Alan Makovsky is senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Shortly after Turkey's new Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, signed a $23 billion gas pipeline deal with Iran, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times wrote an article titled "Who Lost Turkey?" In fact, Turkey is not really lost. It remains a secular, pro-Western, democratic state. However, the unprecedented emergence of an Islamist at the pinnacle of power raises a warning flag for Americans, who can do much to help insure that Turkey does not become "lost."
Foreign Continuity, Domestic Change
Erbakan won the prime ministry following parliamentary elections in December 1995 in which he won only 21 percent of the vote, making his accession as prime minister in June 1996 not a reflection of majority sentiment but a fluke of coalition politics.
More important, despite the new power of Erbakan and his Refah ("Welfare") Party, pro-Western elements remain dominant in most aspects of Turkish foreign- and security-policy decision making. Most of the key operational decisions in foreign affairs are made by the National Security Council (NSC), a body made up of the top five military and top five civilian officials. Although the 1982 constitution deems the NSC merely advisory to the Turkish government, its decisions are virtually never overruled. On the current NSC, Erbakan is the only Islamist. The other civilians, President Süleyman Demirel and three members of deputy prime minister Tansu Çiller's secularist True Path Party, share with the military officers a decidedly pro-secular, pro-Western outlook.
The NSC cannot control with whom Erbakan meets, what he says, or where he travels, but so far, it has been able to ensure that the traditional principles of Turkish foreign policy remain in place. Turkey is still in NATO. Defense ties with the United States are intact. Before coming to power, Refah pledged to expel Operation Provide Comfort (OPC) and cancel Turkey's military arrangements with Israel. On taking office, Erbakan's top foreign-policy advisor, Abdullah Gul, pledged (on Erbakan's authority) that there would, at least, be no further agreements with Israel. But OPC has been extended twice since Erbakan came to office, and no less than three military-related agreements have been signed with Israel. In short, the views of the military prevailed; an intimidated Erbakan (twice in his career banned from politics following military interventions) acceded to the military's determination to build relations with the Jewish State.
Turkey's National Security Council cannot control with whom Erbakan meets, what he says, or where he travels, but it can insure that the traditional principles of Turkish foreign policy remain in place.
But Erbakan and the Refah Party have reason to be optimistic about enhancing their power in the future, perhaps achieving some of their anti-Western foreign-policy objectives. The party has vast funds, impressive organization, devoted cadres, a reputation for clean government in the roughly four hundred municipalities it leads, and a formidable streak of electoral successes (having increased its vote in five consecutive nationwide elections since 1984). Moreover, Refah operates in an increasingly hospitable environment. The religious schools (known as imam-hatip), whose graduates provide much of the new generation of Refah leaders and activists, enjoy a booming enrollment. Refah is also the beneficiary of terrible errors made by Turkey's secularist politicians, including economic mismanagement, constant squabbling, and seemingly endless scandals involving reports of bribery, kick-backs, and, most recently, lurid links between politicians, internal security forces, and the mafia. To many Turks, Refah leaders appear selfless and committed, secular leaders selfish and cynical. Unless the secularist politicians improve their performance, Turkey's pro-Western, secular course may indeed soon be fundamentally altered. For these reasons, political and societal trends in Turkey are worrisome to those who hope Turkey continues on its secular course.
Erbakan's Foreign Policy
For the past quarter century, Erbakan and his party have consistently criticized U.S. "imperialism," accused NATO of exploiting Turkey, condemned Turks who favor their state's integration with Western Europe as contemptible Westernizers, denounced Zionism and Jews, and urged that Turkey integrate with the Islamic world by establishing an "Islamic NATO," an Islamic Common Market, and an Islamic United Nations.
