- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

In 2002, Turkey elected the parliament that decided against giving the United States a northern front into Iraq over four years ago. The parliament chosen in this year’s election will decide how — or whether — Turkey will cooperate with the United States on Iran.

Whether Democrats are unhappy with the outcome of the war and eager to exit from Iraq is a different matter than their perception about Turkey’s report card. The fact is both Republicans and Democrats agreed on the benefits of removing Saddam Hussein from power. They just differed over how that decision has been executed. Now there is again bipartisan agreement that Iran should not possess nuclear weapons. But regardless of how the presidential candidates advocate ending the war in Iraq and argue over how to handle the situation in Iran, the next administration will make the decision. Likewise, the next Turkish parliament will determine how the nature of the U.S.-Turkey relationship will continue to change.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used to accuse Turkey of causing American casualties because of parliament’s refusal to give U.S. troops a northern front into Iraq. Today, Turks admit the decision cost Turkish lives. Deniz Bolukbasi, a former diplomat and a Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) candidate for parliament in this election, led the 2003 negotiations with the U.S. “The negotiated agreement was nothing but an insurance policy for saving Turkey’s all red lines,” he said. Turkey was given guarantees for presence in Northern Iraq in eliminating PKK terrorism — where the PKK is based and still launches attacks against Turkey. And Turkey would have been able to influence Iraqi affairs — instead of watching from the sidelines — if its parliament had decided differently, Mr. Bolukbasi said.

In a recent interview at Haberturk, a leading television news channel, with five Turkish journalists including myself, Mr. Bolukbasi admitted that refusing to give the United States a northern front into Iraq ultimately hurt Turkey’s interests and complicated the situation — especially on ethnic politics. Turkey did open its airspace from the very first moments of the operation, he noted, and was crucial to the air strike’s success. But it lost all the guarantees of assistance in fighting PKK terrorism, Mr. Bolukbasi said.

I spoke with several military officials in Istanbul at a recent conference organized by the Turkish military on the new dimensions of security and international organizations, and they very bluntly admitted that the Turkish parliament made a mistake in 2003. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also admitted that the mistake jeopardized Turkey’s security. Yet it’s only in Turkey that the government is not held responsible.

The July general election provides an excellent opportunity to assess Turkey’s domestic politics on the issue. The Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, is the first single-party government since the 1980 military coup ended. Since its 2002 rise to power, the AK Party has failed in parliament on two occasions. The first was in refusing to give the U.S. a northern front into Iraq. Mr. Erdogan accepted the outcome when the first vote failed, saying that everyone must respect the democratic decision — and he did not attempt to bring about a second vote. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, voted against the U.S. request. Mr. Bolukbasi, however, said the chairman of the parliament, Bulent Arinc, denied them the right to learn the details of the negotiated agreement.

The second failure came in the form of its presidential appointment — which hurt the AK Party’s interests. The party could not appoint a president as it wanted, and it refused to accept parliament’s decision, rushing to change the constitution to achieve the result it wanted — and further confusing an already confusing situation.

The difference between the two failures is the tendency to hold the military responsible for everything that goes wrong. With the presidential appointment, the AK Party was evidently seeking to prove that it can stand up to the military. But they argue that the military has not given them clear orders about what to do in the first one. Within Ankara’s beltway, AK Party observers speculate that if the military could threaten them with a coup, it’s no stretch to think it played a role in 2003. Therefore, the AK Party’s argument sums up with the claim that the military sold out the country’s security and stability.

Mr. Erdogan, however, seems to forget that the parliament made the decision to approve Turkey’s two cross-border operations in Cyprus and Northern Iraq. The world remembers the late Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit as the one who made the decision on Cyprus. Alas, the parliament decided for Turkey’s presence in Northern Iraq and allowed it to carry actions against the PKK targets outside its borders. Yet the Turkish military remains the watchdog of the secular regime, and has intervened in politics.

One thing is clear: The AK Party government is in a fight with state institutions: the presidency, the military, the constitutional court and the high education board. If the infighting had blinded them in undermining Turkey’s interests, a second AK government is prone to promise instability. And the next time the United States asks for support, Turkey would not know what to do — and should not be relied upon.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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