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Democracy for Whom?

November 13, 2003

The price of empire just keeps increasing. With the peace in Iraq proving to be as messy as the war, the Bush administration has been desperately trying to get other countries to send troops for occupation duty. Brazil, Egypt, and India have said no; Japan says not yet. South Korea is temporizing-- not many, and certainly not many combat arms. Denmark says no more, while the Dutch and Spanish are rethinking their commitments.

Still, the administration had high hopes for Turkey. After much hemming and hawing, and Washington's approval of $8.5 billion in loans in September, the Erdogan government recommended dispatch as many as 10,000 soldiers. Turkey's Parliament then said yes, despite strong popular opposition, avoiding a repeat of that body's surprise refusal to allow U.S. military action against Iraq from Turkish territory.

But the negotiations to turn Ankara's promise into boots on the ground quickly stalled. Few Iraqis--and especially Kurds, whose ethnic brethren have been killed in the thousands by Ankara--desire their former colonial masters to return. The Iraqi Governing Council, chosen by Washington, abandoned its usual pliancy to criticize the planned deployment. So Ankara finally said that it wouldn't help without an Iraqi invitation, which was about as likely as a request for Saddam Hussein to reestablish his dictatorship. A few days later Turkey formally withdrew its offer.

The Bush administration's bid for Ankara's help reflects a dramatic change from just a few months ago, when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz dismissed potential Turkish contributions to the occupation. "I wouldn't rule out a role for Turkey, but I think right now we are looking to those people who were with us in the coalition to build a core of the peacekeeping function." Indeed, he added, "My experience is if you talk to Iraqis, almost every one of their neighbors, including Turkey, is viewed from a historical perspective that is not always positive."

But that was then, when the administration was talking about cutting its occupation forces to 30,000 by the end of the year. This is now, when officials are debating increasing the U.S. garrison in the face of continuing guerrilla activity and urban terrorism. And that meant pushing even Turkey to contribute troops.

So much for relying on original members of the coalition. So much for caring about what the Iraqis think.

Alas, Washington likely would find that it had to pay a high price for Turkish help in manning what amounts to an unruly imperial outpost. Ankara has a keen sense of Turkish national interests. That is why it has treated its Kurds with brutality approaching that used by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In fact, after Washington's victory Turkey dispatched special forces to the city of Kirkut in U.S.-occupied Iraq to assassinate the Kurdish interim governor. Turkey denied the plot after Washington captured (and eventually released) 11 Turkish soldiers.

But now the Bush administration has reportedly promised to suppress the Kurdestan Workers Party, today known as KADEK, which has long fought for ethnic autonomy. In Turkey's view that means military action, if necessary. Which would mean involving Washington in a guerrilla war that has cost nearly 40,000 lives over the last two decades. And involving the U.S. on the opposite side from its position of backing Kurdish autonomy under Saddam Hussein. (KADEK says that it intends to dissolve, but it is far too early to predict the end of hostilities.)

In short, Turkey, no less than, say, France, wants to constrain America's options. The Turks just aren't as obvious about doing so.

Moreover, it is not clear that Turkish troops would have actually helped stabilize Iraq. Objections from the Iraqi Governing Council were inevitable, given widespread popular unease with the plan. More ominously, Kurdish leaders threatened to fight if Turkish soldiers were lodged in the north. In turn, Ankara warned that it would respond sharply to any attacks on its forces, which would further inflame hostility. The bomb attack on the Turkish embassy demonstrates that Ankara's forces would be vulnerable to retaliation in turn.

The issue also brings into sharp relief the tension surrounding U.S. support for democracy around the world. As President George W. Bush explained in his speech before the National Endowment for Democracy, one of the professed goals of the administration's de facto imperial policy is to remake other nations in America's democratic image. Yet democracy tends to make nations into unruly protectorates.

Today the interim Iraqi Governing Council opposes the presence of Turkish troops. What if the future permanent elected government rejects the presence of American forces and bases?

The Bush administration's rhetoric suggests that it should live with that result. But in practice Washington seems much less enthusiastic about the results of democracy.

Like in Turkey.

Last year Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz cited Turkey as "a model for the Muslim world's aspirations for democratic progress and prosperity." He went on to add: "What is fundamental is Turkey's democratic character."

Yet the U.S. has been less happy with the results of Turkish democracy. Negotiations between America and Turkey over aid prior to the war against Iraq took on the appearance of haggling over a carpet at Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Turkey demanded lots of cash to let America open a second front against Iraq. Washington demanded a discount before saying yes.

Then the unexpected happened. Turkey's ruling party split while the opposition stood firm against. In parliament the measure won a majority of those voting, but not the required absolute majority.

