Turkey Stands Up to Bush

March 1. It had been another encouraging week for the global antiwar movement. The momentum generated by the massive demonstrations of mid-February held, with the Arab world finally playing a central role. There were huge rallies in Khartoum (100,000, Feb. 26), Cairo (100-500,000, Feb. 27), and Sana, Yemen (300,000, March 1). Significant peace rallies were also held in Rabat (30,000, Feb. 23) and Manama, Bahrain (up to 20,000, Feb. 28). In Oman, which like Bahrain plays host to an unpopular U.S. troop presence, hundreds gathered Feb. 23 to protest an Iraq attack. Meanwhile in Turkey (not an Arab country but a Muslim one, the only Muslim NATO state), on March 1, up to 300,000 took to the streets of Ankara to express the nearly universal antiwar sentiment in Turkey.

That same day, Iraq began destroying its al-Samoud missiles under U.N. inspectors’ supervision. The mainstream press depicted this as a setback for U.S. war preparations. But it was dwarfed by another. The Turkish parliament created a far more substantial roadblock in refusing to back a U.S. proposal to station 62,000 troops in the country, with the explicit intention of launching an invasion of its neighbor. Washington had arrogantly assumed the bill would sail through, given Turkey’s status as U.S. client state, and the threat of Turkish exclusion from a role in post-war U.S.-occupied Iraq as well as a cutoff in aid. The U.S. was already unloading troops and equipment, assuming obedience. But the smug assumption that the world will kowtow to overwhelming military power, long a trademark of imperialist diplomacy, turned out in this case to be flawed.

Surprise, surprise, chicken hawks! “The defeat stunned American officials,” noted Dexter Filkins in the New York Times, “who were confident that Turkey’s leaders would be able to persuade the members of their [Justice and Development] party to support the measure.” That very cockiness has strained U.S. ties with this longtime ally. “As the discussions wore on,” writes Filkins, “and tales of American high-handedness spread, Turkish lawmakers and the Turkish public appeared to become more and more alienated. ‘The relationship is spoiled,’ said Murat Mercan, a member of Parliament from the majority party. ‘The Americans dictated to us. It became a business negotiation, not something between friends. It disgusted me.”

Think about it. The Bush administration has been saying all along that Saddam Hussein is a threat to his neighbors; this is a key justification for war. Problem is, none of his neighbors agree! Not Kuwait and Iran (both of which have been invaded in the past), not Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia nor Turkey. (Only Israel, which does not share a border with Iraq, and is the only state in the region armed with its own nukes, cheers on the U.S. war preparations.) Last March, Turkish president Bulent Ecevit declared, “We feel that Iraq should not be the subject of military attack since it would upset the whole Middle East. Since the Gulf War, Iraq has been under strict control. It is under constant surveillance, so it is not in a position anymore to inflict harm on any of its neighbors or even its own people.” That’s the (thoroughly reasonable) position of the current Turkish government as well.

But brushing aside such reasonable assertions, the U.S. has depicted Turkey as an allied state immanently threatened by Iraqi aggression. On February 10, Washington proposed to NATO that it send alliance equipment, including AWACS early warning planes and Patriot anti-missile batteries, and NATO troops to operate them, to Turkey to assist it in the event of an Iraqi attack. (Four days later, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer referred to this proposal as Turkey’s “request for assistance,” as though the idea originated in Ankara.) The Belgians, French and Germans opposed the plan, noting that Ankara had stated it does not feel threatened by Iraq, and would not likely be endangered by Iraq (and need the equipment and troops) unless the U.S. attacked the Arab country. They pointed out that to approve the U.S. request would be tantamount to approving a U.S. attack, which (to date, anyway) they have rejected. Such a deployment, declared Belgium’s foreign minister, Louis Michel, “would signify that we have already entered into the logic of war.”

In response, U.S. officials harshly criticized their longtime imperialist allies. “Shameful,” chided U.S. Defense [sic] Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “For me it’s truly shameful. Turkey is an ally. An ally that is risking everything … How can you refuse it help?” “I am disappointed,” complained President Bush, “that France would block NATO from helping a country like Turkey prepare. I don’t understand that decision. It affects the alliance in a negative way.” U.S. ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, said the failure of the organization to back Washington’s plans constituted a “crisis of credibility.” (“NATO credibility” in the current State Department lexicon can be defined as “belief in the enduring willingness of Europe to unquestioningly obey U.S. diktat, and thus abet Good against Evil.”)

