- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

Theconfirmation hearings of Judge Samuel Alito, President Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court, reminded me of the negotiations between the United States and Turkey over opening a northern front into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Now, I’m not comparing Judge Alito to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but both men do have critics with similar concerns.

Their respective oppositions worry that from their positions of influence, these men can steer the direction of their respective countries. But the White House knew that Democrats would rally to oppose Judge Alito when his nomination went to the Senate. With Mr. Erdogan in Turkey, the president should have expected the same kind of reaction — that the prime minister’s critics would rally against the United States when it prematurely sided with him.

The Bush administration’s failure to recognize this likelihood raises questions about how much the United States knows about Turkey, which has been its NATO ally for more than five decades and is the only secular democracy with a majority-Muslim population. It also led some Turks to assume that the Bush administration knew exactly what it was doing and planned to push Turkey’s secular regime toward Islamification. That sealed the deal for the Kemalists and the Islamists to unify against America — obviously for different reasons.

They worried that the tide was turning against Turkey. Thus, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called Turkey an “Islamic state,” Turks opposing the United States reacted very negatively. But first, it’s important to understand how things started to go wrong.

When President Bush hosted Mr. Erdogan at the White House in December 2002, the Turkish Islamist leader’s Justice and Development Party had just won a resounding election victory, capturing two-thirds of the seats in parliament. But Abdullah Gul was named prime minister.

Mr. Erdogan had no official role, because he was barred by the Turkish Constitution from politics after he was convicted and served a 1999 jail term for “inciting religious enmity,” according to theStateDepartment’s Human Rights Report for 2001. The 2002 report noted that the chief prosecutor for the court of appeals sued to shut down the party for activities “contrary to the principle of a secular republic” — failing to follow a court order requiring Mr. Erdogan to step down as party chairman.

In the case of Judge Alito, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, appears to be almost certain that he will overturn the landmark 1973 Roev.Wadedecision. Nonetheless, she said, “This might be a man I disagree with, but it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be on the court.”

In Turkey, Mr. Erdogan eventually became prime minister — after government overturned the laws preventing him from serving and the courts lifted the ban. Yet the secularists couldn’t forget his statements like, “Democracy is like a trolley that will ride me to the target”; “My reference is Islam”; and “Elhamdulillah, we are for sharia” which left little room for interpretation.

Turkish democracy had accomplished a lot, but when Mr. Erdogan met Mr. Bush on Dec 2002, no one knew how his leadership would affect the country. Yet Mr. Bush treated Mr. Erdogan as if he were already the head of government, and then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the two discussed Iraq.

And when they met, Mr. Erdogan did not have a Turkish diplomat on hand to officially record it. Turkish secularists and liberals, loyal and longstanding friends of America, saw this as a betrayal and a rebuke to Turkey’s democratic processes.

Three months later, the secularist opposition refused America’s request for help in invading Iraq, and sealed the “no” vote. Once the parliament turned down the request, former Deputy DefenseSecretaryPaul Wolfowitz blamed the military.

In fact, the State Department’s 2002 Human Rights Report read: “The military exercised indirect influence over government policy and actions in the belief that it is the constitutional protector of the state.” The Bush administration, while deciding to spread democracy in the Middle East, failed to understand the democracy already in the region and behaved as if all democratic countries are uniform. But if Turkey had been approached differently, it could have granted the U.S. request.

Now, almost three years after Saddam Hussein’s removal, Turkey still watches from the sidelines. But it still has a lot to offer its American ally in the face of current difficulties in Iraq and coming ones in Syria and Iran. The Bush administration should face the fact that its approach was responsible for losing Turkey’s support for the Iraqi operation so the same mistakes aren’t repeated in the future before the democratic processes in the country work.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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