A momentary hiccup

One should not be overly surprised if an outside observer thinks that US-Turkish relations are on a downward slide. A series of press articles in the US media of late have highlighted the strident anti-American rhetoric in the Turkish media. Much has also been made of a newly published Turkish novel depicting an American invasion of Turkey and the successful Turkish resistance. Against the backdrop of differences on Iraq policy, the American press has implicitly questioned the very nature of the Turkish-American alliance, one that dates to the beginning of the Cold War.

It is true that the Turkish press is replete with vitriolic attacks on the US. As an added flavor, many of these articles also carry anti-Semitic (as distinct from anti- Israeli) messages. Accusations against the US range from deliberately causing the Asian Tsunami to instigating riots in Turkey and trying to carve up the country. Opinion polls also show that President Bush is disliked by some 82 percent of the Turkish public, the highest among America’s allies.

Anti-Americanism in Turkey is not new and, therefore, the latest diatribes in the Turkish media have to be taken in stride. What is different from the US perspective, however, is the contamination of the political and bureaucratic elite’s discourse by such sentiments. This was most apparent when a leading member of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) accused the US of committing genocide in Falluja, or when a senior military commander directly accused the US of complicity in the murder of Turkish special agents traveling through northern Iraq. Equally unfathomable was the accusation by the main opposition leader that the emergence of a challenger against his leadership in his own party was a plot concocted in Washington. It appears that he convinced himself that the US administration, bent on revenge for the failure of the March 1, 2003 parliamentary vote seeking authorization for the opening of a second front against Iraq, decided to target him. As incorrect or stupendous as were these charges, almost no one in a Turkish leadership position had the courage to challenge them.

At the heart of this new wave of anti-Americanism in Turkey lies a deep sense of anxiety and uncertainty about the radical changes in Turkey’s political environment and domestic politics. Different groups have embraced this discourse for their own particular reasons. Although the unpopularity of the war in Iraq and unbecoming US conduct play a major role, they is not the sole reason. After all, the war is unpopular in many other countries.

The change began immediately after 9/11. Just as in the Arab world, many in Turkey were deeply disturbed by the image of a confrontation between the West and Islam that these attacks seemed to conjure. Unable to accept al-Qaeda’s role, those sympathetic to Islamist causes sought to blame their usual suspects, CIA, Mossad etc. The glow that President Clinton had created in Turkey with his 1999 visit and his decision to deliver to the Turks the fugitive leader of the Kurdish insurgency on a silver platter was extinguished almost overnight.

The war in Iraq and the ensuing insurgency refocused Turkey’s attention on the Kurds. Ankara has always feared the contagion effect of Kurdish independence and autonomy in northern Iraq, and had made it its solemn cause to prevent either of these from materializing. The emergence of the Iraqi Kurds as an important, if not indispensable, player has reawakened Turkish fears of a rekindling of Turkish Kurdish activism. In addition, Turks became convinced that the US was bent on punishing them for rejecting the second front option despite the Bush administration’s signals to the contrary.

Turkey’s own fears and insecurities have allowed it to suspect US motives and intentions in Iraq. Almost everyone in Turkey is convinced that the US is intent on establishing an independent Kurdish state in Iraq–despite years of contrary rhetoric and assurances–either to reward the Kurds for their help in the war or as part of a grand design to remake the Middle East. It is not that Turks and Americans disagree on what they would like to see happen in Iraq. It is that they cannot agree on what ought to happen in the event conditions go awry and Iraq falls apart.

It is ironic that Turks, who have finally managed to get the European Union to open the door to accession talks after many years of trying, would feel far from confident about their future prospects. Yet for some, the EU is a poisoned chalice precisely because it proscribes changes that will force the democratization of the Turkish political space. Inevitably, this would entail the articulation of dissident voices and demands–primarily, although not exclusively, Kurdish ones–which they fear will gnaw away at the unity of the republic. Even the government, which pushed so hard with its audacious reform agenda to obtain a date from the EU, seems to have lost its elan and has stumbled on Iraq.

These fears are culminating in what can best be described as a "nationalist moment". From the extreme right as one would expect to the extreme left, there has been a rallying around symbolic issues. These have ranged from the Turkish-speaking Turkmen in Iraq who performed miserably in the January 30 elections to the mundane, such as the characterization of Turks in American television shows.

This moment will not last forever. Much of the disagreements on Iraq can be resolved amicably and with patient dialogue. The rest will be taken care of in time. If Turks are worried about how America portrays them on television, it is because they care about American attitudes. Washington, on the other hand, also knows that Turkish diplomacy may be slow and hard to influence, but in the end it has rarely failed the US.