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Who lost Turkey ?

mardi 16 mai 2006, par Srdja Trifkovic

« The prospect of membership in the European Union—and the benevolence of such “Old European” powers as France and Germany—is more important to Turkey than the unequally special relationship with Washington. »
Srdja Trifkovic of the Rockford Institute did publish this rather iconoclastic contribution in the Chronicle Magazine at the beginning of April 2003. Written after a journey in Turkey, it reflects both a real and a possible evolution in Turkish strategic affairs.

There is a country in the Middle East where irate villagers shouting abuse pelt U.S. soldiers with eggs and American trucks have wire mesh mounted over their windshields to protect them from rocks. Over ninety percent of its people oppose the war in Iraq, and its legislators reflected the popular sentiment by denying American troops the use of its territory for the war—twice in one month. Its leftists and Islamists, usually at loggerheads, are united in chanting “death to America” in street demonstrations.

Only a year ago that country was described by a key Bush Administration official as “a truly indispensable nation” with an “indispensable partnership with the United States,” a nation “central to building peace from Southeastern Europe to the Middle East and eastward to the Caucasus and Central Asia… crucial to bridging the dangerous gap between the West and the Muslim world.” In the preceding half-century that country supported each and every military intervention of the United States around the world, from Korea to Kosovo.

The country is Turkey, for decades routinely described as the key to U.S. strategy in eastern Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and—more recently—in the oil-rich Caspian region and the sensitive ex-Soviet Central Asia to the north of Afghanistan. Its partnership with Washington is in tatters in the aftermath of its refusal to accept American soldiers on its territory, and Colin Powell’s just completed visit to Ankara did little to dispel the feeling on both sides that things would never be the same.

Turkey’s refusal to act like a Qatar or a Kuwait, let alone like a “truly indispensable” American partner, has several interconnected causes. Three of them may be singled out as key contributing factors for the present imbroglio :

- 1. Its “post-Islamist” government is very different to its secular predecessors in its outlook and assumptions, and does not readily identify with the U.S. view of the world in general, and its regional agenda in particular.

- 2. The Administration took Ankara’s support for granted, to the point of wounding a proud nation’s sensibilities.

- 3. The prospect of membership in the European Union—and the benevolence of such “Old European” powers as France and Germany—is more important to Turkey than the unequally special relationship with Washington.

That Turkey was on the way to being lost as a reliable and often-subservient ally of the United States should have been evident from the results of last November’s general election. Political Islam triumphed with the landslide victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) over its secularist opponents, but that fact was curiously ignored or else played down in Washington. In his pitch to the West Mr. Erdogan was unsurprisingly eager to minimize his party’s Islamic connections by stressing his “secular” and “conservative” credentials. His assurances were keenly accepted in Washington, so keenly in fact that some European commentators wondered if the AKP had given prior assurances to the U.S. that there would be no change in the relationship.

« Things were no longer as they used to be »

There had been no prior deal with Erdogan, as we now realize, although the propensity of this Administration to deceive itself in accordance with its ideological preferences may have created a different impression. Just as its officials had convinced themselves that Saddam’s regime would crumble as soon as “shock and awe” tested its nerves and that the people of Iraq would greet U.S. soldiers as liberators, the Turkish policy was based on the assumption that the scenario of 1991 would be the model for 2003.

During a recent trip to Turkey by The Rockford Institute’s fact-finding team we were repeatedly warned that things were no longer as they used to be a decade ago. Our hosts talked of the Turks’ deep unhappiness with the outcome of the first Gulf War. The country allowed the U.S. unlimited use of its bases, including its key air force facility at Incirlik, and Turkish ground troops joined the fray in the border zone.

But Iraq had been Turkey’s main trading partner and Ankara subsequently lost tens of billions due to that war. We were told that the Turks had received exuberant assurances and promises from Washington, but in the end they were but inadequately compensated by the U.S. The result was an economic slide that culminated three years ago in a financial meltdown and the political crisis that eventually propelled Erdogan to victory. A related Turkish complaint is the rise of Kurdish assertiveness in the north of Iraq following the first Gulf War, with predictable consequences for the restive Kurds of eastern Turkey. The ensuing conflict in Turkish Kurdistan—the belated flare-up of a conflict going on for decades—claimed thousands of mostly civilian lives.

The escalating crisis of Turkey’s economic and political system over the past decade reflected a deeper malaise, the loss of confidence of the old Kemalist elite. The implicit assumption in Washington—that Turkey would remain “secular” and “pro-Western,” come what may—should have been reassessed already after the Army intervened to remove the previous pro-Islamic government in 1997. Since then many voices, some of the Turkish, have warned that “democratization” would mean Islamization, and that America needed alternative scenarios and regional strategies. The reality check came with Ankara’s reluctance and eventual refusal to accept 90,000 U.S. servicemen on its soil—the number subsequently reduced to 62,000—who would provide the muscle to the “northern front” against Iraq. Pressures and promises from Washington were accompanied by the setting of an altogether arbitrary deadline (February 18) and statements by U.S. officials that created the impression that the Turks had made binding commitments to come on board.

The Turks also miscalculated, by interpreting the pressure from Washington as a sign of its readiness to pay almost any price for the opening of the northern front. Yaşar Yakış, the former Turkish foreign minister who played a key role in the talks with the United States, admitted that Ankara’s bargaining position was based on that assumption : “We did not consider the possibility that they would apply Plan B,” he said, referring to the plan of American attack that did not include Turkey at all. His extravagant demand for close to a hundred billion dollars over five years was badly received by Bush and Powell, and Rumfeld’s optimistic assurances that the northern front would not be needed in any event provided a welcomed relief. Some Turkish politicians, including the former Prime Minister Gül, seem to have expected that their refusal could even help prevent the war altogether and thus help Turkey’s rapprochement with its Arab neighbors to the east.

Paris - Berlin - Ankara ?

Some Turks privately admit that the affair may turn out for the best because Turkey’s display of independence vis-à-vis Washington should earn it some brownie points in Paris and Berlin—and it is in those capitals that the future of Turkey’s EU application will be decided. As if to confirm such views, on March 28 Turkey’s National Security Council, a powerful advisory body of military and civilian leaders, issued a strongly-worded statement calling on Washington to end the war in Iraq and to put an end to civilian casualties and take steps to prevent instability in the region. This statement went down like a ton of bricks in Washington, of course, but from the Turkish point of view there is little to be lost and much to be gained in showing to the Old Europe that Ankara may be clubbable after all.

Compared to the enticing vision of EU membership there is little that Washington can do or say, or indeed pay, to turn the tide. That may be just as well : a new “Turkish” policy is long overdue. Turkey was pretty much “indispensable” in the darkest Cold War days when it accommodated U.S. missiles aimed at Russia’s heartland. Today it is just another country, a regional power of considerable importance to be sure, with interests and aspirations that may or may not coincide with those of the United States. Both Turkey and the rest of the Middle East matter far less to American interests than we are led to believe, and it is high time to demythologize America’s special relationships throughout the region.

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