Blame Turkey's mood on the U. S.

Presumptions: Washington thought its ally on the Iraq border would welcome more American troops, but it failed to account for political changes there.

February 23, 2003|By Peter N. Marudas | Peter N. Marudas,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IN HIS DETERMINATION to create a "coalition of the willing" against Iraq, President Bush has encountered both opposition and lack of enthusiasm from traditional allies and millions of their citizens. Aside from strident French and German opposition, perhaps the most difficult and unexpected experience for the Bush administration has been in dealing with Turkey, a key NATO ally and a secular Moslem country bordering on Iraq.

Turkey and the United States are likely to reach an agreement soon on the stationing of U.S. troops in Turkey for a war against Iraq. But the administration has no one to blame but itself for the high cost and difficulty in getting there..

For months, Washington confidently asserted that after preliminary military and economic bargaining Turkey would accommodate U.S. forces. This perception held that in the end Turkey would not want to disappoint its powerful friend or lose out on a lavish American aid package. But closure has been elusive.

The Bush administration, clearly frustrated by the Turkish government's continuing reluctance to accept more American troops, was presented last week with a demand for $32 billion in economic aid as the price for deployment.

Washington, with troop ships bound for Turkish ports, was offering $26 billion. This public bartering looked more like bargaining in a Middle Eastern bazaar than negotiations between two allies.

At a White House meeting Feb. 14 with the Turkish foreign and finance ministers, Bush could not break the deadlock. Turkey's foreign minister said Friday that a "broad agreement" had been reached and that remaining disagreements would likely be resolved.

What's caused this eleventh-hour crisis? A combination of old and new factors.

First the old: One is the traditional Turkish fear that a new Iraq conflict will enhance Kurdish demands for an independent state; another is a Gulf war replay of refugees streaming into Turkey from battlefield areas and a severe impact on Turkey's an already extremely shaky economy. Despite American assurances that these concerns will be effectively addressed, the Turks remain apprehensive.

Now for the new: First is the far-reaching political change in Turkey reflected in the Justice and Development Party's sweeping victory in November's parliamentary elections. Led by Recep Erdogan, the charismatic former mayor of Istanbul, this Islamic-based party won an outright parliamentary majority on a platform of political and economic reform, even though Erdogan was legally barred from running for office.

The party's overwhelming victory stunned Turkey's ruling military-political establishment and caught American policy-makers off balance. For the first time in decades, the United States faced a Turkish government with few ties to previously dominant pro-American military and political elites. Washington's failure to anticipate and adjust to this new political reality has complicated relations with Turkey.

In fact, when this Turkish establishment shamelessly persecuted Erdogan by banishing him from public life and throwing him in jail on dubious sedition charges, no public protest was heard from Washington. Erdogan was prohibited from running in the November elections, or from holding office. This was corrected after his party won, and he is expected to win a special parliamentary election next month and shortly thereafter become prime minister.

Unlike their predecessors, Erdogan and his ruling party pay attention to public opinion. In the current circumstances, this is a major headache for American planners. Every recent poll reports that 85 percent to 95 percent of Turkish citizens oppose their country's involvement in a war against Iraq. The new government's leaders repeatedly emphasize that their ambivalence toward America's Iraq policy is a response to widespread public opposition.

Discounting these pronouncements, American officials continued to assume prompt Turkish permission for troop deployments. When Turkey hedged in its commitments, they complained that the new leadership failed to prepare public opinion for a tough decision on Iraq.

Missteps in Europe

The Bush administration's reactions after the Turkish elections are particularly instructive. Desperate to recruit Turkey for an Iraq war, the administration committed serious missteps in Europe, ignored other important problems facing Ankara and started down a path leading to the current embarrassing impasse over money.

When the new Justice and Development government was installed in November, it faced four critical problems: restoring a weakened economy; obtaining a commitment for membership in the European Union; responding to a United Nations initiative on Cyprus and reacting to U.S. pressure on Iraq.

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