Conscripting Turkey

On December 30th, 1900, amidst the heated debates about US military campaigns in Asia and the Philippines and about the “burden” on the shoulders of British gentlemen serving the Empire in her “savage” colonies, Mark Twain bitterly saluted the new century:

“I bring you the stately matron called Christendom–returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiaochow, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines; with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass. Give her the glass; it may from error free her / When she shall see herself as others see her.”[1]

Twain’s words, unfortunately, reach out to us even after a hundred years. Of course, the contemporary culprit of imperialist agony and bloodletting is not–and was not, a hundred years ago–an abstract theological entity. Those who have been resisting the US army-state continue to inform the world, tirelessly, about the destructive activities of the institutions, financial groups, think-tanks, politicians, etc. that are collectively managing the “war without end”. Still, the question remains: Can the Empire, which expands by shaping the “savage/rogue/terrorist/unruly” elements enclosed within the imperium in its own image, be made to see itself as its victims see it? Surely, challenging capitalist imperialism with a “mirror” to expose its orientalist and civilizing delusions is only but one step in the political struggle. Nevertheless, it is still a vital step, if we consider the material effects of the imperial “civilizing will” on peripheral states like the Turkish one, whose imagination of the “Middle East”, of the “Arab”, and of its very own Kurdish citizens imitate that will. As the occupation of Iraq unfolds, democracy and social justice are being further undermined in Turkey: The political and (im)moral economy of the expanding imperium is most fitting for the power-hungry agendas of the military and business fractions of the Turkish bourgeoisie, albeit not for the same ends. In this essay, I want to touch upon the most recent debate on sending Turkish troops to Iraq, revived once again since the parliament’s rejection (days before the invasion began) of allowing US troops inside the country. Looking into this ongoing episode in Turkey will allow me to reflect upon two related topics–the dangerous erosion of democratic principles in my country, triggered by the “war on terrorism”, and the Turkish construction of the “Middle East” as a sickly cross-breed of the Ottoman and Anglo-American colonial projects.

“Our strategic interests”

Within two weeks following the July 4th “Sulaymaniyya controversy” where eleven Turkish Special Forces troops (along with a number of Turkoman civilians) were detained by US soldiers in Sulaymaniyya, news about sending Turkish troops to Iraq began to circulate. During the July 18th Ankara visit of General John Abizaid (head of US Central Command) and General James L. Jones (Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) “cooperation” between the Turkish and US armies was discussed.[2] This visit helped the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the corporate media ease the carefully-staged nationalist uproar following the Sulaymaniyya incident by preaching that sending troops was a “wonderful opportunity to repair our damaged relationship with our ‘strategic ally'”. Abdullah Gül’s (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs) Washington visit between 23rd and 25th of July finally officialized the proposal for the hiring of Turkey as an imperial mercenary.[3] (Ironically, on July 25th, 1950, the Turkish parliament voted for sending 4,500 troops to the “anticommunist” war in Korea in order to secure membership to NATO. Almost a quarter of those soldiers never returned, sacrificed to “our strategic interests”.[4] On the very same day some fifty-three years later, Colin Powell was urging the Turkish parliament to act as quickly as possible on the troops question.)
“We will not be occupiers.”

To prevent a misunderstanding: There was no obvious or covered-up US pressure on the AKP government during the unfolding of the troops proposal. Once we submit that the AKP leadership, corporate media, prominent Istanbul businessmen and the Army General Staff have learned to share and operate in Pentagon’s current Weltanshaaung, we can understand their spontaneous enthusiasm to jump on the Iraqi bandwagon of “liberation” and “normalization”.

The continuing public debate since Gül’s visit is emblematic of the growing trend of militarization of politics in Turkey. Free-floating (and quite hollow) signifiers like “regional strategy”, “national interest”, “strategic partner” bounce about in numerous paper columns, strenuous IR and Political Science articles, endless TV debates, press releases, and so on. There is today an inflation of “realists” on the opinions market, sermonizing that the occupation is there to stay, that the US cannot–and should not–be resisted, and that Turkey will either learn to be a willing and obedient player, or be left out of the “game”. Some of these warmongering “realists” also dream that Turkey, as the unique secular-well-but-still-Muslim-and-wow-even-member-of-NATO child of “Western civilization”, will embrace, educate, inspire and liberate the desperate Iraqi masses.

