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Misreading Turkey

Turkey keeps surprising the Bush administration. What is it that the analysts are missing?

2:00 PM, Mar 3, 2003 • By GERALD ROBBINS
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UNDOUBTEDLY the Turkish parliament's rejection this weekend of basing U.S. troops on their soil was a blow to Washington's Iraq game plan. Contrary to pundit's predictions that Turkey would join the "coalition of the willing," the motion to allow a foreign presence fell short by three votes of an absolute majority in that nation's 534-member Meclis (Assembly). While Washington has asked for "clarification" of exactly what this means regarding Ankara's Iraq policy, it's also a time to assess Turkey's political environment.

This is the second time in four months that Turkish voting has surprised U.S. foreign policy analysts. They failed to foretell Turkey's November 2002 general election and its underpinnings of discontent with existing governmental practices, and misinterpreted the apparent mandate that the winning Justice and Development Party (AKP) was given.

Perhaps a recent anecdote best illustrates how dim-sighted our Turkey-watching has become. When I was in Ankara to report on the election, one of my interviewees greeted me outside his office with a curious question. "Do you like rugs?" he asked. Responding to my quizzical look, he pointed to a large storefront carpet store. "That's where the U.S. Embassy had its library," he explained. "It was the best place to connect with the public and understand their thoughts and sentiments. Your nation's post-Cold War cost-cutting has ended that, thinking all Turks have Internet access and can obtain information about America with a click. It's a mistake, however, because your officials have distanced themselves from a sense of what's happening here."

Failing to obtain Turkish support couldn't have come at a worse time. United States negotiators headed into a political maelstrom emanating from November's elections, accentuated by a poor economic environment and geostrategic anxieties about what our support of the Kurds would cause.

Given the populist nature of AKP's victory, it was bound to be a knotty task trying to figure out the various factions and philosophies. The first mistake the Bush administration made was seeing this movement as an Islamic challenge to Turkey's secularist tenets. While AKP adopted religious slogans and cultural symbols to their message, it was much more a response against arrogant elitism than a call for sharia. The party is an amorphous gathering of various and sundry politicos, ranging from disgruntled elements of Turkey's center-right to idiosyncratic versions of leftist thought. In this mix, true believers have minimal input.

Washington's second error was expecting statesmanship from a government that was a work in progress. Our diplomacy saw matters through Gulf War '91 lenses, expecting someone with the magnitude of then-Prime Minister Turgut Ozal to firmly take charge.

Which never happened--AKP's leadership was tacit and often contradictory. Throughout the course of negotiations, it was common for Turkish officials to state one policy only to have another version of it put forth shortly thereafter. Current Prime Minister Abdullah Gul was unable to curtail such freelancing, prompting a general sense that amateurs were in charge. AKP's chairman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, didn't help matters. While Prime Minister Gul attempted to steady an unwieldy political apparatus, Erdogan announced that each deputy should vote based on his own conscience. Nearly a third of AKP's 362 parliamentarians took heed and broke ranks, voting against or abstaining from the deployment resolution. As one Turkish journalist remarked, "The process became more of an AKP crisis instead of an Iraq one."

There was no such variance within the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). Founded by modern Turkey's founding father, Kemal Ataturk, CHP's ideological bearings come from the left. While some observers have suggested that the negotiations would have gone smoother had CHP been in power, it's not likely. Echoing the Euro Left's refrain that America's Iraq stance lacks international legitimacy, CHP has been completely opposed to any U.S. presence.