generous grant of $6 billion, up from $4 billion. Turkey would be able to turn $2 billion of that grant into U.S.-backed loans, which could mean, in real terms, about $17 billion in aid. There would be $2 billion for military assistance. With the establishment of a Qualified Industrial Zone (QIZ), which would include textiles, and with other defense related procurement, Turkey would get at least an additional $1 billion. Turkish companies would get post-war reconstruction contracts. Moreover, to assuage Turkish concerns of ethnic lobby groups trying to block the package in Congress, the Bush Administration promised an immediate loan of over $10 billion. This money would not only help Turkey with immediate economic impacts of the war, but also help it roll over its huge debt, which is about 90% of its gross national product. 

Administration officials referred to this package as an "unprecedented mini-Marshall plan," but it was not enough for Turkey. Coming down from an initial request of $92 billion, Turks wanted $10 billion in grants. They also strongly objected to conditions that the aid be tied to the $31 billion IMF economic reform program. The American side rightly held tight on the IMF linkage: The program is on hold for over four months due to non-performance and Turkish macro economic picture has been grim for many years. On top of that, the new Turkish government has made populist promises, and to a large degree had hoped to fund these promises from a large U.S. assistance package in case of war.  

If Turkey does not say yes in time to the U.S. (for troop basing and over-flight rights), all these negotiations would be for nil. The U.S. would be too focused on the war to renegotiate a smaller assistance package for Turkey. Given the growing negative sentiments in the Congress about Turkey, the Bush Administration would have a much harder time, assuming it would still want to use up political capital for Turkey. Turkish markets have not reacted negatively so far because there is still optimism that at the last minute there would be an agreement. As soon as the reality sinks in, confidence would disappear and Turkey could be on its way to become another Argentina. Such a development would benefit the radical Islamist elements in Turkey who would blame the U.S. for the economic and social troubles. This then might force the military to step in to restore order and prevent further Islamization of politics. 

Even if there were full agreement on the economic package, Turks would still insist on finalizing the political negotiations, which deals mainly with an agreement on post-Saddam Iraq. They want clear guarantees that the Turkmen would have a fair share in any future Iraqi government.  This is a critical issue, a point I have stressed at several points in this publication (see my above-referenced piece, at http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol2Issue4/Vol2Issue4Baran.html, and at http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol1Issue14/Vol1Issue4Symposium.html). A day before the March 1 parliamentary vote, however, Iraqi opposition groups met in Northern Iraq and selected six leaders, which did not include any from among the Turkmen. What made it worse is that U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was present at the meeting. Turks then felt vindicated in their fear that that their ethnic brothers and their interests in post-Saddam Iraq would be overlooked by the Kurds and Arabs and the U.S. would not stand up for Turkish concerns. (This was one of the factors behind the no vote in the parliament the next day.)  

In private discussions last week in Ankara and Istanbul, several people mentioned their belief that the United States, in fact, has been playing the Kurds and the Turks against each other to get its "northern front." Some even wondered if the burning of the Turkish flags in Erbil, in territory controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) was backed by some in the U.S. or the UK. They noted U.S. opinion pieces arguing for "dropping" Turkey and "adopting" the Kurds-without keeping in mind that one is a country and supposedly a long-time strategic NATO ally and the other an ethnic group. Calls by some Iraqi Kurdish groups to unite against Turkey and cause problems for Turkey in the event of war have further touched raw nerves in Ankara.   

While Barham Salih of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has repeatedly said that Turkey's secular democracy is a model for the Iraqi Kurds and that they would not seek a separate Kurdish state, many others do not share his vision. A majority of the Kurds want a federal state in Iraq to pave the way for eventual Kurdish independence, which would inevitably lead to separatist tendencies and terrorism in Turkish territory as well. Moreover, declared Turkish policy states that the formation of a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq would be reason to go to war. 

In this context, if Washington and Ankara fail to reach an agreement, there is also a danger of U.S. and Turkish militaries facing each other in Northern Iraq. The Turkish government has made unequivocally clear that with or without the U.S. they would go to Northern Iraq, initially for humanitarian reasons, but also to keep an eye on the Kurds. It would not be a surprise is they also target some terrorist elements. In the heat of war, however, it may not be so clear who is a terrorist. The State Department's Undersecretary for Political Affairs Marc Grossman has repeatedly warned Turkey not to take unilateral action, as the Kurds would then definitely be provoked into taking arms against the Turks. To avoid a massacre, the U.S. military would have to face its Turkish counterparts, which could not lead to anything good.