Cüneyt Ülsever, for example, who is a right-wing columnist for the best-selling popular-nationalist daily Hürriyet, contends that the Army can be the “field sociologist” for the occupying US forces in Iraq.[5] According to his enigmatic proposal, since US cultural and religious differences make it impossible to win a “political war” in Iraq, Turkey might give a helping hand to its “strategic ally” as the knowledgeable neighbor (not to mention “ex-colonialist”). According to him, “there never was a people or a state” in Iraq, and unless Turkish troops go in to help finish the US job of liberation, chaos is bound to reign “behind our border”, which, of course, is against “our national interests”.[6]

Taha Akyol, a self-acclaimed “conservative liberal” from Milliyet, regurgitates the civilizing desire, arguing that since Turkey has “a well-established state and legal tradition, a long history of modernization and an entrepreneurial middle class strong enough to lead”, it was able to transform the political-Islamic movement into a “conservative-democratic” one. It follows that Turkey has a “mission” to present the Arab world a “concrete model of success”.[7] Since Iraq’s stability will guarantee Turkey’s security, Akyol says in another article, the Army can assume a friendlier (than the ugly military face of the US) role there, pioneering the development/reconstruction of social services and urban infrastructure.[8] Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Erdog(an’s “number one”, agrees with this proposal for “good cop, bad cop” on a national scale, where Turkey plays the humanitarian: “We wouldn’t go there to fight against the Iraqi people and armed forces, we’d act to liberate the Iraqi people. We’d help them achieve tranquility, peace, stability, help them secure their basic needs. We’d contribute to the rebuilding of utilities and the provision of food None other than that can be expected from Turkey.”[9]

Since the beginning of August (I am writing this at the end of the month), this is the official government position on the troops question–definitive role for the Turkish Army in “problematic parts” of Iraq[10] should be a humanitarian/civilizing one, and armed conflict should be avoided to the best ability of the troops. Ankara and Washington officially exchanged questions and answers about some of the specifics, and despite the calls from President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Speaker of the Parliament Bülent Arnç[11], the government declared that it need not wait for a UN endorsement to create a multinational task force for Iraq. The current talk is about 10,000 Turkish troops.[12] Ankara has already begun a smiling-face PR campaign among Iraqi tribes in order to promote its mercenaries and to learn about the probable reactions against Turkish military presence in Iraq. Pakistan, more reluctant to be subcontracted for the occupation, is sending delegations to Turkey.[13] After the latest National Security Council meeting, the Army leadership stated that Turkey cannot afford to be “disinterested” in the fate of its neighbor and left the political decision to the parliament.[14] So the clock is ticking for the new resolution, expected to be introduced in mid-September. Swords, once again, are drawn.

“Yes, we have claims on foreign soil!”

As Iraq was orientalized by the Turkish warmongering minority, the uglier face of the “mission to Iraq” also surfaced. According to this line–no doubt endorsed by some of the same figures celebrating Turkish humanitarianism–helping the US “finish the job” is a serious matter of “national security”, a necessary part of Turkey’s own “war against terrorism”. Faruk Log(og(lu, Turkish Ambassador to the US, has summarized the official position, a year before the invasion of Iraq, in a telling interview with Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum: “Turkey and the United States share similar values. Both countries are democracies, respect the rule of law, respect human rights, and embrace the notion of a free market economy. Accordingly, Turkey has been a strategic friend, ally, and partner to the United States throughout the decades… Turkey sympathizes with the U.S. war on terror because it has also suffered at the hands of terrorists over the past 15 years. In fact, Turkey has lost more than 40,000 of its citizens to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and other terrorist groups. The leadership in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, understands that the war on terror will require a long and sustained struggle along many fronts in many countries.”[15]

More recently, Fikret Bila from Milliyet argues that a cooperative alliance in Iraq between Turkey and the US depends on the removal of all threats against Turkish unity in Northern Iraq–especially the eradication of PKK/KADEK is in order. Building a unified Iraq, one army, one police force, is thus in the interest of both Ankara and Washington.[16]

Ertugrul Özkök, leading Hürriyet journalist, and by far the most notorious right-winger (almost to a fascistic degree) within the militarist camp, reminds his readers about the “martyrs” sacrificed during the war against Kurdish guerrillas, arguing that the persisting chaos in Iraq will help PKK grow in power. To prevent this, Turkey has to make the “strategic calculation” of the number of soldiers it must be ready to lose in a mission to Iraq.[17] Özkök, in another article, contends that having a strong economy is not sufficient to be a “great state”–a powerful, mobile army, high on morale and strong in combat capability, is a must. According to him, France and Germany have become “weak” states because their civil society organizations and their intellectuals have run a successful campaign of pacifism which, in turn, “rendered their armies useless”.[18] Özkök’s exemplary militarist (if not overtly fascist) mindset is not satisfied with this call to arms, he goes on to endorse capitalist expansionism for Turkey: The status quo, he argues, wants to imprison Turkey within its national borders, but Turkish business should break the taboos and expand beyond the borders. “We should have claims on foreign soil”, not, “of course”, for war-making purposes, but for exporting Turkish capital and buying-out companies in vulnerable countries like Serbia.[19]