Erbakan has somewhat moderated his statements since taking office, but his predilections have not changed. As prime minister, his two trips abroad have been to the Muslim world, where he visited nearly a dozen states, including, most memorably, Iran (where he signed the gas pipeline deal) and Libya. Erbakan's major diplomatic initiative has been to establish a grouping of the eight most populous Islamic states, intended to foster economic cooperation, as well as "political consultations," and serve as a Muslim counterweight to the industrialized Group of Seven (G-7). Although Erbakan expects the D-8 and G-7 to negotiate a "new world order" at a "second Yalta Conference," substantive achievement by this group of disparate and generally poor states is unlikely. In contrast to these overtures to the Muslim world, Erbakan has yet to visit the West; in particular, he publicly spurned an invitation to join a dinner of European Union leaders at their Dublin summit in December -- although he has reportedly accepted an invitation to visit France and Germany in February 1996 (though he reportedly will visit Germany and possibly elsewhere in Europe in February 1997).
Erbakan continues to take positions very much at odds with those of Turkey's NATO allies. During his controversial trip to Libya in October, he condemned the U.N. sanctions imposed on Libya in 1992 (for its role in the bombings of Pan Am 103 and a UTA flight), calling for their early abrogation. He labeled Western charges of Libyan support for terrorism as mere propaganda and (in thinly veiled fashion) accused the United States and Israel of terrorism. Erbakan even declared Libya to be "the country suffering most from terror" (a seeming allusion to the U.S. aerial attack on Libya in 1986), a particularly astonishing and bizarre statement coming from a Turkish official: Ankara justifiably sees itself as one of the world's chief victims of terrorism, pointing to the thousands of its citizens murdered by the PKK (a Kurdish separatist group) and other terrorists in the past two decades. To top off this mockery of past Turkish pronouncements on terrorism, Erbakan concluded his surreal trip by signing a joint communiqué pledging Turkish-Libyan cooperation in the area of counterterrorism.
Western governments and media largely ignored these strange pronouncements on terrorism during Erbakan's trip to Libya, while the Turkish press gave them only scant attention. In part, this is because they were overshadowed by the larger spectacle of Mu`ammar al-Qadhdhafi's publicly calling for Kurdish independence as Erbakan sat by silently. (Ankara vigorously opposes the notion of a Kurdish state, even were it to be established outside the current borders of Turkey.) But Westerners anyway tend to overlook Erbakan's extreme statements and actions, perhaps because of his inability so far to alter basic elements of Turkey's pro-Western foreign policy. Virtually unremarked upon, for example, was the presence of Islamic extremists like the Palestinian Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brethren at the Refah Party's convention in October 1996.
There are other examples of Erbakan's anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli rhetoric. In late December, he accused the United States of having planned to use Operation Provide Comfort to set up an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey -- a preposterous charge made by other Turkish politicians, but not previously by a sitting prime minister. Erbakan accuses Israel of ambitions to conquer all the territory between the Nile and Euphrates Rivers (including, presumably, Turkey's). Two Refah parliamentarians reinforced this outlook when they charged that the Israeli ambassador's visit to Hatay province (bordering Syria) was a prelude to Israeli annexation of that region.
Threats to U.S. Interests
Even if restrained by his National Security Council, Erbakan as prime minister poses several challenges to U.S. interests and U.S.-Turkish relations. First, his very presence in office renders difficult the task of traditional Turkey supporters, including the U.S. administration, to convince skeptics in Congress and the European Union that Turkey remains on a secular, democratic, pro-Western path. Secondly, Erbakan's penchant for conspiracist views and offensive remarks alienates many who count themselves as Turkey's friends. For example, several prominent Jewish-American organizations have postponed plans to visit Turkey due to concern about Erbakan's policy intentions.
Thirdly, Erbakan's openly expressed sympathy for and connections to Islamist radicals (in Iran, Libya, the Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and among the Palestinians) raise serious security issues. As prime minister and a member of the NSC, he presumably already has or soon will gain access to NATO's secrets, to U.S.-Turkish counterterrorism plans, and to other security-related information. There is good reason to be concerned about the possible compromise of such information, for Erbakan and his people frequently meet alone with representatives of Iran, Iraq, and Syria, without foreign-ministry officials present. Erbakan has proposed Turkish-Iranian defense industrial cooperation, and during the December 1996 visit of Iran's President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Erbakan reportedly planned to give him a tour of Turkey's F-16 coproduction facility, an idea the Turkish military nixed.
