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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

March 2002

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The author of the following commentary is a retired U. S. Foreign Service officer whose assignments included stints as deputy chief of mission in Khartoum and Athens and political advisor at NATO, as well as earlier tours in Greece, Ghana, Belgium, and Washington. He disagrees with the conclusions on U. S.-Turkish relations reached by Thomas Grant elsewhere in this journal [click here].— Ed.

Since the onset of the Cold War half a century ago, Turkey has occupied a special place in the hearts of those who make American foreign policy. That Turkey had declared official neutrality during World War II while lending logistical support to Nazi Germany was as much beside the point as was Germany's role itself, and both new allies became central members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization just a few years after it was founded. Turkey's strategic importance in the geopolitical sense was self-evident: When linked geographically with NATO ally Greece and an independent, albeit communist, Yugoslavia, a heavily armed Turkey presented an impenetrable bulwark against Soviet land or sea access to the Mediterranean and beyond.

On the list of countries receiving military assistance from the United States, Turkey moved soon into third place, out-ranked only by "special cases" Israel and Egypt, and kept that place until the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself. In the process, a strong American military and intelligence presence was established in the country, American defense contractors acquired a reliable, cash-paying customer, the Turkish military establishment outgrew those of all NATO members save the United States, and the General Staff in Ankara made itself the final arbiter in matters of governance.

With the end of the Cold War, one might have expected a reassessment in Washington of Turkey's strategic importance in the context of changed international circumstances and American priorities. Not in the least: a constituency had grown that appeared to be no less interested in feeding that sacred cow even though the Soviet bear had been slain. New justifications for maintaining high-level support had to be found, and they were. First came the argument that Turkey occupied a key location in the Middle East, with its borders with Syria and Iraq and its proximity to a large, unstable region in which the United States had important interests. Some said that Turkey could serve as a beacon of political stability and economic freedom to light the way for the Turkic-speaking peoples of former Soviet republics. The first point could conceivably be made with a straight face; the second merely exposed the frantic nature of the search for a new mission in need of continuing support.

This is not to say that Turkish territory and U.S. facilities already in place had lost their value with the end of the Soviet threat. Indeed, both the Gulf War and the recent tumultuous events in the Balkans demonstrated their continuing utility. Were they, on the other hand, still essential to the protection and promotion of U.S. interests, i.e., were they still worth the price? The same question should have been asked when the communist threat subsidedbut wasn'twith respect to military facilities elsewhere. What is at issue where Turkey is concerned is the degree to which the United States should tolerate deviant Turkish behavior on both the domestic and international fronts while continuing to spend tax dollars in order to secure Ankara's continuing cooperation.

The September eleven attacks on the United States and the response of the Bush Administration have provided yet another rationale for promoting the cause of Turkey. There is no greater menace today than international terrorism, but the case for Turkey's essentiality does not hold up. Nevertheless, Turkey's champions never tire of putting the case forward at every opportunity. Consider the plea for greater assistance and understanding for Turkey ("Turkey: Support the Indispensable Ally") from international lawyer Thomas D. Grant, who appears willing to overlook not only inconvenient international law, but also bothersome crucial history, some quite recent, bearing on Turkey's suitability for a leading role in the international campaign against terrorism.

Mr. Grant is correct in saying that no other Muslim country could accede to a Pentagon request for a troop contribution to the war in Afghanistan. What is open to question is whether rewarding Turkish participation will, as he suggests, help galvanize Muslim opposition to terrorism elsewhere. Are Turkey's Muslim credentials credible to those aware of extraordinary actions taken in recent years by the Turkish military against Islamic politicians in elective office (the overthrow of the Erbakan-led government in 1997 and the imprisonment of Istanbul Mayor Erdogan in 1998)? And what of Ankara's open and active alliance with Tel Aviv, under which forces of the two conduct joint air and sea exercises under the noses of Arab Muslim neighbors? Whatever one thinks of this alliance, it is surely not likely to persuade the Muslim world to follow Turkey into the fray against terrorism.