The Turkish government (in all probability pressured by Washington) immediately invoked Article 4 of the NATO Charter that states that alliance members will consult when “in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.” On February 19, in a manoeuvre excluding France from the discussion, NATO nations (including Germany and Belgium) agreed to an “unofficial” deployment of the equipment and personnel to Turkey. “Alliance solidarity has prevailed,” gloated Burns.

Delivery began immediately. Meanwhile the U.S. rushed 20 to 30 cargo ships from Texas ports, and ten from Northern Europe, to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, carrying tanks, trucks, and other heavy equipment for a 16,000-strong division. The latter, according to U.S. plans, will be part of the projected 62,000-strong force. But according to an article in Turkey’s constitution, the Turkish parliament must approve any basing of a foreign power’s military on Turkish soil. Not a problem, for the Rumsfeld crowd. The defense secretary, after all, had already belittled as an issue of mere “definitions and semantics” the Filipino constitution’s provision against the deployment of foreign combat troops in the Philippines, as the U.S. determined to “assist” Manila with such troops. No doubt he feels the same way about Turkey’s Article 92. Thus Global Vision News reported on February 26, “The U.S. isn’t waiting for Turkey’s parliament to authorize use of its territory to prepare for an Iraq war. For the past week it has been unloading armaments, including Patriot missiles, at the port of Iskenderun—an apparently illegal move sanctioned by the [Turkish] military dependent on the U.S.” (If you were an ordinary Turk, wouldn’t that piss you off a little bit?)

Mainstream news sources reported that 95% of Turks opposed the attack, that the vice-president had taken part in anti-war rallies, and that the Turkish government faced major difficulties in complying with U.S. “requests.” (I’m not aware that any of the reports drew attention to the irony of the U.S.’s Chicken Little demand for urgent NATO military aid to Turkey, even as U.S. officials were arm-twisting a wary, unenthusiastic Ankara to accept that “aid.”) As resistance to acceptance of U.S. troops mounted, within the Turkish political establishment and among the populace generally, Rumsfeld downplayed the problem, boasting that the U.S. could wage war on Iraq even without Turkish assistance: “It’s doable, and there are work-arounds,” he revealed. (The Christian Science Monitor, however, reported that to shift U.S. forces to Kuwait from the Mediterranean would take 18-21 days, substantially delaying the planned war. And to establish a northern front within Iraq without Turkish compliance will be very tricky.) “We continue to work with Turkey as a friend,” stated Fleischer, implying that the friendship is under duress. “But it is decision time. We will find out what the ultimate outcome is.”

It might be relevant to note here that during a press briefing on February 25, a reporter asked Fleischer if the U.S. was exchanging favors for political support for the planned war. “You’re saying that the leaders of other nations are buyable,” the spokesman indignantly retorted. “And that is not an acceptable proposition.” (The normally staid press corps could not suppress their laugher.) In fact, of course, the U.S. has sought to buy Turkish cooperation the way it did before the last Persian Gulf War. But as BBC reported February 21, Turkey never received the tens of billions of dollars in aid promised it by the U.S. in 1990, is wary of Washington’s promises and demanding a much larger aid package than the $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans the Bush administration has offered. Washington doesn’t understand, somehow, why the Turks are so demanding: “U.S. officials,” according to the report, “tend to roll their eyes when talking about the compensation that Turkey is looking for.”

The U.S. media, meanwhile, noted that on February 25 the Turkish parliament was “scheduled to approve” the U.S. troop deployment. It did not so much as raise the possibility that the vote might be negative, or that the ubiquitous antiwar sentiment in Turkey would somehow affect the handling of this issue in what is supposed to be a “democratic” allied nation. But the vote was postponed, somewhat ominously, to the 27th, and then further delayed to March 1, as nervous Turkish political leaders continued to negotiate with the U.S. for a (Faustian) aid package to sell their peers. On the latter date, as hundreds of thousands of antiwar protestors rallied in the streets of Ankara, Parliament voted, behind closed doors, on the resolution authorizing U.S. troop deployment. Result? 264 votes for, and 251 against, with 19 abstentions. The government needed to win 267 votes to acquire a majority of the 534 lawmakers, so the speaker of the Parliament announced that the bill had not passed. Thousands of Turks, learning of the vote, celebrated in the streets well into the night.

