Politics & Policy

The Old Turkey

Turco-American alliance in disarray.

Crises can be blessings in disguise if they expose long-cherished but dangerous illusions. First, the Iraqi crisis revealed that “Old Europe” had only been in hibernation during the Cold War years. Now Washington has made another sobering discovery: “Old Turkey,” too, is alive and well.

Turkey’s last-minute obstruction of U.S. war efforts and its own threats to invade northern Iraq have “stunned” senior American policymakers — most notably the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller. After all, President Bush had just placed a $30 billion aid package on the table in return for Turkey’s cooperation in opening the vital northern front in Iraq. Moreover, only a few months ago, the president expended valuable political capital in Europe by openly campaigning in favor of Turkey’s unsuccessful bid to join the EU.

While lobbying for the Turks, Bush’s message to distrustful European colleagues included three key points, which have been trumpeted with precision by successive administrations: 1) Turkey was a reliable NATO ally against the Soviet threat; 2) Turkey is a secular Muslim democracy — a model for the rest of the Islamic world; and 3) Ankara has developed intimate security relations with Israel to counter the shared threat from Syria and Iraq. All three points contain large grains of truth. But they also overlook important realities.

Turkey’s relations with the West have historically been characterized by ideologically driven enmity, dating back to the jihads of the Seljuk and Ottoman conquerors of Christian Anatolia and southeastern Europe. Open hostility has been tempered only by either Turkish military defeat, or the need for short-term tactical alliances. In the First World War, Turkey proclaimed a jihad and allied itself with Germany against the United States and its allies. In 1941, Ankara signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Russia.

Turkey is no Western-style democracy. The country’s limited liberal reform is not primarily the result of indigenous political development. Rather, Western pressure has led to the grafting of liberal institutions onto an essentially autocratic system. The power structure of the Turkish state bears a striking resemblance to other unstable Islamic allies of the United States, especially Pakistan. Ever since military strongman Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish republic in 1923, real power has been wielded by generals.

The dominant strain in Ankara’s official ideology is an intolerant nationalism based primarily upon Turkic ethnicity. The Islamic tradition of the Caliphate also permeates Turkey’s political culture. The election of two Islamist governments within the past ten years — including that of the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — points to a dangerous revival of sharia-inspired political Islam.

The consequences of this potent Turco-Islamic cocktail have been lethal for once-thriving non-Turkic and non-Muslim communities. Over 1.5 million Armenian and Aramaic-speaking Christians perished during the state-sponsored genocide of 1915-16. The founding of the present, “secular” republic was accompanied by the brutal expulsion of 1.25 million Greek Christians between 1923 and 1930.

Ankara’s war against Turkey’s last remaining significant ethnic minority — the Kurds — continued through the post-World War II era and is still ongoing. The effort to suppress the Kurds has been accompanied by the same kind of atrocities that have landed Slobodan Milosevic and his comrades in the dock on charges of crimes against humanity. Today, the Kurdish language and political parties remain suppressed.

Thirty years ago, Ankara’s generals ordered the invasion, occupation, and colonization of northern Cyprus. Two hundred thousand Greek Christians were driven from their homes; their churches were looted, turned into mosques, or destroyed. At the end of 2002, Turkey torpedoed U.N. efforts to reunite the divided island and end its military occupation. Despite Ankara’s consistent denials, Turkey has been most the persistent ethnic cleanser of the past century.

Turkey’s widely celebrated “secularism” has successfully created a firewall protecting the military elite from the domination of religious leaders. But it has not brought with it freedom of religion. The state supports Islamic institutions, but severely restricts the free expression of the Christian faith, to which a tiny remnant still clings. Both threats and acts of violence are indispensable instruments in the state control of religious life.

Just as Turkey has failed to turn the corner politically, it has also failed economically. Turkey’s fragile economy is crumbling — notwithstanding great strides in integration with the global economy. Repayment of a staggering $93 billion of a $145 billion national debt is due this year. Economic collapse is no far-fetched nightmare in the present gloomy global climate.

These facts need to be repeated. America’s foreign-policy establishment has largely been duped into believing its own spin about Turkey’s reliability as an ally. How else can one explain Sen. Rockefeller’s bewilderment? The Cold War is over. It’s time for Washington to switch off the outdated autopilot that has been guiding America’s policy toward Turkey since the end of World War II.

A continued alliance with Turkey is highly desirable, but dependence is dangerous. The United States needs to be prepared for the possibility that “Old Europe” and “Old Turkey” will ultimately combine against the “New World.” Perhaps the former subject nations of the Ottoman Empire — nations that have been historically blighted by Turkish massacres, deportations, and enslavement — may prove to be more reliable allies than Turkey. Among these are the democracies of southeastern Europe. The strongest alliances, after all, are those in which common strategic and economic interests are underscored by common values.

To ignore not only Turkey’s past, but also its present, is to invite further surprises.

John Eibner is director of human rights, Christian Solidarity International (CSI).


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