Four weeks before the latest war against Iraq, President George W. Bush declared that it would be motivated by a “vision” of democracy and liberation for the entire Middle East.  A U.S.-sponsored regime change in Baghdad, he proclaimed, would “serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.”

Only days later, however, the vote by the national assembly in Ankara to ban the deployment of U.S. troops on Turkish territory highlighted the imbroglio the United States will face if she succeeds in the unlikely task of bringing democracy to the Middle East.

Throughout the region—except in Israel—opposition to the war runs between 94 and 98 percent.  There was nothing more natural, therefore, than for the legislators in Turkey—the only functioning, albeit imperfect, democracy in the Muslim world—to vote in accordance with the wishes of the people, and, in so doing, to resist the bribe of up to $30 billion in cash and loans that Washington had offered to cushion the losses the Turks would incur from the war.  As the Neue Ruhr/ Neue Rhein-Zeitung of Essen pointed out in an editorial two days after the vote, “The Turks are voters, while the people in the Arab countries are inferiors.”  One Turkish MP, Ahmet Faruk Unsall, stated the obvious: “We did some-thing that not even the British parliament, the cradle of democracy, was able to do: we voted with the public.”

The intemperate reaction of the political and media establishment in the United States revealed the extent to which democracy, to them, does not signify the broad participation of informed citizens in the business of governance but the desirable political content of ostensibly popular decisions.  The desired outcome (joining the United States in waging war) is inherently good; therefore, the process of reaching it is “democratic.”

The Wall Street Journal betrayed this mindset when it declared, in a March 4 editorial, that “democracies are messy” and lambasted Turkish politicians for bowing to “short-sighted domestic politics”:

Turkish opinion polls show large opposition to an Iraq war.  But then the role of political leaders is supposed to be to shape public opinion, not follow it, especially when the benefits of assisting the US are so obvious. . . . The Turkish military had failed to speak up at a crucial moment apparently in order to embarrass the new Islamic-leaning government.

The Journal, a faithful echo of the Bush administration, explicitly denounced Turkey’s generals for not forcing the reversal of a democratic vote in parliament by, for instance, using the threat of a military coup.  Since the Turkish military has carried out four coups—each backed by the United States—since 1960, the Journal’s nostalgia for those unmessy times is perfectly understandable.

In Turkey itself, the pro-government daily Zaman stressed the gap between “a proud decision” by deputies and Turkey’s strategic interests in Kurdish-inhabited northern Iraq.  The top-circulation Hurriyet was more explicit:

The United States has started playing its “Kurdish card” in an ugly way.  It is the U.S. who deliberately provokes the anti-Turkey sentiment in northern Iraq . . . The Turkish parliament’s decision to prevent an American-Turkish intervention in northern Iraq is exactly what the Kurdish groups want.  Thus they should be thanking the Turkish parliament instead of burning the flags.

Another newspaper, the Milliyet, noted that the parliamentary vote opens new options for Turkey:

The U.S. will leave eventually, and Turkey will have to live side by side with Kurds and Armenians.  If we manage to take this trump card from the U.S. hands, we can possibly overcome this dilemma.  It is possible to turn the region into a center of attraction where everybody—Turks, Kurds, Armenians and Arabs—live together in harmony and brotherhood.  This is the only way not to bow to this aggression for the sake of pennies.

Such lofty sentiments were not found in Britain’s Financial Times, which stressed the precariousness of Turkey’s public finances, weighed down by government debt of about $100 billion: “The possible loss, therefore of a $24 billion package of US grants and soft loans . . . could be a hammer blow to its recovering economy.”

Le Figaro concluded, with similar cynicism, that Turkey’s “stab in the back” came too late to keep the United States from striking alone and pointed out that, in this instance, Turkey proved herself more “European” than “The Eight” who had signed the letter of obedience to Washington.  Hessischer Rundfunk radio of Frankfurt sounded the same theme—Turkey’s demerit in Washington is a brownie point in Brussels:

Turkey refused to be bought.  Even though it may not be able to maintain its “no” because of its economic dependence on the United States and is unable to stop war against Iraq, it made clear that it considers military moves to be too risky.  The fact that the Turkish generals stayed out of the controversy over the U.S. deployment of forces and left the decision to politicians corresponds to EU demands.  In Brussels, [the E.U.] should examine and honor the vote from Ankara.  Turkey proved to be worthy of Europe.

