A friend in need

Posted: Mar 04, 2003 12:00 AM
It is ironic that France is the principal beneficiary of the vote last Saturday in Turkey’s parliament that failed to authorize U.S. use of Turkish bases for an invasion of Iraq -- aside, of course, from Saddam Hussein. After all, the French have gone out of their way for years to treat the Turks with contempt and have been a driving force in blocking the latters’ efforts to root their country firmly in the West via membership in the European Union. Nonetheless, if Saturday’s vote stands, the big winner will be France and its obstructionism in another area: the quintessentially Gallic, Gaullist and galling effort to frustrate President Bush and his determination to disarm Iraq the old-fashioned way -- namely, by overthrowing Saddam’s regime and liberating the Iraqi people. The irony is all the greater since the most recent French affront to Turkey was Jacques Chirac’s leading role in thwarting NATO planning -- planning! -- for the protection of Turkish territory from Iraqi military strikes. Only by moving the voting to an alliance committee in which France chooses not to participate was Paris’ veto overcome and NATO assistance approved. Worse yet, the outcome in Turkey’s parliament last weekend (in which the motion carried 264-251 but still failed due to 19 abstentions, which denied the government the required 267 votes for an absolute majority of all lawmakers present) threatens to drive a wedge between Turkey and its most important Western ally: the United States. Naturally, there is little likelihood that Ankara would get the more than $15 billion the Bush team had offered in direct loans and grants, let alone the billions more that might have come in indirect aid and guarantees. Turkey desperately needs such assistance to cope with the lingering, devastating effects on its economy of the last Gulf War and to cushion it from the costs of the next one. The prospect of the loss of this aid package translated into an 11% drop in Turkey’s stock market at the opening of trading on Monday. If a further worsening of relations between Washington and Ankara ensues, diminishing America’s willingness to help Turkey in international financial institutions and other ways, the economic repercussions could be still more dire. These are likely, however, to pale compared to the untoward strategic consequences of a lasting rupture in U.S.-Turkish relations. Most immediately, Turkey’s interests in post-Saddam Iraq could be harmed. Preeminent among these is its concern that the destruction of totalitarian rule in Baghdad will advance Kurdish aspirations for autonomy or even statehood. The Turks are determined to prevent such a step. In the absence of close bilateral partnership in capitals and on the ground, however, these anxieties could translate into open warfare between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds, with ominous implications for American operations and objectives in Iraq. Over the longer term, though, such a rupture could precipitate a most undesirable transformation from a Turkey that is a cornerstone of Western security and a model of stable, secular democracy in the Muslim world to one that is squarely in our enemies’ camp. Already, Islamists have come to power -- in part on the strength of nationalist sympathies inflamed by European rejection of Turkey’s bid to become even a candidate for EU membership; in part out of disgust with the incompetence and corruption of a succession of governments run by non-Islamist politicians. It was the unanticipated defection of fully 100 of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s members that handed Prime Minister Abdullah Gul his defeat last Saturday on the resolution authorizing the U.S. use of Turkish territory. While the idea of punishing Turkey for this result has superficial appeal (some have gone so far as to call for arming the Kurds with surface-to-air missiles in the hope they will be used to shoot down Turkish helicopters!), it is hard to exaggerate the undesirable consequences that could eventuate if the present impasse is allowed to stand -- to say nothing of it deteriorating further. A brilliant student of international relations once observed that most Americans think of Turkey as a country tucked inconsequentially off in the lower-right corner of a map of Europe, usually centered roughly on Switzerland. The current crisis invites us to move the center of the map over Turkey. The effect would be to show a country surrounded by most of the nations and conflicts with which we are currently concerned: The Persian Gulf, the Middle East, the Balkans, Central and Southwest Asia are all in Turkey’s neighborhood. Most, if not all, would be affected in ways highly detrimental to U.S. interests if the Turks were to become part of the problem. instead of one of this country’s key regional allies. Consequently, the right answer for Turkey, for the United States and for their shared interests, is to have the Turkish parliament swiftly reconsider its vote and approve the resolution by the required majority. At this writing, such a decision seems not only possible but, according to Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, in prospect. If the re-vote is held and the government’s resolution passes, it will be the product of courageous and visionary leadership that runs counter to the vocal wishes of many Turks. The result will, however, augur well for the future, not only of the looming campaign to liberate Iraq but for a Turkey that remains firmly anchored in the West and that will deserve, and should receive, the consideration -- political, economic and strategic -- to which it will thereby be entitled.