Swans Commentary » swans.com October 8, 2007  



Going To Bed With An Elephant
William Hale's Turkey, the US and Iraq


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Hale, William: Turkey, the US and Iraq, Saqi & London Middle East Institute at SOAS, London, 2007, ISBN (10): 0-86356-675-8, ISBN (13): 978-0-86356-675-2, 200 pages.


(Swans - October 8, 2007)   Iraq is one thing seen from America, and quite another seen from neighboring Turkey. The Turks have striven since the first Gulf War to maintain their American alliance without excessively slighting their national interest, to which Iraq is central. William Hale examines foreign policy issues since the founding of the Iraqi state, giving special attention to Turkish relations with the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey's rapprochement to Europe. Hale was Professor of Turkish Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and is presently visiting scholar at Sabanci University, Istanbul. His books include The Political and Economic Development of Modern Turkey, Turkish Politics and the Military, Turkish Foreign Policy 1774-2000, and Aspects of Modern Turkey.

After Mustafa Kemal founded the secular state in the mid-1920s, Islam no longer bound Turkey to the Middle East. Nor did Islam any longer serve as bond between Turks and Kurds. Thenceforth official policy simply denied the existence of the large Kurdish minority. This will seem less ludicrous if we remember that the western powers had recently tried to dismember Turkey entirely. The Turkish Republic was obsessed with protecting the integrity of its new, indrawn borders. Separatism fueled by minorities was the national nightmare. When the former Ottoman province of Mosul was awarded to the new Iraqi state and its British guardians, war-weary Turkey yielded. But Mosul with its oil riches and Kurdish population would continue to preoccupy Turkey, as today's headlines bear out.

The Turkish Republic looked to Europe and had no serious ambitions for regional hegemony. But stability demanded a balance of power with Iraq. Both countries labored to suppress Kurdish nationalism. If state power broke down in Iraq, that country's Kurds might join their Turkish brethren and threaten Turkey's unity. With the first Gulf War the situation changed dramatically for Turkey. Ankara had agreed to build up its forces along the frontier to keep Saddam's army engaged there and to let the Americans use air bases to attack northern Iraq. But the Turks never met the American request to furnish a contingent for the coalition force.

Turkey, without firing a shot, came out of the first Gulf War as a valued American ally. Crisis, nonetheless, soon followed. When the elder Bush stirred the Iraqi Kurds to rebellion without giving them support, a humanitarian disaster ensued that drove a wave of refugees into Turkey and left others at the mercy of Saddam in Iraq. "Operation Provide Comfort," later "Northern Watch," established a safe haven for Iraqi Kurds in Iraq beyond the control of the Iraqi government. Thus a virtual autonomous Kurdish state appeared, Turkish fears were realized and the downside of the Gulf War of 1991 became clear. As the decade proceeded, the Kurdish entity in Iraq grew and prospered under American protection. To counter Kurd nationalism the Turks tried to exploit the discord between the three major Kurd factions and fought a vicious war against Kurdish rebels in their own southeast.

America's second war against Iraq brought Turkish and US relations into serious disarray. Ankara had warned that an invasion of Iraq could result in a partition of the country and the de-stabilization of the entire region. It feared a federal system in which Iraqi Kurds, taking over oil-rich Kirkuk and Mosul, would have a strong base. Washington for its part informed Ankara that it was going to attack Iraq with or without Turkish approval although it would prefer to move troops and aircraft via Turkey. Ankara replied that such permission could only come from parliament, which could not be consulted until after the elections of November 3, 2002. The Americans consequently postponed their invasion of Iraq from January 2003 to the second half of March.

The moderate Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the elections handsomely and formed a government. There was no enthusiasm in Turkey for American action: 85 percent of the public was against it in December 2002 and 94 percent against it in January 2003. But Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan felt that if Turkey were to have any weight in vital decisions after the conflict, which in any case it could not stop, he would have to yield to the Pentagon.