In my opinion, the General Staff leadership, closer to the NATO Central Command and distant to anti-American sentiments of some less powerful elements in the Army, is more at home with the “securitization” of a Turkish mission to Iraq. “Humanitarian” emphasis appears to better suit the government’s PR campaign. One thing is clear, though: As more and more civilians like the journalists I quote become “embedded” in the expanding capitalist-militarist imperium, any form of democratic, antimilitarist, reintegrationist, libertarian politics to address Turkey’s Kurdish question is efficiently excluded from the political field. Recently, the AKP government was not shy in utilizing the antiterrorist épistémè against the labor campaign of the Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions, implying that the ongoing protests of public workers were a “threat to national unity”.
Pitfalls of Turkish Anti-Americanism

In the absence of a political will which is able to form a progressive coalition of antiwar politics, class politics, gender politics and a Kurdish politics of recognition against capitalist imperialism, an anti-politics of reactionary nationalism is growing in Turkey. The self-acclaimed “scientific socialist” Workers Party (I.P) calls for a Turkey which would, in isolation from both European and American influence, become a superpower by allying with/guiding ex-Soviet Turkic republics and secular anti-American forces in the Middle East. I.P finds itself allied with orthodox Kemalist intellectuals from other tendencies, the Islamist-nationalist Party of Great Unity (BBP) and the fascist National Action Party (MHP) in endorsing a reactionary anti-Americanism and in supporting “an independent Turkish Army” which can be the only political organization that can lead to “democracy and progress”.

It is yet uncertain whether this irredentist tendency of absent-minded anti-Americanism can attract a significant number of voters in the coming election–I personally think that this version of militarism, reacting against the imperial version, is more likely to endorse a dictatorial military junta than stage an electoral campaign. But if we remember how the German National Socialist Workers Party came to power, who knows?
Urgent Need to Fill the Political Gap

One thing we can know, though: The overwhelming majority of Turkey’s citizens was against any kind of US military adventure at their doors before the invasion, their sentiments of discomfort about US “surplus imperialism”[20] have not changed as the occupation continues. Turkish Daily News cites a recent poll conducted by “respected” pollster Verso, where 62.2% of the respondents opposed sending Turkish troops to Iraq, and only 17.4% agreed that an Iraq mission was desirable.[21] Today, we need a movement that can articulate such discontents of the citizenry about US imperial schemes and[22] act in unison with the growing global resistance. Otherwise, as I tried to lay out above, the cries of Turkey’s dispossessed can be usurped/silenced by the various political agents at work today, pushing the country down either extreme-nationalist or imperial paths.

If we return to the question of orientalist delusions in Turkey, one of the contributions (among many) of the urgently needed coalition will be the opening up of the Turkish polity to the diverse forms of grassroots knowledge and opinion coming from the Muslim, Arabic, Kurdish, etc. subaltern upon which the imperium is violently imposed. Tanl Bora, a socialist publisher and journalist, is right on target when he argues that those who can only know “Turkey” with a statist mindset, framed in the debilitating angst of “national security”, do only need “geostrategic information” about the “Middle East”.[23] Thus they are entirely ignorant about the cultures, peoples, politics, life-worlds of the region. For both the supporters of the Turkish mission to Iraq and their nationalist critics, the “Middle East” is imagined as a battlefield upon which enemy forces clash.

A Mediterranean-Middle Eastern coalition of movements, from Spain to Kuwait, can challenge the “intelligence-gathering” establishment of the imperial Reelpolitik, share forms of grassroots knowledge across borders and thus try to come up with viable, collective alternatives to supply dignity, justice and security for the peoples threatened by fundamentalisms–including that of the Empire. Contra Samuel Huntington’s Schmittian thesis about the impossibility of reducing fault-lines across populations and territories,[24] an ensemble of movements collectively resisting the Empire can boldly face the existing fault-lines and turn them into spaces for the “elaboration of common interests and historic compromises”.[25]

We, activists everywhere, should not delude ourselves–resisting the Empire is not only about “human rights”, or about getting rid of Texan cowboys occupying the Dark House, or about exposing oil interests, or about protecting the environment. Resistance is also, necessarily dare I say, about getting rid of capitalism and finding a wiser way to run our households, if that’s what “economy” means. The Empire makes no mistake about its economic interests, neither should we:

