Cash on the barrelhead

March 04, 2003

TURKEY WAS supposed to have been bought and paid for. The Bush administration asked the Turkish government how much it was going to take to secure Turkey's cooperation in a war on Iraq, and after some protracted bargaining that no one made any effort to disguise, a price of $15 billion was arrived at. The deal was cut. It was realpolitik, M-` la Bush.

Only it turned out the Turkish parliament, in a country where indirection is prized, didn't like the idea of being quite so brazenly for sale. It also turned out the Turkish government, which is new on the job, wasn't so good at counting votes - or, maybe, considering how unenthusiastic it is about war, it simply couldn't bring itself to start strong-arming legislators.

In any case, the parliament followed public opinion - now there's a concept for the rest of the Middle East - and turned down Uncle Sam's money.

In the end, of course, Turkey may decide that with a few billion more it can put aside its qualms. And the leaders of the government do recognize, rationally, that if there is going to be a war Turkey is better off taking part in it. But feeling against an attack on Iraq is strongest among the rural, religious people who elected that government to office last fall. That's called a bind, and it's one that Washington helped devise.

So as of now there will be no major northern front in the assault on the forces of Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration keeps talking about a coalition of the willing, but the Turkish defection is just the latest example of the poor job it's doing in keeping the willing all headed in the same direction. And if Turkey does sign on before the shooting starts, it will be more like a coalition of the sullen, at best.

All of this may be good news for the Kurds, who hate Baghdad and Ankara equally. In courting the Turks, the United States seemed to be prepared to stab the Kurds in the back. Now it looks like more of a free-for-all. That's got to be something to look forward to.

Washington says one of its goals, in launching a war in a region where no one wants one, is to create a democratic Iraq. There's just one little problem with democracies, as Turkey has shown: They don't stay bought.

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