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung of Munich barely kept its gloating tone in check as it hailed the decision of the Turks, who were, until recently, considered the most loyal political and military partner of the United States at Europe’s periphery:

That is why the Turkish “no” hits the United States harder than all anti-war commitments from Berlin.  The defeat at the Iraqi northern front will not stop war if Washington really wants it.  But it is now making George W. Bush even more lonesome.  In the case of Turkey, the United States also used a strategy that was composed of thumbscrews and dollars.  But with such a strategy, the Turks felt treated like the inhabitants of a banana republic.

Turkey ostensibly hesitated to give Washington carte blanche, the paper says, because she is afraid that the United States would not stick to her political and financial pledges; that, however, is not the main reason.  For Ankara, more is at stake than the best deal: The new conservative government does not want to lose popular support, and the Turkish people are almost unanimously opposed to the war: “The Turkish government is torn between the anger of its own people and the fury of its most powerful ally.”

In Italy, Il Giorno opined that

Turkey was put in a very thorny situation: Can it favor a war whose consequences would be greatly to its detriment?  Dollars cannot buy everything, as the Americans believe. . . . Are a few extra oil wells worth alienating friends, favoring the real enemies, splitting NATO, provoking world disorder and killing tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians?

Further to the left, La Repubblica described “the rebellion by the Turkish Parliament” as a severe political defeat for Washington, a visible confirmation of the large gap between European and American feelings:

The clash is no longer just between two different visions of the Iraqi crisis and two possible solutions, but between two worlds that move according to different timetables. . . . Turkey is the litmus test of the uneasiness that the messianic tone implied in a crusade for the “liberation of Arabia” is provoking among those who should receive Bush as a liberator.

Most Israeli commentators mistakenly expressed confidence that the Turks would eventually change their mind.  In Ha’aretz, Zeev Schiff pointed out that, should Turkey persist in her refusal to accept U.S. troops in her territory, she could suffer huge direct and indirect economic losses:

Turkey could lose a significant part of its influence on future developments in northern Iraq’s Kurdish areas.  Its vital interests could subsequently come to harm. . . . [Turkey] does not have the importance another Muslim state—Pakistan—had during the Afghanistan War.  U.S. forces could enter Iraq from other directions and it is believed that the main battle will take place around Baghdad.

In Riyadh, the Saudi Gazette hailed the news from Ankara: “This development certainly strengthens the Arab position; the Turkish vote indicates which way the wind is blowing in this region.”  However, in Egypt, the pro-government Al-Akhbar concluded that the Turks would eventually succumb to U.S. pressure: “Because of its strategic alliances with the West and America, its deteriorating economy, Turkey will have to agree to the deployment of U.S. forces and heavy equipment.”  

The most interesting comment from the Arab world came in Lebanon’s As-Safir:

The affair that is so unethical that it amounts to a global scandal is the “dialogue” that Washington initiated in order to persuade Turkey to effectively [sic] join the war.  In order to please Turkey, the Americans abandoned every “ethical” commitment toward the Kurds.  They allowed Ankara to send troops to northern Iraq, and they promised that the Kurdish forces would not enter Kirkuk.  Turkey set a price and the United States set a price. . . . The whole world lived the details of the bazaar, the results of which might control the “democratic” fate of the Middle East and determine if this democracy will be achieved and at which price.

America’s “loss of face” was a frequent theme in the Chinese press, as well as the subject of an editorial in Singapore’s Straits Times:

The fact that Turkey, the only democracy in the Middle East, has not found Mr. Bush’s vision of a transformed Middle East enticing enough to back US war plans shows how low America’s credibility has sunk in the world. . . . Having raised the stakes so high—nothing less than the transformation of the entire Middle East—how is Mr. Bush going to accomplish such a colossal task without the support of his key allies, let alone regional powers like Turkey?  A diplomatic strategy that ignores the doubts of many, that keeps changing the goalposts, that is endlessly flexible in the justification it offers for war—regime change, regional transformation—is not calculated to win the confidence of the global community.

In reality, the “global community” does not exist, and its “confidence”—or lack thereof—does not matter.  What matters to U.S. interests is that the tension with Turkey vividly illustrates the warning I made in these pages after the Islamic AKP’s victory last fall: Turkey remains proverbially torn between East and West.  Although she has managed to retain a small piece of Europe’s southeastern corner, recent political events indicate that the pull of the East remains strong.  To the discomfort of her Westernized secular elite, she stubbornly remains Asian and Muslim.

The tensions resulting from Ankara’s submission to U.S. pressure may cause dangerous long-term fissures in Turkey’s body politic.  The only winners will be the Muslims who have always regarded Mustafa Kemal’s Republic as a temporary aberration.