Fourthly, and most important, Erbakan is an ideologue who seeks ultimately to orient Turkey away from the West, and in ways that would be profoundly counter to U.S. interests. He seeks to change society in many ways but mainly through internal policies that foreign-affairs observers tend not to watch closely. For example, Refah ministers have replaced some four hundred senior officials in their ministries with party sympathizers. Refah Party officials reportedly are lobbying the foreign ministry to admit more graduates of the religious schools to the diplomatic corps. A Refah parliamentarian advocated that the military academies be opened to imam-hatip graduates but the military has rejected this notion for now at least. A regularly scheduled rotation of over one thousand judges this autumn, implemented by the Refah-controlled Justice Ministry, was initially structured to move a disproportionate number of Turkey's leading committed secularist judges out of major cities; only resistance by the Turkish Bar Association forced the ministry to relent. In 1995, Erbakan's parliamentary delegation sought to delete the constitutional article that proscribes legislation based on Islamic law. Were Erbakan and his party to form a government without coalition partners, they would surely move aggressively to implement such policies to achieve their vision of Islamic society.
Erbakan seeks to change society mainly through internal policies that foreign-affairs observers tend not to watch closely.
Americans face the rare dilemma of how to devise policy toward an ally whose leader seems to harbor long-term goals inimical to American interests. As yet, there is no crisis: as noted, Erbakan does not control Turkish foreign policy, and bedrock Turkish policies (NATO, U.S. defense ties) are on track for now. Therefore, U.S. policy only needs fine-tuning, not a major overhaul. Washington should adopt a dual-track policy: supporting friends and long-term interests while keeping Erbakan and his supporters at arm's length. Such a policy would consist of several elements:
Support friends. Pro-American Turks, including the military, need to be able to demonstrate to other Turks the value of bilateral ties with the United States. Accordingly, Washington should support Turkey on all issues that affect fundamental or long-term relations. Defense ties have long been the cement of bilateral ties and an effective means of anchoring Turkey to the West, so the United States should continue to assure Turkey access to American arms. In that regard, the Clinton administration needs to confront opposition to Turkish arms purchases from within the U.S. government more forthrightly; two promised arms transfers have been blocked in recent months. As a result, many Turks charge that Washington has placed an undeclared arms embargo on Turkey, a claim redolent of the actual arms embargo of 1975-78 (following Turkey's 1974 armed intervention in Cyprus), and one that fuels resentment of the United States. Given its anti-American record, Erbakan's Refah Party is best placed to capitalize politically on these sentiments. Secularists are privately pleading with Americans to make sure "not to drive Turks into Erbakan's arms."
Support secularism. Waffling on the subject of secularism also undermines America's friends in the secular pro-Western establishment. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told journalists shortly after Erbakan took office that "secularism" is "not a condition" for good U.S.-Turkish relations. This striking departure from the longstanding U.S. practice of celebrating Turkish secularism was, insiders say, a mistake, an off-the-cuff response to a Turkish journalist's question, and did not reflect a carefully considered official position; moreover, subsequent State Department statements (including one by then-U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright just after returning from Turkey) essentially recanted by stressing again the importance Washington attaches to Turkish secularism. Nevertheless, the Burns comment left a residue. It was cited by the Islamist press as evidence of American support for Erbakan and, to this day, some Turkish secularists complain that not enough was done to set the record straight.
Keep a distance from Erbakan. The U.S. government should maintain a cool protocolary correctness, doing nothing that redounds to Erbakan's political credit; in particular, no invitation to Washington. Washington's ability to affect domestic Turkish politics is limited, but a perception of U.S. approval is something any Turkish leader seeks; thus did Erbakan hasten to attend the Fourth of July party at the U.S. ambassador's residence (including a friendly photo with the ambassador) just a week after taking office. Where possible, the U.S. government should deal with secularist ministers and career civil servants rather than Erbakan and his cohorts. In some respects, this may mean adopting a less forthcoming policy toward Turkey than has traditionally been the case. For example, the United States should not use its leverage in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail out Refah's populist, budget-busting policies. Economic performance is the soft underbelly of governments' popularity in Turkey, as in most nations. Refah should not be allowed to have it both ways, that is, crowd-pleasing policies and reflexive support from international financial institutions.
