By ROBERT L. POLLOCK
February 16, 2005; Page A14
ANKARA, Turkey — Several years ago I attended an exhibition in Istanbul. The theme was local art from the era of the country’s last military coup (1980). But the artists seemed a lot more concerned with the injustices of global capitalism than the fate of Turkish democracy. In fact, to call the works leftist caricatures — many featured fat capitalists with Uncle Sam hats and emaciated workers — would have been an understatement. As one astute local reviewer put it (I quote from memory): “This shows that Turkish artists were willing to abase themselves voluntarily in ways that Soviet artists refused even at the height of Stalin’s oppression.”
That exhibition came to mind amid all the recent gnashing of teeth in the U.S. over the question of “Who lost Turkey?” Because it shows that a 50-year special relationship, between longtime NATO allies who fought Soviet expansionism together starting in Korea, has long had to weather the ideological hostility and intellectual decadence of much of Istanbul’s elite. And at the 2002 election, the increasingly corrupt mainstream parties that had championed Turkish-American ties self-destructed, leaving a vacuum that was filled by the subtle yet insidious Islamism of the Justice and Development (AK) Party. It’s this combination of old leftism and new Islamism — much more than any mutual pique over Turkey’s refusal to side with us in the Iraq war — that explains the collapse in relations.
And what a collapse it has been. On a brief visit to Ankara earlier this month with Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith, I found a poisonous atmosphere — one in which just about every politician and media outlet (secular and religious) preaches an extreme combination of America- and Jew-hatred that (like the Turkish artists) voluntarily goes far further than anything found in most of the Arab world’s state-controlled press. If I hesitate to call it Nazi-like, that’s only because Goebbels would probably have rejected much of it as too crude.
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Consider the Islamist newspaper Yeni Safak, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s favorite. A Jan. 9 story claimed that U.S. forces were tossing so many Iraqi bodies into the Euphrates that mullahs there had issued a fatwa prohibiting residents from eating its fish. Yeni Safak has also repeatedly claimed that U.S. forces used chemical weapons in Fallujah. One of its columnists has alleged that U.S. soldiers raped women and children there and left their bodies in the streets to be eaten by dogs. Among the paper’s “scoops” have been the 1,000 Israeli soldiers deployed alongside U.S. forces in Iraq, and that U.S. forces have been harvesting the innards of dead Iraqis for sale on the U.S. “organ market.”
It’s not much better in the secular press. The mainstream Hurriyet has accused Israeli hit squads of assassinating Turkish security personnel in Mosul, and the U.S. of starting an occupation of Indonesia under the guise of humanitarian assistance. At Sabah, a columnist last fall accused the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman, of letting his “ethnic origins” — guess what, he’s Jewish — determine his behavior. Mr. Edelman is indeed the all-too-rare foreign-service officer who takes seriously his obligation to defend America’s image and interests abroad. The intellectual climate in which he’s operating has gone so mad that he actually felt compelled to organize a conference call with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey to explain that secret U.S. nuclear testing did not cause the recent tsunami.
Never in an ostensibly friendly country have I had the impression of embassy staff so besieged. Mr. Erdogan’s office recently forbade Turkish officials from attending a reception at the ambassador’s residence in honor of the “Ecumenical” Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, who resides in Istanbul. Why? Because “ecumenical” means universal, which somehow makes it all part of a plot to carve up Turkey.
Perhaps the most bizarre anti-American story au courant in the Turkish capital is the “eighth planet” theory, which holds not only that the U.S. knows of an impending asteroid strike, but that we know it’s going to hit North America. Hence our desire to colonize the Middle East.
It all sounds loony, I know. But such stories are told in all seriousness at the most powerful dinner tables in Ankara. The common thread is that almost everything the U.S. is doing in the world — even tsunami relief — has malevolent motivations, usually with the implication that we’re acting as muscle for the Jews.
In the face of such slanders Turkish politicians have been utterly silent. In fact, Turkish parliamentarians themselves have accused the U.S. of “genocide” in Iraq, while Mr. Erdogan (who we once hoped would set for the Muslim world an example of democracy) was among the few world leaders to question the legitimacy of the Iraqi elections. When confronted, Turkish pols claim they can’t risk going against “public opinion.”
All of which makes Mr. Erdogan a prize hypocrite for protesting to Condoleezza Rice the unflattering portrayal of Turkey in an episode of the fictional TV show “The West Wing.” The episode allegedly depicts Turkey as having been taken over by a retrograde populist government that threatens women’s rights. (Sounds about right to me.)
In the old days, Turkey would have had an opposition party strong enough to bring such a government closer to sanity. But the only opposition now is a moribund Republican People’s Party, or CHP, once the party of Ataturk. At a recent party congress, its leader accused his main challenger of having been part of a CIA plot against him. That’s not to say there aren’t a few comparatively pro-U.S. officials left in the current government and the state bureaucracies. But they’re afraid to say anything in public. In private, they whine endlessly about trivial things the U.S. “could have done differently.”
Entirely forgotten is that President Bush was among the first world leaders to recognize Prime Minister Erdogan, while Turkey’s own legal system was still weighing whether he was secular enough for the job. Forgotten have been decades of U.S. military assistance. Forgotten have been years of American efforts to secure a pipeline route for Caspian oil that terminates at the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Forgotten has been the fact that U.S. administrations continue to fight annual attempts in Congress to pass a resolution condemning modern Turkey for the long-ago Armenian genocide. Forgotten has been America’s persistent lobbying for Turkish membership in the European Union.
Forgotten, above all, has been America’s help against the PKK. Its now-imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was expelled from Syria in 1998 after the Turks threatened military action. He was then passed like a hot potato between European governments, who refused to extradite him to Turkey because — gasp! — he might face the death penalty. He was eventually caught — with the help of U.S. intelligence — sheltered in the Greek Embassy in Nairobi. “They gave us Ocalan. What could be bigger than that?” says one of a handful of unapologetically pro-U.S. Turks I still know.
I know that Mr. Feith (another Jew, the Turkish press didn’t hesitate to note), and Ms. Rice after him, pressed Turkish leaders on the need to challenge some of the more dangerous rhetoric if they value the Turkey-U.S. relationship. There is no evidence yet that they got a satisfactory answer. Turkish leaders should understand that the “public opinion” they cite is still reversible. But after a few more years of riding the tiger, who knows? Much of Ataturk’s legacy risks being lost, and there won’t be any of the old Ottoman grandeur left, either. Turkey could easily become just another second-rate country: small-minded, paranoid, marginal and — how could it be otherwise? — friendless in America and unwelcome in Europe.