Iraq, Europe and the US: Shifting Dynamics in Turkish Policy?
The Southeast Europe Project, in conjunction with the West European Studies Program, held a discussion on Friday, March 21, 2005.
Mr. Alkis Courcoulas opened his presentation with a discussion of the changes occurring in Turkey, due to deteriorating bilateral relations with the US during and after the war in Iraq, Turkey's EU accession prospects, and to the recent upsurge of "anti-Americanism" in the country. These changes have been affecting Turkish society as well as Turkey's perception of its position in the world.
Turkey, according to Mr. Courcoulas, has recently witnessed spectacular changes pertaining to domestic as well as foreign policy issues. These include a change in power, with the November 2002 election of the Justice and Development party (AKP); a change in Turkey's perception of its current geopolitical position after the Cold War; considerable progress towards European integration; and new fears of a Kurdish separatist campaign, as a result of the Iraq war. While these developments confirm previous efforts of U.S. government officials to promote Turkish democratization, recently they have been portrayed on the canvas of anti-Americanism. Mr. Courcoulas noted that "a movement in the public opinion and the government, that has allegedly been influenced by Islamic tendencies, is alienating Turkey from the west, producing virulent forms of anti-American feelings and stalling the progress towards the EU."
Expressing his views on the upsurge of anti-American feelings, he stated that a distinction should be drawn between such sentiments and the negative feelings concerning the war in Iraq. In addition, to understand the domestic political concerns existing in Turkey, one should take into account the regional challenges the war in Iraq has created for Turkey, the importance of the ongoing Kurdish issue, and its implications for Turkish nationalistic ideals.
The new geopolitical role of Turkey since the end of the Cold War has to some extent affected changes in Turkish society. Turkey's role for many decades was to help contain the Soviet Union, which required both domestic control and regional influence. The alliance between the Kemalist regime and American influence, and the strong opposition to the former, led to a violent anti-American movement in the 1970s, where U.S.-funded institutions had to change their names and locations to avoid aggressive flare-ups. These sentiments were linked to a global wave of anti-Americanism with the Vietnam War, especially apparent in Europe. However, since the 1980s, other forces have been on the rise strongly criticizing the military's influential role in Turkish society, and slowly transforming the country into a more open democratic state.
On the EU front, the clear dynamic behind Turkey's path has surprised international actors in the last three years. According to Mr. Courcoulas, most of the credit for the spectacular changes should be attributed to the AKP government, even though support of important interest groups and work of the previous government considerably assisted in bringing about Turkey's candidacy. The internal criticism against AKP, he maintained, should have been expected, given that the rapid course of actions was bound to leave some people frustrated or alienated. The Greek experience in the 1970s and 1980s during its own EU accession process, he noted, in many respects had been similar to internal Turkish politics today.
Mr. Courcoulas pointed out that during the first Gulf War, Turkey's Kurdish problems were easily overlooked due to the broad international support for the war. Deciding not to take part in the second Iraq war was linked to the overwhelming European opposition to the war and Turkey's EU orientation, apart from the serious internal concerns with respect to national security. Lately, Turkey's public opinion polls show that the country's sentiments are harmonizing with those across Europe, with respect to the war and to President Bush's international policies; according to Mr. Courcoulas this further demonstrates Turkey's consolidating European identity.
Anti-Americanism has been a recurring phenomenon in Turkey and seems a natural phenomenon of the region. Mr. Courcoulas claimed that major American educational institutions in the region have been fostering opposition to American policies, generation after generation. This paradox is essential in understanding local realities. For more than thirty years, Turkey's republican secular elites, especially from the extreme left and extreme right, have held in high esteem politicians openly expressing anti-American sentiments. This basis also includes the infamous Johnson letter of 1964, the US arms embargo of the late 1970's, and the perception that the US is sympathetic to Greek Cypriots.
Mr. Courcoulas concluded that there exists a new dynamic powered by the new regional realignment, Turkey's EU orientation, and the changes inherent within the Turkish society. Recent events linked to the Iraq war prevented AKP from appearing overly supportive of US policies, while the overwhelming anti-war feelings compelled Turkey to align with Europe's strategy toward the Middle East.