To general surprise the Turkish parliament, in an anonymous ballot and despite the Prime Minister's efforts, rejected by three votes the proposal to enter George W. Bush's war against Iraq: A "big, big mistake," said Paul Wolfowitz. Other neo-conservatives such as Daniel Pipes and Michel Rubin threw Turkey on to scrap heap forthwith (Page 83). Ankara now feared that it would have no say in what went on in Kurdish Iraq. On March 20, just hours after US forces entered Iraq, the Turkish parliament passed a resolution that would allow the United States and Britain to pass through Turkish airspace and also provided for a Turkish presence in Northern Iraq. But as a NATO member Turkey's skies were already available to the invading powers that informed Ankara curtly that its military would not be welcome in Iraq.

The Turkish-American alliance that was weakened in 2003 had of course been purely about power politics. The United States thought Turkey could play a role for it in the Middle East. On their side, the Turks clung to the most powerful ally who would have them. Their national inclination was overwhelmingly not to involve themselves in the Middle East but to turn resolutely westward. So there was a certain amount of wishful thinking in American policy that was also inconsistent in that it urged the European Union to accept Turkey as a member.

Prime Minister Erdogan had demonstrated Turkish realism when he asked parliament to allow Turkey to support the United States in their invasion of Iraq. He wanted to please an important ally and to have Turkish interests considered after the war. One month before the invasion Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul spoke with the same realism when he said: "I don't expect any threat from Iraq; it has no power... We believe that our strategic partnership requires us to act together with the USA." (Page 160) Gul, whose country bordered Iraq and was infinitely more vulnerable to Iraqi mischief than the continental United States, didn't even mention the alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed in a poll of 2002-3, only one percent of Turks believed that the United States was attacking Iraq to remove weapons of mass destruction. However, eighty percent believed that the objective was to seize control of Iraqi oil resources and simply to flaunt American power. The same poll also showed that only one percent of Turks believed the attack was aimed at Islam. This contradicts various disgruntled Washington neo-conservatives who blamed Turkey's failure to join the invasion on an Islamic conspiracy.

William Hale sums up on page 163:

The available evidence suggests that Turks were opposed to the war for the same reasons as millions of other people in Western Europe and elsewhere -- that it was judged unnecessary, illegitimate, and disruptive. Admittedly, Saddam Hussein was a noxious tyrant, but so were many other rulers around the world, and the US was not preparing to overthrow them by force. The fact that Turkey was particularly concerned about the danger of post-war instability in Iraq made Turkish opposition more acute, but this also had virtually nothing to do with pan-Islamic radicalism, and stretched across the political spectrum in Turkey.

Ankara's distaste for the Iraq war showed the United States it could not count on projecting its power into the Middle East thanks to Turkey. This had already become evident in April 2002 when the entente established with Israel in 1996 began to crumble. Prime Minister Echevit, no Islamist, not even a moderate one, had spoken of "genocide against the Palestinian people." (Page 134) In May 2004, Prime Minister Erdogan described the Israeli murder of Shiek Ahmad Yassin as "a kind of terrorism." (Page 134) When American forces killed 2,000 in Fallujah, the Chairman of the Turkish parliament's Human Rights Commission spoke of a "genocide of the Iraqi people." (Page 137)

There was also displeasure in Washington with Ankara's attempt to maintain friendly relations with Syria, a country George W. Bush had decided was "evil." Turkey's national interest, though perhaps not America's, called for a balance of power and reasonable relations with its neighbors, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. (In the Iraq-Iran war Turkey had remained scrupulously neutral, for fear that the victorious side, grown powerful, would overrun the region.)

Another, very different factor, has also begun to work against the Turkish-American alliance. In its negotiations with Brussels to join the European Union, Turkey was undergoing an "Europeanization." It was now closer to the European Union than to the United States on matters such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Kyoto protocols on climate change and its attitude toward Iran. If the European Union ever manages to unify its foreign policy, Turkey may well adopt it in preference to that of the United States. On the all-important Kurdish question, Europe, with its own immigrant population of Kurds, might well incline the Turks to do more to integrate and satisfy their own Kurdish citizens. That would make the devolution of power to Kurds over the border in Iraqi Kurdistan less of a threat to Turkish unity, and Turks could awake at last from their national nightmare.

William Hale has given us a lucid, cool, concise analysis with ample notes and a useful bibliography. It should make Turks think twice about getting in bed with an elephant another time.


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Published October 8, 2007