The Washington Times

The famous formulation attributed to National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice about how to handle recriminations for the diplomatic crackup prior to the Iraq war goes as follows: Forgive Russia, ignore Germany, punish France. In Ankara, the capital of Turkey, where a badly fractured parliament narrowly voted against providing access to U.S. ground troops for a massive northern front against Iraq, thereby forfeiting perhaps $24 billion in U.S. assistance, Miss Rice’s formulation has a certain existential resonance.

Where is Turkey? Neither forgiven nor punished, nor perhaps even worth ignoring merely the odd man out.

This is hardly a new feeling for Turks, who have managed to be halfway in and halfway out across most of the burning subjects of the past century. Turkey is an Islamic country but secular. It’s a democracy but one in which the authority of the military is both respected as a bulwark of social stability and feared as a once and future source of oppression. Turkey is not poor but neither is it at all rich. Its Kurdish population includes elements willing to resort to terror in pursuit of an independent Kurdistan as well as many with legitimate grievances against government repression. Turkey is both a European country and an Asian country, and of course, it is situated in about as strategically significant a crossroads as you can find in today’s world, on the way to or from the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and the Caucasus en route to Central Asia.

For many years, the United States has seen Turkey as critical to stability and progress in the region. If you want to imagine something truly unpleasant, try adding on top of all the problems in the area an unstable Turkey or a Turkey under the control of Islamist radicalism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the broadest expression of the American position over the years has been close cooperation on military and security matters. Hence the huge importance vested in the Turkish parliament’s March 1 vote on whether to allow some 62,000 U.S. forces to deploy for a strike into northern Iraq.

Turkey’s parliament actually voted 264-250 in favor of allowing the deployment, with 19 abstentions, but this was three votes short of the absolute majority required for authorization. So we begin with the paradox that a mere three additional votes and the United States and Turkey would have been hailing the decision as a landmark in cooperation.

The complexity of the circumstances extends far beyond that, however. First, the outcome came as a huge surprise to virtually all observers. From the Turkish government, to the leadership of the ruling party, to the Turkish military, to parliamentary leaders, to the opposition party, to the United States and other Western embassies, to the Pentagon and to the various intelligence services monitoring events, the expectation was that, notwithstanding some parliamentary opposition and Turkish public opinion opposed to war in Iraq, the measure would pass.

What went wrong? In a word, just about everything. It was the perfect storm. First, the immaturity of the government and parliament. The moderate Islamic Justice and Development party [AKP] had been swept into office last November with an overwhelming majority, such that the party had to reach deep down into party lists to fill all of its seats, resulting in a large bloc of members with next to no political experience. Second, the government itself was essentially a caretaker, waiting for the once-banned AKP leader Tayyip Erdogan to win a seat in parliament later in March in order to take over as prime minister. Third, was the huge stress of the decision itself: The United States was not exactly knocking with a small request.

Then there was the unseemly character of the way in which the decision was portrayed, as solely about the monetary benefit Turkey would reap by going along, an affront to the pride of some. Also, the Turkish General Staff was subdued in supporting the measure, perhaps not wishing to be seen as exerting too heavy an influence. Finally, 100 days of negotiations on three separate tracks political, military and economic yielded no clear sense of what the relation of the three was or what the real priorities were.

The perverse result was that some significant number of members of parliament voted against the measure even though they wanted it to pass, because they expected it to pass without them a mess all around. Top it off with more than a week’s worth of confusion in the aftermath about whether the parliament might reverse itself.

What now? Well, the northern front, however desirable, turned out not to be essential militarily. That may inject a necessary note of realism into the discussion: The geostrategic importance of Turkey is not really about what Turkey can provide to the United States. It is, rather, about Turkey as such: whether it continues to develop as a self-confident, modern, secular democracy. That, and not punishing, forgiving or ignoring, is the real U.S. priority, and it should be for Turks as well.