The Pentagon Talks Turkey

The United States and Turkey have been locked in a strange mating ritual since September 11. The Pentagon plays the ardent suitor -- making offers that meet with skepticism, admiring Turkey's democratic trappings and secular state -- to Turkey's coy coquette. "It's like a lover who promises everything to get the girl. But when it comes to marriage, what happens?" asks Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. With war looming in Iraq, this ambivalent pair may soon find itself rushed to the altar, buoyed by promises neither party can keep.

Consider the following exchange between Turkish businessman Erkut Yucaoglu and Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, current chairman of the Defense Policy Board and perhaps the hungriest hawk circling Iraq. Yucaoglu kicked off a panel discussion at the Conference on U.S.-Turkish Relations last March by criticizing the United States' "lack of political will" to elevate its relationship with Turkey "to a further threshold" by creating a free-trade agreement between the countries. After all, he pointed out, a new military action in Iraq could cost Turkey more than $20 billion, or 2 percent of its annual growth. The Gulf War had already cost Turkey an estimated $35 billion.

Perle assured Yucaoglu that removing Saddam Hussein would in fact benefit Turkey enormously, by revitalizing its economy and providing opportunities for reconstruction contracts. But would the United States be "handed a bill" in exchange for Turkey's support? asked moderator Chris Matthews. Perle's reply won the session's only round of applause: He proposed a free-trade agreement that would make Turkey a "virtual member of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]."

In order to win turkey's crucial help for a military offensive in Iraq, the Pentagon has pulled out all the stops, promising aid, military support and trade breaks -- not all with the blessing of Congress. The resistance Perle and his colleagues hope to overcome is real: The Turkish government fears embroiling itself in a conflict that could prove financially and politically costly. But the draw of U.S. aid may prove hard to resist as Turkey contends with its unraveling government and economy, and as Turkish membership in the European Union grows increasingly unlikely.

Since Turkey was accepted into NATO in 1952, it has supported U.S. military ventures in Korea, Somalia, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. Turkey's geographical proximity to unruly neighbors such as Iraq, Iran and Russia has kept it in the sights of U.S. policy makers for years, and the billions of dollars the country spends on American-made helicopters, fighter planes and other weapons has kept it in the defense industry's as well.

The United States, for its part, has cultivated Turkish goodwill with generous aid. The Bush administration was the driving force behind the International Monetary Fund's $16 billion loan to assist Turkey in its economic crisis last February. And when the administration advocated that Turkey assume control of the forces in Afghanistan in order to help neutralize the East-versus-West question, it also pushed a $228 million Turkish military- and economic-aid package through Congress.

Turkey's strategic significance, the administration has made clear, is not only military but political. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has called Turkey, a country that is more than 98 percent Muslim, an "excellent model" that has "great importance as an alternative to radical Islam," while President Bush has opined that Turkey "provided Muslims around the world with a hopeful model of a modern and secular democracy."

But Turkey's is a peculiar sort of democracy, and its secularism is enforced by a military that has led three coups in 40 years. In 1997, the military ousted Turkey's first elected Islamist prime minister, shut down his political party and banned him from politics. To this day, public expressions of faith are outlawed; women are prohibited from wearing headscarves at public universities; and mosques and imam hatips, Turkey's religious schools, are strictly regulated by the state. The danger of American support for this model, writes Turkish scholar and Georgetown University Fulbright Fellow Ihsan Dagi in a recent paper, is that "as long as the United States regards Turkey as a strategic asset that prioritizes security over civil liberties, it is unlikely that Turkey would be able to form a functioning liberal democracy and overcome the resistance of the conservative establishment to political reforms."

Indeed, the EU does not share the Bush administration's enthusiasm for the Turkish model. In February, EU Commissioner for Enlargement G√ľnter Verheugen declared that Turkey's efforts toward democratic reform were "inadequate," leading many to believe that Turkey will not be given a date for accession at the EU's December meeting in Copenhagen. The result has been increasing Turkish alienation from the EU. In March, the secretary-general of the Turkish military's political agency announced that Turkey should pursue strategic alliances with the United States, Russia and Iran in preference to Europe.

This suits the White House just fine. While the Clinton administration actively lobbied the EU on Turkey's behalf, the current administration's attitude toward Turkish accession reflects its preference for the Pentagon's worldview over the State Department's. While the Pentagon is skeptical of Turkey's joining the EU, the State Department has traditionally backed pro-reform, pro-EU politicians such as Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and his Democratic Left Party. Says a staffer at the congressional Turkish caucus, "I wouldn't bet against the Pentagon under this administration under any circumstances, but there could be a parting of the Pentagon and State views somewhere down the road."

The gulf between the views of the Pentagon and the State Department reflect a struggle that's playing out with particular urgency inside Turkey itself. There, the military and the reform agendas jostle for primacy. Because Ecevit has fallen ill, early elections will be held in November. Turkish nationalists and the Pentagon may well join forces in order to prevent the popular Islamist party from winning a majority, because an Islamist victory could fuel Turkish hesitancy to cooperate with the United States in Iraq. Meanwhile, a package of reform legislation abolishing the death penalty and enhancing Kurdish-language rights squeaked through a contentious debate in the Turkish parliament on Aug. 3. In the event that the United States and Turkey part ways over Iraq, Turkey will need the European goodwill these reforms could augur. But nationalist politicians have already vowed to annul the legislation in court.

Turkey may have military capital to offer the Pentagon's hawks, and political liabilities that repel the EU's diplomats, but what it desperately needs in return for any alliance are the means to keep its economy afloat and loan defaults at bay. In addition to a free-trade agreement, Turkish negotiators have asked the United States for financial aid and for the abolition of steel and textile quotas. On his recent trip to Turkey, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz encountered wariness about war with Iraq, but insinuations that Turkey might consider cooperating if the United States wrote off $5 billion in military debt.

Ultimately, Congress has to decide how much it's willing to pay for Turkey's help. The issue is certainly on the table. Last year saw the establishment of a 40-member Turkish caucus, and recent legislation proposed by Sens. John Breaux (D-La.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) would allow Turkish products to enter the United States duty-free via Israel. "This is Turkey's time," says the congressional staffer. "Anything to do with the war on terror sells."
Unconditional support is far from assured, however. "The issue [in Congress] is going to center around protected U.S. industries, particularly textiles," says Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), head of the Turkish caucus. "The president has made a commitment to those industries, so I hope the White House and Pentagon are coordinating."

Privately, many Turks in Washington say Turkey will ultimately have no choice but to acquiesce to U.S. plans for Iraq. The question they're asking is whether casting its lot with the United States will be a sound decision for Turkey in the long run.
"Ultimately, the United States won't be able to pick up the bill," says Aliriza. "Turkey's success is tied to Europe, as it has been for the past 300 years. The United States is too far away."

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