- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

"We have a saying," so a Turkish businessman told me recently. "A Turk's only friend is a Turk." Unfortunately, this self-fulfilling prophecy appears to be in the process of being, well, fulfilled.

The Turkish parliament did itself no end of political harm when it voted against allowing U.S. troops to be stationed there for a "northern front" against Iraq. This sent relations with the United States Turkey's most important international and powerful ally into a tailspin. And, because of Turkey's military ambitions in northern Iraq's Kurdish areas, these two long-standing NATO allies may in the near future be facing each other in a standoff.

While the United States simply cannot afford to compromise the territorial integrity of Iraq, Turkey has not yet accepted that fact. In an interview in The Washington Post, new Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Ergodan said that "The latest demand from Secretary of State Colin Powell was for overflights only. When we were asked for overflight rights, we said that we would like to see Turkish troops in northern Iraq, and they approved that." Any notion that Washington approves has been vigorously disputed by the White House.

Until very recently, Turkey was considered one of the most reliable strategic allies of the United States. What happened? Mistakes and miscalculations were certainly made on both sides, but the United States clearly had the right to expect better from an ally and friend of long standing when it came to support for the war effort in Iraq.

One of the most important events in this debacle was the election last fall of the Justice and Development Party, which has Islamic roots. This fact, however, may ultimately be less important than the sheer inexperience of its new top politicians. A parliamentary vote in February on the U.S. request for military cooperation not only went down unexpectedly, but also denied the United States the use of American air bases there, and even Turkish airspace. All of this happened as U.S. troops were sailing around the Mediterranean awaiting Turkish approval to disembark which never came.

On the U.S. side, it has almost been an article of faith, particularly in conservative circles, that Turkish and American interests were the same. Some of Turkey's strongest supporters are now in the Pentagon Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, for one, Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, for another.

"The U.S. government, particularly the Pentagon, became entrapped in its own rhetoric about Turkey about how indispensable it is and how close out association is, about our shared strategic outlook and the strong confluence of views with the Turkish military," wrote Morton Abramowitz, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, in the Wall Street Journal this week.

With $31 billion in U.S.-supported IMF aid to Turkey, the backing of Turkey on the Cyprus issue and support for Turkey's EU membership, the White House did seem to have good reason to expect a friendly reception for its demands. Add to all this a promised package of $6 billion in bilateral U.S. financial aid to Turkey.

But the request for 62,000 U.S. troops to be stationed in Turkey for a ground invasion was clearly too much for the parliament to swallow and this was even down from an initial request of 90,000. Nor did the Turkish parliament accept that its own troops had to be kept out of northern Iraq, where Turks fear that an independent Kurdish state will provide a base for secessionist Kurds within Turkey.

Can we expect Turkey to find new friends in Europe, then? Hardly likely. Many Europeans tend to have nightmares at the prospect of the 67 million Turks joining the European Union. Turkey, in fact, had moved one small step closer to this coveted goal at the EU Copenhagen summit in December, when it was given at least a timetable for possible accession talks starting in 2005. This could now be in jeopardy.

As stated by Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel on Sunday, "It is unthinkable that Turkey should join Europe if it goes into Kurdistan." Even if Belgium is becoming somewhat notorious for inflicting its opinions on the world these days, Mr. Michel is undoubtedly right. Europe will welcome an excuse to keep Turkey out.

There is still time for Turkey to prevent its international isolation from becoming an incontrovertible fact. Prime Minister Ergodan will do his country a very important good turn if he finds a way to make peace with the U.S. government and regain some of the trust that has clearly been lost.

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