A strategic anchor is coming unanchored


PARIS -- By resigning under military pressure Wednesday, Turkey's Islamic-led government left that country in a crisis too complicated to fit an interpretation that emphasizes only the rise of fundamentalist political power in Turkey.

The army has forced Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Islamic fundamentalists, to resign because of its mounting conflict with him over the prime minister's efforts to increase Islamic influence in schools and in Turkish society. That is the immediate issue but not the only one.

Mr. Erbakan has asked former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller to take over his governing coalition, but whether either Mrs. Ciller, a very controversial figure, or the opposition leadership can now form a viable government remains to be seen. The alternative is new elections within 90 days.

In that case, the assessment of most observers is that the Islamic fundamentalists will increase their strength in parliament. They, unlike the secular parties, have a real popular base and address social issues that other parties have neglected.

The fundamentalist party also has profited from the political malaise caused by Kurdish unrest, the terrorism of the radical Kurdish PKK movement and the army's unsuccessful efforts to solve the Kurdish problem through military repression. The army has just pulled back from the most recent in a series of big but inconclusive military operations against Kurdish positions over the Iraqi frontier.

Turkey's army has always held itself responsible for the integrity of Turkey, against the separatists among Turkey's minority Kurds. It also sees itself as guarantor of the secular republic established by Kemal Ataturk in 1922, out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. This is why it feels authorized to oversee civilian governments and on occasion to impose martial law.

The next election

Its pressure against the Erbakan government last week conveyed the threat of another overt intervention neither army -- nor government wants but which could come about. The next election will be crucial in this respect.

The United States since the Second World War has been involved with Turkey without knowing much about that country, or perhaps without wanting to know. Turkey's strategic location made it a desirable ally against the Soviet Union and, in the event, a very stout one.

It willingly joined NATO and sent a formidable brigade-strength force to the Korean war. It agreed to base U.S. missiles and intelligence operations.

Many of the latter operations have continued since the Soviet Union's collapse, some of them redeployed against two other of Turkey's neighbors, Iran and Iraq, the principal post-Cold-War obsessions of the American government and Congress. In the Near East the Clinton administration today continues the "dual containment" policy begun, in the case of Iraq, under George Bush, and in the case of Iran, during the Carter presidency, after the Iranian revolution.

Dual containment has not been much of a success, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright candidly acknowledged earlier this year, but neither a relatively free election in Iran nor the Iraqi military operation, which administered a humiliating defeat to CIA operations among the Kurds in northern Iraq, has produced any change of policy.

Strategic anchor

Washington's perceptions of Turkey are based primarily on the country's usefulness to the Pentagon and CIA and its function as northern anchor of an American strategic position anchored in the south in Israel.

The continuing value of this strategic position will soon have to be questioned, not only because of the domestic crisis in Turkey but because of Israel's current and probably unstoppable slide toward new and unprecedentedly violent military repression of the Palestinians and eventually toward another war. The American strategic anchors are coming unanchored.

Washington's strategic view of Turkey tends also to produce unnuanced and unsophisticated views of Turkish internal affairs. The Washington Post's Jonathan C. Randal, who probably knows more about this region than any other American alive, describes the attitudes expressed toward the Kurdish problem by U.S. government officials in Turkey "as a mindless rerun of the attitude I had observed among their military and diplomatic counterparts at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in the 1970s" -- attitudes that subsequently, as he says, resulted in "disastrous consequences for American national interests."

Mr. Randal has a new book out this month on Turkey's (and, by ricochet, America's) Kurdish problem, as well as the Kurds' Turkish problem. It deserves to be read with attention in Washington and, for that matter, in the West European capitals (since Turkey is a candidate, if a despairing one, to join the European Union).

The book is called "After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). It produces despair in the reader who knows that no one in power will pay the slightest attention. Or will not do so until too late.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/23/97

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