As a proponent of democracy, Washington should have been understanding. Instead, for a moment Turkey joined France on America's least liked list. Congress threatened to cut off aid; the Bush administration complained because Turkey's civilian officials made the decision.

Indeed, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made the rather astounding assertion that the military did not play "a leadership role" on the issue. The fact that the vast majority of the Turkish population opposed the war didn't matter. In the same interview, with CNN Turkey, Wolfowitz proclaimed that "we believe in democracy" and that Ankara should "look into its democratic soul." But, he said shortly after the vote, the government "didn't quite know what it was doing." The result was a "big, big mistake."

It is tough ruling over an empire when one's minor partners, like Turkey, don't know their proper place. The problem, in Wolfowitz's view, was that the military should have said that "it was in Turkey's interest to support the United States" in Iraq. But members of parliament were aware of the stakes. They knew that billions in ill-disguised bribes hung in the balance.

Although Wolfowitz stated that "I'm not suggesting that you [the military] get involved in politics at all." But what else could have been the implications of his remarks for a country where the military has formally overthrown and more often maneuvered to pressure and overthrow democratically elected governments and dismantle popular political parties? Last January there was a public spat between Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and the chief of the Turkish General Staff, General Hilmi Ozkok, over the expulsion of seven soldiers for "fundamentalist activities." Although purges for Islamic activism are not new, these soldiers were allowed no right of appeal.

In fact, Turkey's military has long played a leadership role in that nation. Unfortunately.

While the Bush administration wants the military to play a larger role in Turkish policy, Turkey's parliament recently approved a measure reducing the military's control of the National Security Council, which influences most domestic as well as foreign policy decisions. The NSC will have a reduced role and body's secretary general will be nominated by the Prime Minister rather than the chief of the Turkish General Staff; legislators will be able to review the defense budget, once the military's exclusive perogative. The reforms are necessary if Ankara hopes to join the European Union, but they also are likely to transform Turkish politics.

Thus, Washington should step carefully. Warns Omer Taspinar, a Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, "the current mood in Turkey is still very anti-American." In just three years, complains diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the percentage of Turks professing that U.S. was their nation's best friend has plunged from the 60s to the teens. Appearing to range itself against the democratization of Turkish life could only worsen Washington's image.

The Bush administration's ambivalence towards democracy is evident in its attitude towards other U.S. allies. For instance, Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf took power in a coup and conducted a set of fixed elections to provide a veneer of respectability. But the absence there of the sort of democracy that Washington is attempting to build in Iraq is not viewed as a problem.

Musharraf, Wolfowitz told the New York Times last year, has "shown an impressive level of fortitude in facing" down Muslim extremism. Indeed, "No leader has taken greater risks in the struggle against terrorism," Wolfowitz later added. Musharraf's willingness to ignore popular sentiments was "good for him and his country as well as for us and our country."

That might be the case. But clearly Pakistan is a country where the U.S. does not value democracy, and especially "popular sentiments." As a result, "The Pakistanis are doing everything they can" to cooperate against Islamic terrorism, said Wolfowitz last year.

In fact, that's not obviously true. Musharraf seems to be playing both sides of the street. However, Karachi is certainly more helpful today than it was before September 11.

There's nothing wrong in emphasizing Musharraf's willingness to cooperate. But it does come at a cost, undercutting those democratic values that Wolfowitz and the rest of the administration claim to value.

Does Washington like democracy abroad? Turkey "is a model for the Muslim world's aspirations for democratic progress," Wolfowitz proclaimed last year. "What is fundamental is Turkey's democratic character: It changes its leaders at the ballot box."

Which is how a moderate Islamic government came to power and a democratically elected Islamic parliament came to reject America's request for military aid in the war against Iraq. And how the Erdogan government changed its mind about augmenting America's occupation forces.

"We remain hopeful that an agreement" on deploying Turkish troops in Iraq "that is satisfactory to all the parties, can be reached," says State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. However, throughout the Mideast, and especially in Iraq, Washington must decide whether it values indigenous democracy or geopolitical support more. In the case of Turkey, to push the military to play "a leadership role" might help ease America's short-term military burden. In the long-term, it is likely to damage a democracy that is supposed to be "a model for the Muslim" world.

And to press reluctant Iraqis to accept a Turkish garrison would stoke rather than retard the flames of conflict in that nation. Nascent Iraqi democracy would be best served if Iraqis were left to admire the Turkish army from afar. Indeed, all parties, including the U.S., would be better off if Washington gracefully accepts Ankara's decision to say no. Chalk it up to the workings of democracy, which the President so professes to value.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

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