It was a big fat monkey wrench thrown into the U.S. war plans, and the supercilious Bushite master operators didn’t know what had hit them. “A stunning political blow,” pronounced the New York Times. (That’s been the most widely used term. It’s stunning. They’re stunned. As though they’ve been knocked upside the head for no reason while hanging out in a perfectly safe neighborhood.) “Turkish lawmakers had faced overwhelming public opposition to basing U.S. troops on Turkish soil,” observed the London Guardian. “Yet Washington had been so sure of winning approval from close ally and NATO member Turkey, that ships carrying U.S. tanks are waiting off Turkey’s coast for deployment and the U.S. military has thousands of tons of military equipment ready to unload at the southern Turkish port of Iskenderun.” “It’s a huge setback for our purposes. It stunned me,” whined Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), ranking Democrat on the Senate’s intelligence committee, on CNN. “We spent the last 50 years defending them in NATO. And along comes this opportunity, and by three votes they decline the opportunity to allow us to come in through the north.” (Translation: “Countries we protected against the other big superpower during the Cold War now owe us their cooperation in our efforts to refashion Southwest Asia and the whole world as we see fit.”)

How excellent to see Washington receive its comeuppance, and who better to deliver it than the Turkish parliament? Aside from being a close ally and NATO member, Turkey is on the official U.S. roster of “democracies.” Practically speaking, that means Turks can vote for any political party that isn’t banned, and publish any thoughts that aren’t forbidden. Whether or not the parliament really represents the Turkish people, the U.S. government wants us to believe it does (just as it wants us to believe that all Latin American countries except for Cuba are “democracies”). Now over half the parliament says, “No. We don’t want your troops, we don’t need them for our defense. And by the way, we really resent your bullying attitude.” U.S. officials are obliged to mouth respect for Turkey’s democratic process and to concede the possibility that Ankara won’t be on board this time. “We respect this as a democratic result,” embassy spokesman Joseph Pennington said. “We will live with that. US ties with Turkey are not threatened in any way” (AFP, March 2). Even so, they don’t want to take no for an answer. Following the vote on Saturday, U.S. officials immediately sought “clarification” of the result (i.e., clarification as to how to reverse it). “Go back and do it again,” is their message, “and dammit, do it right this time. We don’t have all the time in the world.” Colin Powell’s been on the phone, conferring with Prime Minister Abdullah Gul (a deployment advocate), about how to force through the vote the U.S. wants. Meanwhile war proponents like former NATO commander, Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, are telling TV news audiences that “we’ve got to make sure that Turkey understands that this [war from their soil] is more in their interest than it is [in] the U.S. [interest].” (He notes that Turkey has “a very inexperienced government,” implying it’s a bit na?ve when it comes to understanding geopolitical hardball. So let’s turn the screws and educate.)

More good news. On March 2, the Bushites received “a second harsh blow” (AP) when a senior Justice and Development Party leader said there would be no “quick new vote” on the deployment issue, and “no proposal for the foreseeable future.” Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said his government would decide its course of action only after a “process of evaluation” of indeterminate length. Latest word is that the parliament won’t revisit the issue until after March 9. Such statements, of course, may be designed to pressure Washington into increasing its bribe. “I suppose there will have to be a few more noughts added to the cheque,” said a British government source quoted in the Guardian. “Every man has his price.” Indeed, I will not be surprised if Washington gets its agreement within a couple weeks, to the enduring shame of the Turkish politicians willing to betray their country for 30 pieces of silver.

The next week, in any case, is the historic moment of the Turkish people, who clearly stand with the great majority of humankind in rejecting the impending imperialist war. Should it be launched from Turkish soil, in defiance of their will, it will dishonor the nation of Kemal Ataturk. Whatever stance the parliament adopts, one must salute the Turkish antiwar movement that is only beginning to find its voice and flex its muscles. If war starts soon—still a distinct possibility, indeed likelihood—one can only hope that resistance intensifies, in this nation on the front line of imperialist aggression.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu