Fighting Words

Talking Turkey

An ally we’re better off without.

The slander of the Iraqi and Kurdish opposition, and of their friends, as little better than puppets of the Bush administration is an idea that is half-alive in the minds of those who are knowingly trying to buy “more time” for Saddam Hussein. Every now and then, one gets a sneer about it. So, it’s good to step aside from the everyday arguments with the regime preservers and point out that proxies and mercenaries seldom express themselves as forcefully and publicly as the Iraqi opposition has been doing recently.

The first point of disagreement—about the role of American officers in the aftermath—is a matter of principle but still somewhat contingent since nobody can know in advance what conditions will be in the post-Baathist republic. Many of the supplies required for rebuilding may be deliverable, for example, only by military transports. Nonetheless, a strong presumption has been established against any uniformed tutelage; the Iraqi National Congress, the Shiite forces, and the Kurds have united forcefully on the issue of self-government.

A second point of dissent hardly admits of any negotiation at all. Turkey has no rights in any part of Iraq, and least of all does it have any right to involve itself in the Kurdish areas, emancipated for a dozen years from Saddam’s rule, which adjoin its own borders. The Bush administration has been entirely too lenient with Ankara, not just on this point but on many related ones.

1) Kurdistan itself. It has taken decades for the Turkish state even to acknowledge that another people with a distinct language and culture lives within its borders. It’s sadly true that a Kurdish rebellion in southeastern Turkey was led by a “Shining Path”-type leader named Abdullah Ocalan (believe me: I interviewed him in Lebanon and found a Kurdish Pol Pot), but this in itself expresses the desperate conditions that obtain. Under steady civilian pressure from within and without, Turkish authorities are now prepared to concede on the Kurdish right to exist—principally because the European Union has insisted on the point. The time for Washington to make a statement about Kurdish rights in Turkey would be right about now. (We have only been waiting since Woodrow Wilson first murmured on the same point.)

2) Cyprus. If any regime in the world has collected a bigger sheaf of resolutions condemning its international behavior than the Iraqi one, it must be the Turks (followed perhaps by the Israelis).

Since 1974, Turkey has patrolled a line of forcible partition drawn by its own troops—the first occupation of the territory of another European state since 1945. It has expelled almost one-third of the original Greek inhabitants and further violated international law by importing settlers and colonists from the Anatolian mainland. It has been condemned for murder, rape, and theft by innumerable European court rulings. So abysmal are conditions in its sweatshop colony in northern Cyprus, policed by the notorious thug and proxy Rauf Denktash, that the majority of Turkish Cypriots have recently joined vast demonstrations calling for an end to his rule and a federal brotherhood with their Greek co-citizens. Turkey could not hang on to Cyprus for a day without vast tranches of American military aid that shield it from the real cost of the annexation. This aid should be cut off without any further shameful delay: It makes the United States an accomplice in a gross violation of international law and human rights.

3) Armenia. The destruction and dispossession of the Armenian people, in the first ethnocide of the 20th century, is not the responsibility of Turkey’s present-day elected government. Nonetheless, the Turkish authorities continue to deny historical responsibility and even to deny that the massacres occurred at all. Repeated proposals in the U.S. Senate to observe a day for Armenian-Americans (bravely sponsored for years by former Sen. Robert Dole) have been defeated by an alliance of defense contractors owed money by Turkey and an Israeli lobby that desires to avoid offending a “Muslim” ally. It is improbable that Turkey would cease its heavy consumption of American aid if the resolution passed: It is intolerable that aid should be granted as a collusion in such a denial.

A footnote: The Ottoman Empire employed many Kurdish mercenaries as shock troops in the killing of Armenians. I have interviewed Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and heard him offer an apology on the record for this blot: Kurds do not confess to crimes that they have not committed. Thus the moral element in one instance is, as one might expect, inseparably linked to the moral case in another.

It may now be argued that, in order to shorten the period of hostilities with Saddam Hussein and minimize casualties, the Iraqi border should be secured from all directions. But the Turks do not propose to help guarantee this border or to protect those who live within it. Rather, they propose to cross the frontier for no better reason than to aggrandize themselves and to prolong the subjection of their own Kurdish population. This doesn’t just disgrace the regime-change strategy. It actually destabilizes it. And it’s humiliating to see the president begging and bribing the Turks to do the wrong thing and to see them in return reject his offer. He should take their ugly egotism and selfishness as a compliment to his policy, cut off their aid, leave them to put their own case to the European Union, and tell them to get out of Cyprus into the bargain. Then we could be surer that we were really “remaking” the region.