Turkey: Another Ally Lost

Over the past six years the Bush administration, aided and abetted by Congress, has trashed what used to be described as American foreign policy. Foreign policy once was shaped around the U.S. national interest, but no longer. Vulnerable key allies such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are now struggling to deal with the consequences of a U.S.-inspired rush to democracy that has advanced a flawed, ideologically driven agenda. Russia was nearly a friend and is now again an enemy. Afghanistan is a corrupt narco-state where the Taliban is making a comeback and President Hamid Karzai is referred to as the King of Kabul because his writ runs no farther. The less said about Iraq the better. But amid all of the missteps and poor policy choices, the loss of Turkey stands apart because Turkey was a close friend and loyal ally of the United States when 9/11 took place. Nearly everything has gone wrong between Washington and Ankara, with the Turkish public’s favorable assessment of the U.S. plummeting from 52 percent to 8 percent. And it did not have to happen.

Turkey actively supported the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. In February 2002 Ankara provided troops for the multinational International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) sent to occupy Afghanistan, commanding ISAF twice for a total of 14 months, but the relationship began to sour in 2002 when the United States was confronted by political change in Turkey that it did not know how to handle. Already actively planning to attack Iraq, the U.S. government sent a team to Ankara on July 14, 2002, to negotiate terms for Turkey’s participation in a possible military action. The team was headed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman, a former ambassador to Turkey. Both Grossman and Wolfowitz were also strong advocates of the Turkey-Israel military relationship, which gave Tel Aviv a powerful ally in a Muslim country and guaranteed that the U.S. Congress would look benignly on Ankara.

The Turkish government appeared to be willing to accept an agreement in exchange for a large financial aid package, but on Nov. 3, 2002, parliamentary elections in Turkey replaced incumbent Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit with Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the moderately Islamic Justice and Development Party (AK). Wolfowitz and Grossman returned to Turkey to negotiate with the new government. Erdogan was definitely interested, if only to convince his critics within the Turkish establishment and army that he was supportive of the Western alliance, but polls taken in Turkey indicated that fully 87 percent of the public opposed war against Iraq. Many recalled the 1991 Gulf War, in which Turkey had to absorb more than half a million refugees and suffered severe economic dislocation, including a currency collapse. The Turks also believed that the U.S. was seeking to guarantee the security of Israel by stopping a Muslim country from having either weapons of mass destruction or the means to deliver them. It was noted with some concern in the Turkish media that the spokesmen for the war policy were all neoconservatives closely tied to Tel Aviv, notably Wolfowitz, Grossman, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and Harold Rhode, and that the Israel lobby in Washington had promoted the plans to attack Iraq.

The Turkish General Staff, a major player in all foreign policy decisions, was also cool to the war, harboring suspicions that a U.S. intervention in Iraq would lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Wolfowitz appealed to the generals directly on his second visit, bypassing the government and apparently suggesting that they might want to overrule the civilians, something dangerously close to a coup d’etat. The army expressed concern that if Turkey wound up having to carry out a long occupation of the Kurdish region due to American failure to successfully stabilize Iraq, the financial and human costs would be unacceptably high.

As has frequently been the case, Washington, blind to many of the real issues that were fueling Turkish reluctance, tried to buy cooperation. Negotiations continued up to the last minute. Eventually the Turkish leadership and the U.S. agreed on a package consisting of $6 billion in immediate aid plus $24 billion in credits, but the open horse trading did not help sell the product, as many parliamentarians objected to the idea that they could be bought. Fifty thousand peace demonstrators marched in Ankara during the acrimonious parliamentary debate in which one deputy fainted and another suffered a heart attack. The actual vote finally took place on March 1, and the resolution failed to carry by three votes.

The parliamentary rejection was soon followed by a particularly unfortunate choice for U.S. ambassador to Turkey. In July 2003 Eric S. Edelman was named to the post and quickly became confrontational about Turkey’s failure to support the American agenda. The abrasive Edelman was accused of acting “more like a colonial governor than an ambassador. … [He] is probably the least-liked and trusted American ambassador in Turkish history.” A petition that received thousands of signatures was circulated demanding that he be declared persona non grata and expelled from the country.

Edelman was not helped by press coverage coming from the U.S., which was followed closely and frequently replayed in Turkey. On Feb. 16, 2005, Robert Pollock’s “The Sick Man of Europe – Again” claimed that “Islamism and leftism add up to anti-American madness in Turkey.” A March 23, 2005, conference on Turkey at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute featured Pollock, Richard Perle, and Michael Rubin, all of whom had been harshly criticizing Ankara’s policies in the U.S. media. The Turkish press reciprocated with accounts of American atrocities in Iraq. A spectacularly best-selling novel, Metal Storm, described a United States invasion of Turkey and was reportedly much read by senior politicians and military officers, while the most popular locally made movie in Turkish history, Valley of the Wolves, showed a Jewish American Army doctor harvesting Iraqi prisoner of war organs for shipment to Tel Aviv, London, and New York.

On March 20, 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld poured gasoline on the fire, blaming Turkey for the consequences of its refusal to permit an attack on Iraq from the north, saying, “Given the level of the insurgency today, two years later, clearly if we had been able to get the 4th Infantry Division in from the north … more of the … Ba’athist regime would have been captured or killed.” Had Turkey cooperated, Rumsfeld added, “The insurgency today would have been less.”

The U.S. also proved to be spectacularly insensitive regarding the Kurdish issue. Turkey became the most anti-American nation on earth when on July 4, 2003, American forces in Iraq briefly detained Turkish special forces soldiers pursuing escaping PKK terrorists. The U.S. troops put the Turks in the same restraints and hoods as Iraqi prisoners, creating an image that still evokes anger among Turks and which was recreated in Valley of the Wolves.

Turks believe that though the U.S. claims it is fighting terrorists worldwide, it has ignored the PKK attacks that started in 1984 and have cost of over 35,000 lives and $6 billion to $8 billion in security costs per year. The problem is very real for Turkey and something it can ill afford, but Washington is clearly not listening. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised Ankara on at least three occasions that she would do something about the terrorism problem but did nothing. Former Gen. Joseph Ralston was sent to the region as a special emissary on the PKK problem in September 2006 with a White House and State Department pledge of “total commitment” to find a solution. Nothing was done and Ralston quickly found that he had no support from Washington. He resigned in early October 2007.

The final blow to U.S.-Turkish relations came with the pointless Armenian genocide resolution, which sailed through the House Foreign Affairs Committee in early October 2007. The resolution was described by both the White House and State Department as harmful to the national interest but passed out of the Foreign Affairs Committee when seven Democrats who had previously blocked such resolutions because of their support for the Turkey-Israel relationship switched their votes to provide the margin of victory. Committee Chairman Tom Lantos of California led the switch, expressing the need for “solidarity with the Armenian people” while acknowledging that a breach with Turkey could “cause young men and women in the uniform of the United States armed services to pay an even heavier price than they are currently paying.” Lantos reportedly was angry with the Turkish government for its rapprochement with Syria and Iran, and his vote was intended “to punish Ankara” even though he conceded that the killing of the Armenians did not amount to genocide. Given the Israeli connection to the genocide resolution, the Turks believed that insult had been added to injury when the White House dispatched Dan Fried, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and the ever unpopular Eric Edelman in his new role as undersecretary of defense for policy to Ankara to attempt to ease Turkish anger over the congressional vote. Both were regarded as primarily advocates for Israel. The meetings also could not have been more poorly timed, as 15 Turkish soldiers had been killed by the PKK in the previous week.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.