October 13, 2003
DENVER - In a momentous decision, Turkey's parliament voted decisively to aid the US military occupation of Iraq by sending a substantial number of troops. When and how many is uncertain.
Washington is delighted. Having run out of troops itself, the US is arm-twisting and bribing all and sundry to send soldiers to Iraq. Not surprisingly, few nations are eager to risk their men in strife-torn Iraq. India and Pakistan, for example, refused American pressure to send large numbers of men to Iraq. But Uncle Sam has a very powerful inducement: money and trade. Turkey shows just how loudly cash talks with near-bankrupt nations.
Turkey is an important military power. The Turkish Army of 402,000 men is NATO's second largest after the United States. Though Turkey's armed forces suffer from outdated arms and wobbly logistics, its soldiers are renowned for courage and tenacity.
Great warriors, yes, but, as Ottoman history shows, hopeless when it comes to money. Much of the Empire's commercial affairs were conducted by peoples who keenly understood money: Greeks, Jews, and Armenians.
Once the Ottoman Empire stopped expanding by conquest, it began a long, painful process of economic decline that led to its collapse after World War I.
Today, as usual, Turkey is in dire economic straits. Thanks to wild overspending and a defense budget too large for this nation of 67.6 million, Turkey's economy is on the rocks. Inflation is over 30%, bank crises are endemic, corruption rampant, and a powerful military-industrial complex holds the economy in a stranglehold.
Worst of all, previous free-spending governments ran up a huge external debt of US $118.3 billion that requires crushing interest payments and all too frequent, heart-stopping repayment of large tranches of maturing debt.
Since 1999 alone, Turkey has borrowed $30 billion from the International Monetary Fund.
Turkey's unsustainable debt problem perfectly illustrates how nations with weak economies and large debt lose their independence and become beholden to foreign powers.
Turkey cannot repay its debts. But failure to do so would mean an Argentine-style collapse of the already shaky currency, bank failures, a stock market collapse, cut-offs of imports, notably oil (Turkey has none), and a host of other dire consequences. To keep its debt ball rolling, Turkey must keep borrowing from international lenders. Old loans are paid off by new loans in what amounts to a giant Ponzi scheme.
Enter Uncle Sam. The US and the world financial agencies it controls, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, keep lending and re-lending to Turkey. Each time Turkey suffers a new financial crisis, Washington rushes in to prop up its finances and government.
Last spring, when Washington was preparing for war, it demanded Ankara allow US troops to invade Iraq from eastern Turkey. PM Recep Erdogan's new, Islamic-light government in Ankara the first genuinely popular, freely elected government in memory refused, in spite of intense pressure from the US and the Turkish Army's too-powerful, rightist generals, a virtual government unto themselves. The refusal was wildly popular among Turks, but Uncle Sam soon began cutting off the flow of money and threatening restrictions on Turkish cotton exports to the US market.
Eventually, this pressure and worsening finances forced Turkey's government to accede to US demands over Iraq, in spite of strong opposition by 70-80% of the public.
Just weeks after Washington announced $8.5 billion in desperately-needed new loans to Ankara, Turkey agreed to send troops to Iraq. Erdogan and his AKP had stood up to Washington, at least long enough to save national honor. Now it was time to take the American loans to stave off bankruptcy.
Money was the dominant but not sole reason for Turkey's decision to intervene in Iraq. After waging a 20-year war against Kurdish separatist PKK guerrillas, Ankara wishes to occupy Kurdish regions of northern Iraq to crush PKK activity there and monitor Iraq's two, US-created Kurdish mini-states. Northern Iraq's vast oilfields remain the object of passionate, if discreet, Turkish desire. Today's Iraq was a part of the Ottoman Empire for 500 years until Imperial Britain grabbed the resource-rich region after WWI.
Almost lost in the clamor over Turkey's decision were angry chirpings from the US-installed, Vichy `ruling council' in Baghdad, which, for a figurehead regime, had the audacity to protest the dispatch of Turkish troops to Iraq. Many Iraqis fear once Turkish troops come, they may never go.
The de facto partition of Iraq, long predicted by this column, could be accelerating. Washington may decide to carve up the country into `Iraq utile,' as France used to define Chad, and `Iraq inutile', or useful and useless Iraq. Oil is in the north and southeast. Let the Turks and Kurds divvy up the north; the US and Britain will control the bigger southeast fields; the oiless Sunni triangle, where resistance to US occupation is fiercest, will be sealed off and left in isolation.
Most Turks bitterly oppose intervention in Iraq. But their politicians cannot face them and admit, `it's either rent out our troops as mercenaries - oops, `peacekeepers' - or watch the lights go out when we run out of imported fuel.'
Either way, it's a very hard choice for proud Turks, and one that will certainly generate even more anti-Americanism in a nation that used to love America.