The Empire is a business concern first and foremost, and, by this standard, it has fully justified itself in whatever parts of the world it has absorbed. (…) Mesopotamia has already absorbed a vast outpouring of British capital, of which an enormous amount has been spent on permanent improvements. (…) Our withdrawal [from Iraq] would almost certainly involve the closing down of the [Basra] port. Basrah [sic] now imports far more than it exports, and a very large proportion of the revenue of the country is derived from customs duties. But what country of firm would export to a land seething with internal strife and Bolshevism? Where would be the necessary security? (…) How, then, can we make a paying concern out of a country which the war has thrust into our hands, from which it is impossible to withdraw and in which millions of British capital have been invested? (…) To secure an equitable return for invested capital within a reasonable time, and to train the people in the art of government, I believe we must make Mesopotamia a British Protectorate. It should so remain, until its peoples have learned sufficient discipline to be assured of some equilibrium and permanent progress. (…) Let us not hear any more about Arab “aspirations”, “cultural autonomy”, and such like sentimentalities. They have already done an infinite amount of harm, and may do irretrievable damage. I believe the Arab will learn, in the course of long years, the advantages of self-discipline and cooperation, but at present he is nowhere near the beginning of the alphabet. He has fine qualities, rarely in evidence, which occasionally reveal what he may attain. But until their manifestation becomes a normal state of affairs, it is grossly unfair to bolster him up with ideas of his own importance and greatness.[26]

EMRAH GÖKER is a sociology graduate student at Columbia University. He is also a member of the NYC-based Peace Initiative/Turkey. He can be reached at

[1] A Salutation to the Twentieth Century, by Mark Twain, New York Herald, 12/30/1900.

[2] Top US Generals Discuss Iraq with Turkey, Turkish Daily News, 07/19/2003.

[3] US Officially Requests Troops, Urges Quick Decision, Turkish Daily News, 07/26/2003.

[4] The phrase, used in referral to the Korean War, belongs to Taha Akyol, leading right-wing columnist of the widely circulated daily Milliyet. Akyol is in the forefront of the militarist camp supporting the US war effort and Turkey’s active participation. See his Galitia and Iraq, Milliyet, 08/20/2003 [in Turkish].

[5] We Are Not Any Different From Each Other, Hürriyet, 07/24/2003 [in Turkish].

[6] Why Should We Send Troops to Iraq?, Hürriyet, 07/26/2003 [in Turkish].

[7] Turkey’s Mission?, Milliyet, 07/30/2003 [in Turkish].

[8] Opinions of Erdog(an and Gül, Milliyet, 08/02/2003 [in Turkish].

[9] Gül: “If We Do, We’ll Go There for the Iraqi People”, by Fikret Bila, Milliyet, 08/06/2003 [in Turkish].

[10] Exact mission locations are not rectified yet. There are signs, though, that Pentagon wants to install Turkish troops in those “most sensitive” regions where guerrilla attacks have been frequent.

[11] Arnç is an AKP MP and was the most prominent figure of the antiwar group within the party during the rejection of the resolution last March. He is reported to remain “more silent” as the government prepares the third resolution on Iraq.

[12] Ankara to Decide on Troops in Talks with US, Turkish Daily News, 08/14/2003.

[13] Turkey Readies for Iraq Mission, Turkish Daily News, 08/15/2003.

[14] Turkey Defines its Iraq Role, Turkish Daily News, 08/23/2003.

[15] Turkey, A Partner In The War On Terror: A Briefing by Faruk Log(og(lu, Middle East Forum, 05/31/2002.

[16] Turkish-American Relations, Milliyet, 07/21/2003 [in Turkish].

[17] Japanese Troops Are Going, What About Us?, Hürriyet, 07/30/2003 [in Turkish].

[18] Words Which Forced Me End My Resting Period, Hürriyet, 08/16/2003 [in Turkish].

[19] Yes, We Have Claims on Foreign Soil, Hürriyet, 08/19/2003 [in Turkish].

[20] I borrow the term from Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (Verso, 2003), Chapter Seven.

[21] Majority of Turks Oppose Sending Troops to Iraq, Turkish Daily News, 08/05/2003.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Does the Middle East Exist for Turkey?, Radikal, 08/03/2003 [in Turkish].

[24] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, 1996).

[25] Europe: Vanishing Mediator, by Etienne Balibar, first George L. Mosse Lecture at Humboldt-Universität Berlin for the Academic Year 2002-2003, 11/22/2002.

[26] Quoted from the Allborough Middle East Classics edition (1991, introduction by Paul Rich) of Thomas Lyell’s The Ins and Outs of Mesopotamia, first published in 1923. Lyell, a loyal Imperialist of the Queen, served as a civil administrator (Assistant Director of Tapu and District Magistrate, Baghdad) during the British colonization of Iraq.