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Taking Turkey for Granted - Unwise in the Past; Even More Foolish Now

Clifford D. May
12th August 2004 - Scripps Howard News Service

Terrorists bombed two hotels in Istanbul this week. Neither happened to be the hotel in which I was staying. Still, considering that last November al Qaeda-linked terrorists bombed the British consulate, a bank and two synagogues killing more than 60 people, a little nervousness would not have been inappropriate.  

Indeed, the night before the bombings I dined at a rooftop restaurant high above the Bosphorus, the waterway that divides Europe from Asia. Suddenly, a series of deafeningly loud explosions erupted. My dining companion leapt from his seat. 

I remained calm – not because I'm unfazed by the possibility of getting caught in a terrorist attack, but rather because from where I was sitting I could see what he couldn't: the colorful fireworks that had been set off at a wedding party in the garden below.

These days many signals that are difficult to interpret are coming from Turkey.  For centuries, this land was the heart of the vast and powerful Ottoman Empire. But when that realm shattered in World War I, Mustapha Kemal -- the urbane general who had defeated the Allies at Gallipoli -- founded a modern, European-style nation, determinedly democratic and secular.

In April, Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Turkey as “a Muslim democracy.”  Many Turks winced. To understand why, imagine a Turkish diplomat complimenting Americans for having created “a Christian democracy.”

For more than half a century, Turkey has been a strong ally of the US. An early NATO member, it was a bulwark against Soviet expansion during the Cold War. In return, Washington's politicians and diplomats have generally taken Turkey for granted, focusing attentions instead on its neighbors  -- Arab countries like Syria and Egypt that inclined toward Moscow and never seriously pursued liberalization and reform.

Today, Turkey is balanced on a precipice. Just months before the US liberation of Iraq, the AK Party (for Adalet ve Kalkinma, meaning Justice and Development) came to power. Led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the new government quickly began to lower Turkey's high wall between mosque and state. 

On the vibrant and teeming streets of Istanbul there are now many more women wearing veils. But they walk next to women in belly button-baring t-shirts. Whether the religious and the secular can co-exist over time in Turkey – as they do, for example, in the U.S. and Israel – or whether one will drive out the other remains to be seen.

Spokesmen for the AK Party insist that they while they are Islamic in their private lives they are as democratic as their predecessors in the public square. Maybe that's true but it's not unreasonable to worry that Prime Minister Edrogan still believes what he told a reporter some years ago, that democracy is like a streetcar: "You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off." 

The US was let down hard by the Turkish parliament's March 1, 20 03 decision not to support the liberation of Iraq. Had Turkey facilitated the opening of a northern front against Saddam Hussein it is possible the Sunni Triangle could have been pacified early and much loss of life avoided.

Washington had offered Turkey vast amounts of money in exchange for cooperation. But Secretary of State Colin Powell did not travel to Turkey to appeal to what was then a new government uneasy about siding with the US against the French, the Germans, the Russians, most Arab countries and Turkish public opinion as well. In Turkey – as in so many parts of the world – American diplomats lacked either the skill or the will to make the case for the Bush administration's policies. 

The Erdogan government has been energetically reaching out to the Arab and Muslim worlds. One way to further that has been to downgrade its relations with Israel, a longtime ally and the only fellow democracy in the greater Middle East. 

Erdogan also is reaching out to Europe -- seeking membership in the European Union.  Europeans are ambivalent, nervous about letting a large, predominately Muslim country into their club, a step which would mean opening their borders to Turkish workers. 

But the choice facing Turkey and other predominately Muslim nations today is whether to join the Free World or wage a great jihad against it. Were Turkey to be rejected by Europe, it might appear that one of those options was off the table. That would be a strategic defeat for both Europe and America – and a disaster for Turkey. 

Had Turkey's status as a pro-American, secular democracy in the Muslim world been rewarded and reinforced years ago, it might not have a fundamentalist-leaning government today. But what's done is done. Turkey remains democratic, as well as a NATO member with a real army. It has been attacked many times by many terrorists groups (it is still unclear who was behind this week's hotel attacks) and most Turks know that appeasing terrorism is self-defeating. Americans are probably still better liked in Istanbul than in Paris.

 Turkey is not a lost cause, but it is an increasingly challenging one. 

- Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.