Respond sharply to Erbakan's rhetoric. State Department spokesman Burns warned in the first weeks of Erbakan's government that Washington would be "listening to the rhetoric and well as watching the actions." To some extent, Washington has done this, but not frequently or adeptly enough. For example, the United States criticized Erbakan's trip to Libya but was muted in response to his accusation against the United States of terrorism and his joint counterterrorism plans with Qadhdhafi. That approach misfired in Turkey, where most Turks harbor no love for Qadhdhafi but nevertheless support their prime minister's right to visit Tripoli, as have most of his predecessors (whose trips were generally seen as less motivated by friendship than by an effort to convince Libya to pay its arrears to Turkish companies). Washington also chose not to respond when Erbakan claimed the United States has supported Kurdish separatism in Turkey; a sharp denial and demand for an apology would have been in order. Obviously, the administration does not want to engage in constant rhetorical battles with Erbakan, but it cannot overlook his more egregious charges lest it appear to acquiesce to them.
A dual-track policy, admittedly, will not be simple to implement. Washington should not want to harm Turkey's long-term interests just to give Erbakan the cold shoulder; and necessary support for Turkey will inevitably sometimes boost Erbakan's political stock. Washington should not insult the Turkish prime minister or seek out opportunities to slap him verbally but should respond strongly when appropriate. This policy must be applied subtly and situationally. Should the Erbakan government adopt the necessary economic measures, American support for IMF assistance is suitable. The $23 billion gas-pipeline deal that Erbakan signed during his August 1996 trip to Iran had wide backing in energy-strapped Turkey, so a U.S. decision to activate sanctions against Turkey (in accordance with the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act) and would probably backfire, arousing anti-U.S. sentiment and working to Erbakan's advantage.
Affirm Turkey's importance. The case for Turkey's strategic importance to U.S. interests is clear-cut. It has a leading role in NATO, in Operation Northern Watch, and in training and equipping the Bosnian/Croatian Federation army. It offers a moderate alternative to Moscow and Tehran in Central Asia, is a bulwark bordering on three terrorism-supporting states, and is a Muslim supporter of the Arab-Israeli peace process. It also stands out as the only democracy in the Muslim Middle East. The case for U.S. support for Turkey should be made boldly and by senior U.S. officials.
Develop a coherent policy and implement it consistently. U.S. policy toward Turkey has been on a roller coaster in the roughly eight years since the end of the cold war. Virtually each new assistant secretary for European affairs in the State Department creates or presides over a new policy, making five in all since 1989. Turkey was first seen to have lost much strategic importance with the Soviet demise. Then the Kuwait crisis caused Turkey again to be viewed as a key strategic asset. At the Clinton administration's outset, human rights became a nearly dominant concern. That gave way in 1995, when Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke deemed Turkey "at the center of every issue of importance to the U.S. on the Eurasian continent." Holbrooke emphasized that human rights, however important, would not be allowed to "rupture" U.S.-Turkish relations. Holbrooke's departure in February 1996 began a period of drift (to be fair, caused partly by the uncertainties that Erbakan presents). Only during the brief Holbrooke era did Ankara have a clear sense of how Washington viewed its place in U.S. global strategy and a firm sense of support in working through its human-rights problems. That period provides a model to which the United States should seek a return.
Washington has in recent years too often strayed from a principled and consistent policy toward Turkey. In that regard, the Erbakan era may be useful as a spur for American officials to devise the coherent and durable policy toward the Turks that has been lacking since the end of the cold war.
Related Topics: Libya, Turkey and Turks | March 1997 MEQ
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing list
This text may be reposted or forwarded so long as it is presented as an integral whole with complete and accurate information provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.