Mr. Grant wants to finish the job in Iraq, that is, to overthrow the regime currently in power, in large part, it seems, so as to avenge the economic losses allegedly suffered by Turkey as a consequence of sanctions applied following the 1990-91 war. Moreover, he recalls with apparent approval the desire of then-President Ozal to carve up Iraq and hand oil-rich Mosul over to Turkey. So much for state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and international law itself. As for fact, Mr. Grant neglects to mention that current Turkish authorities have made it very clear that they want no part of a military assault on Saddam Hussein and will not allow their territory to be used to such an end. (Recent history is rife, by the way, with documented instances of Turkish refusal to lend facilities or otherwise assist in the execution of American policy in the region, contrary to Mr. Grant's assertion that, "from the Korean War to the Gulf War, Turkey has supported the West in time of crisis. . . .")

It is with respect to Cyprus that Mr. Grant is, in my view, particularly careless in his treatment of, or scorn for, both history and law. "Since the two linguistic communities separated themselves one from the other in the 1960s and 1970s," he writes, "virtually no strife has taken place in Cyprus." Is he really unaware of the short-lived coup mounted by the Greek junta in 1974 and the counter-invasions and occupation immediately thereafter by Turkish forces, some 30,000 of whom today still occupy about forty percent of the island? Small wonder that there is no need for international policing in northern Cyprus.

Then, Mr. Grant protests the international isolation of the occupied areas "imposed by the United Nations at the behest of the Greek Cypriots and their supporters in Greece." This is not, however, the way the UN works. The UN Security Council has in several resolutions binding on all member states (see Article 25 of the UN Charter), called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces. And, the refusal of any state in the world except Turkey to recognize the self-proclaimed "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" cannot reasonably be attributed to the influence of the governments of two small countries.

Finally, Turks and their advocates need only refer to the Helsinki Declaration of 1999 to find that "a promise of (Turkish) membership sooner than the distant future" was not on offer and that "hopes that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the EU" were delusional. In any case, Mr. Grant wants no less than that the European Union change its focus and future in order to accommodate Turkish membership, as he puts it, "to reconsider what the EU means" and to limit its aims to those of "an enhanced form of trade union." The idea can be dismissed when set against the noble and urgent goal of the EU's founding fathers: that its members, by forging strong political and economic ties, make war between them both unthinkable and impossible.

Mr. Grant is not alone in thinking that Turkey's fortunes take precedence over the decades-old struggle to build a tightly bound and multi-faceted community of democratic European nations. It is true that, throughout this period, U.S. administrations in succession have voiced ritual support for the process of European integration, expressing a readiness to accept the stiffer commercial competition success would bring as the price of political unity. Until the mid-1980s, however, that public stance only masked serious reservations, and the very conduct of periodic high-level (political director) U.S.-EU (then, EC) consultations was, at U.S. insistence, kept confidential so as to avoid any suggestion that Europe could speak with one voice or that Washington was not free to pursue its interests separately in European capitals. While progress in achieving political community, however imperfect, ended the hide-and-seek phase of the relationship, one does not sense wholehearted enthusiasm in Washington for further integration in Europe.

The more or less permanent, non-partisan and, it sometimes seems, manic fixation in Washington on Turkey's strategic importance may by itself explain the indecent insistence with which both the current and earlier administrations have pressed Turkey's apparent desire for early membership on EU governments. But one can ask whether there may not be a quite different motive, namely, the certain knowledge that admission before Turkey has reformed sufficiently to meet the administrative, economic, and political criteria for membership would place enormous, maybe mortal, stresses on EU institutions and programs, already strained in anticipation of enlargement to include twelve new nations. Is it unreasonable to speculate that Washington might find the vision of a simple association of trading partners appealing? Might not the United States Government feel more comfortable if any broader European cooperation and consultation were confined to the halls of NATO, where control has always been relatively easy?

One additional proposition deserves some scrutiny. The reference above to Turkey's "apparent" desire for early EU membership was purposeful. The parliament in Ankara has recently enacted limited reforms that bear on certain basic freedoms and the observance of human rights, and more ambitious measures may well be taken in the future. The government has promised additional steps in both the political and economic spheres, and one can hope that eventually membership will become more than a pipe dream. But, is there any real prospect that the single most essential step will ever be taken, that is, will the Turkish military establishment ever be willing to relinquish its ultimate authority, and would it do so for the sake of an EU membership that would reduce it to a position permanently subsidiary to democratic political leadership? The guess here is no, and that means that EU membership aspirations are a tactic, not a strategy, that current hopes for a political resolution of the "Cyprus problem" are unrealistic, and that Turkey will remain on the outside, supported firmly as always by a United States convinced that Europe has spurned the indispensable ally.



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