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The Turkey- U.S. Divide

Lack of understanding strains a vital relationship.

June 08, 2005|Ekrem Dumanli | Ekrem Dumanli is executive editor of Zaman, a national newspaper headquartered in Istanbul.

What's gone wrong between the U.S. and Turkey? Plagued by misinformation and misperception, the two countries have seen significant deterioration in their relations over the last few years.

Rising wrath against Turkey in Washington, especially at the Pentagon, is threatening what has long been a strong, important relationship. It seems to be a response, in turn, to a perceived rise in anti-Americanism in Turkey. But this is a mistake. The roots of the problem lay, for the most part, in misunderstanding.

Just as the Iraq war was beginning in early 2003, Turkey rejected a U.S. effort to open a northern front. For many U.S. officials, this was an indication of growing anti-Americanism. Although it is true that the Turkish parliament rejected the motion, the context has been badly misunderstood.

On that day -- March 1, 2003 -- 533 lawmakers voted on the motion. Of those, 264 were in favor, 250 rejected it and 19 abstained. The motion required a simple majority, 267 votes; it was rejected for want of three votes. The vote was so close that for a few minutes after the voting it was believed that the motion had been approved. In short, much of the wrath against Turkey in Washington, especially in Pentagon circles, is based on just three votes.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 12, 2005 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 5 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Turkey -- A June 8 Commentary article about U.S.-Turkey relations referred to Armenian allegations of "genocide" after World War II. It was during and after World War I.

In October 2003, the parliament agreed to send as many as 10,000 troops to Iraq to help in reconstruction and peacekeeping. This time the vote was 358 to 183 in favor of deployment. But Turkey got little credit for its willingness to help because the plan fell apart when the Iraqi Governing Council announced that it did not want Turkish troops. In yet another effort to cooperate with Washington, Turkey subsequently agreed to send troops to Afghanistan, and the Turkish army has twice taken command of the International Security Assistance Force there.

I'm not denying that the last two years have been a tense period for the two countries. There's no doubt that the Turkish people, in line with global public opinion, were worried about the occupation of Iraq. Although Turks hated Saddam Hussein and wished for an end to his rule, they were also concerned about a war in the region. Not just because it was becoming clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction and no link between Hussein and Al Qaeda, but because they were afraid the war would spread to neighboring countries such as Syria and Iran.

And it is certainly true that the horrible images from Fallouja and Abu Ghraib shocked Turkish society, as they shocked the people of many nations. When one also considers that Iraqis are Muslims and that many mosques were in the war zone, the Turkish public's concern may be better understood.

But Turkish reservations about Bush administration policies in the Middle East do not make us "anti-American." Yes, there was one Turkish member of parliament who said last year that the U.S. was conducting "genocide" in Fallouja -- but it must be remembered that routine pressure is put on Turkey regarding Armenian allegations of "genocide" after World War II. For many Turks, this is annually discussed, debated and forgotten -- they see the so-called genocide as a false accusation, and the word itself is viewed as an exaggeration. So when one parliamentarian accuses the U.S. of "genocide" in Iraq, it does not carry the harsh meaning that Americans have reacted to.

After Sept. 11, many Muslims in the U.S. returned to their countries, Turks among them. This trend accelerated after the invasion of Iraq. But despite post-Sept. 11 anxiety and difficulty in obtaining visas, statistics indicate that Turkish families and their children still opt for a U.S. education when possible.

The Turkish people believe that the U.S. helped Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. They haven't forgotten that the leader of the terrorist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, was caught with U.S. assistance. Nor have they overlooked U.S. support for Turkey's membership in the European Union.

Despite years of "strategic partnership," the policymakers of the two countries don't fully understand each other. Turkey asks the U.S. to take concrete action against the PKK militants in Iraq, but this is not a high priority for the Americans. Armenian genocide allegations are raised like clockwork in the U.S. Congress, but so far the Turkish government has not formally recognized that such a thing occurred. If that changes, the Turkish public will not react calmly.

Each party tries to evaluate the other side within the framework of its own political culture and experience. This can cause confusion and ill will. But these two countries need each other. At a time when potential global conflicts exist in abundance along cultural and religious lines, Turkey can play a major role as an "example" of a nation that is modern, democratic and Muslim all at the same time.

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