Talisman Gate

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Turkey Crossing the Road

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

June 2, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1351 words

HEADLINE: Turkey Crossing the Road

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Early last month, Turkey hosted the eighth get-together of states bordering Iraq. In addition to Turkey and Iraq, the foreign ministers of Jordan, Iran, Syria, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt - as a leading Arab player - were in attendance. For some bizarre reason, the tiny island state of Bahrain, which three years ago opted for the grand title of kingdom, was also invited, even though it doesn't share any borders with Iraq.

The venue was Istanbul, the ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire, which lorded over most of the ancestors of the attendees and was in perennial conflict for domination of the Middle East with the Iranians.

These meetings started as a regional response to the liberation of Iraq, which effectively made President Bush's vision for the Middle East an unwelcome neighbor to the governments of all these countries. Iraq's neighbors sought to formulate a regional strategy for ignoring the fact that things are going to change - and change forever - in the neighborhood. But lately, it has degenerated into a poker game, where each player looks around the table for tics and bluffs and who will be the first to embrace the new American experiment in Iraq. Everyone is expecting Turkey to be the first to fold, and they are asking themselves, why is it taking so long?

About two and half years ago, the arcane Turkish electoral system swept the Justice and Development Party, a conservative and pro-Islamic party, to power in this country whose official religion is supposed to be secularism. Since then, Turkish foreign policy has drifted away from its long-standing alliance with America and found common ground with Europe's and the Middle East's negative stance toward democracy in Iraq.

If any country stands to benefit from an Iraqi success story, then it would be Turkey. So how come Turkish politicians are finding themselves meandering in the middle of the road?

The Turks have not gotten over once being the center of the world, the impoverished inheritors of a grand imperial legacy. Modern Turkish nationalism is combative and a tad bit insecure, and the recurring theme is "they are all out to get us." Turkish identity, as opposed to Ottoman identity, was born in what is called the War of Independence during the early 1920s, which was a response to the carving up of the defeated Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. It was a grueling fight to defend what remained of imperial territory as set by the boundaries of the terms of armistice, and yet its driving force was the eradication of imperial legacy and the invention of a new Turkish identity.

Such grandiose and ambitious plans can lead to some confusion: The British subjects throwing off the taxes of George III and fighting their own war of independence to become Americans must have gone through a similar experience. The Turkish experiment seems to have a long way to get settled. It is being further jolted by new shake-ups, as prospects of joining the European Union as well as the reintroduction of conservative Islamist politics strain the formation of a coherent answer to the question of what constitutes a Turk.

All we know at this point is "happy is the man who can call himself a Turk. "This slogan was conjured up by the hero of the war of liberation and the visionary of "Turkishness," Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, or Father of the Turks. You'll find this slogan everywhere, but there is no little asterisk at the end to refer you to what it means to be a Turk. Does it mean being a Muslim? If so, then Islam is not an identity card one carries in one's wallet, but rather a whole 10-piece set of matching luggage - and does that luggage contain tolerance for sizable non-Sunni Muslim minorities in Turkey? Does being a Turk mean being a European? If conforming to several hundred pages of European Union regulations for managing a snack shack makes you a European, then Turkish street vendors are certainly a far way off.

What one often hears is that Turkey is in the middle. On Iraq, Turks seem to think that it is fashionably European to be against America's war in Iraq, and definitely Middle Eastern to fear a democratic Iraq. The bookstalls at Istanbul airport feature glistening paperbacks of "Mein Kampf" translations as well as "Metal Storm," an action-thriller novel about a fictional American invasion of Turkey. This time around, being a Turk seems to find itself in hostility to America, even though America seems to have been a true and tested friend for several decades.

Turkish policy seems to be in direct conflict with Turkish strategic interests, and the fault lies in an existential confusion of Turkish self. They don't know who they are, and thus they don't know what's good for them. Hence, Turkey is just lingering there in the middle of the road, completely clueless as to which side it should cross over to.

The newspaper columnists of the Turkish fourth estate wield effective dictatorial and bullying power within Turkish politics, and they tend to be sensationalist. The overarching fears they fan are the supposed American intentions of setting up an independent Kurdish state within a decade. Their current lament of Turkish policy failure is that a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, has become the new president of Iraq. Turkish nationalist myopia suffers from seeing Iraq in the context of Kurdish separatism and what it means for the large Kurdish population of Turkey, and the terrorist manifestations of Kurdish nationalism as exhibited by the PKK. However, Iraq embracing a Kurdish president and not just any token Kurd, but rather one of the symbols of Kurdish separatism, should be a golden opportunity for Turkey. If the Kurds of Iraq can relinquish their long sought after goal of an independent Kurdistan in return for first-class citizen status within an Iraqi union, then that would be a model for Turkey's Kurds too.

Furthermore, the success of America's endeavors in Iraq would create a market for Turkey's goods as well as turn Turkey into a conduit for European goods to this prosperous market. At the turn of the century, German imperialists were planning the Berlin-Baghdad Railway project, which ran through modern-day Turkey, to access trade routes and annoy British imperialists. Turkey should be dangling the prospect of a Berlin-Basra Superhighway in the face of the European Union to access the Persian Gulf market that is now cash-rich and industrially poor. The demographics of the region are bringing a young, technologically hungry consumer population to the market, and they can afford to look at product quality rather than the bottom-line value of Far Eastern goods. Having Turkey as part of Europe means that transportation costs over land and the reduction of tariff points would make goods produced in Europe competitive in Iraq and beyond in the Middle East.

Turkey could offer Iraq unparalleled expertise in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism training and intelligence, given its past challenges of Kurdish and Islamist terrorism. Iraqi police and national guard should be training in Ankara, not Amman. Turkey could also be using its new influence within the Organization of the Islamic Conference to hammer out a strong-worded denunciation of the terrorist violence being done in Islam's name in Iraq.

The model of civil peace with minority Kurds and the opening up of a major emerging market is all America's doing, and to the benefit of Turkey. Yet, the current leadership of Turkey, due in Washington next week for high-level meetings, is failing to see all these unfolding opportunities to the south of its border. Full-fledged E.U. membership is at least a decade away, and just how conservatism and Islam, as well as Kurdish minority rights, will be synthesized into national identity will take a while to settle as Turkey finds itself or a new self. Meanwhile, being in the rejectionist league of France and Germany or in the company of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria does not serve Turkish interests. Just across the divide, Turkey's friend, America, needs a helping hand; Turkey's choices should be crystal clear.