President Obama has agreed to have Congress vote on whether or not the United States should punish Syria militarily for its use of chemical weapons. Had it not been for the adverse decision by the British House of Commons last week, he would not have felt obliged to seek Congress’s approval.
Not since 1782 has the British House of Commons voted against the government in a matter of war and peace,
In both cases the vote was expected to pass easily. Both the Conservative-led coalition in Britain and the newly elected Justice and Development Party, AKP, in Turkey enjoyed comfortable majorities in their respective parliaments. Even if some MPs defected, there would have been enough to make up for the difference.
In both instances, however, the governments lost the vote by relatively small numbers. In fact, the final Turkish vote was narrowly in favor except for the fact that nonvoting parliamentary members yet present in the chamber are,
In both cases, the parliamentary whips came under much criticism for not taking the vote seriously, sitting on their laurels and believing in the hype that preceded the vote. In the case of Turkey one could attribute it to the inexperience and newness of the new government. It had just won elections in November 2002 and the party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had not yet won a seat in Parliament because he was subject to a political ban and Abdullah Gul, his comrade, was running the government in his stead. To boot, AKP’s own parliamentary leaders seemed unaware of parliamentary rules.
In a straw vote conducted that March morning, the AKP whips seemed to have all the votes they needed. Just as with the Conservatives in Britain, the AKP ranks quickly hemorrhaged. Assuming that the government had sufficient votes, individual MPs decided to vote their conscience. In fact, most MPs had genuine reservations about allowing American troops to traverse Turkish territory en route to Iraq.
Just as in Britain, the Turkish public was strongly opposed to participating in an American-led operation. In the case of Turkey, the American troops entering Iraq would have been followed by contingents of Turkish soldiers set on creating a buffer zone in Iraq’s Kurdish inhabited northern provinces. The Turkish MPs were responding to their own public sentiment just as many Conservatives did last week.
Ironically, in both countries the military establishment seemed unhappy about the deal their governments seemed to be negotiating with the Americans. The reasons were quite different though. In Britain, the military had been subjected to severe budgetary cuts and engaging in an expensive operation did not appear to be a priority for the brass. There were comments in the press by former military leaders to that effect.
In Turkey, the military was very suspicious of the AKP, a party whose roots were firmly anchored in Turkey’s Islamist movement. Hence the officers were looking for ways to embarrass the new government and make its relations with Washington as difficult as possible. On the Wednesday before the Saturday vote, then commander of the Land Forces and second-most-powerful person in the hierarchy, General Aytac Yalman, gave an interview to a columnist well known for his military sympathies. Although Yalman’s name never figured in the interview everyone in Ankara and Washington quickly found out his identity. Yalman in effect said that the military leadership was opposed to American troops coming in. This interview in many ways sealed the fate of the subsequent vote because it gave many undecided an excuse to vote against.
Finally, both in Britain and in Turkey, the opposition parties, Labour and the Republican People’s Party, had much to gain by attempting to defeat the government. However, neither seems to have thought that they could win.
Just as Cameron was stunned, so was the AKP leadership. Perhaps because the AKP was brand new on the job, it managed to ride off the storm. In retrospect, the Turkish parliament’s decision proved to be wise, even if it caused a serious though temporary crisis in relations with Washington. Cameron may not be so lucky, however. Yet, history does have a way of repeating itself, even if it is in different parts of the world.
Image: Flickr/UK DFID. CC BY 2.0.