Toward The Point Of No Return

If the Bush administration and Congress set out to deliberately undermine the Turkish government and its efforts to modernize the country, they couldn't have done a better job than they are doing already. Likewise if they wanted to push a democratic Muslim state and a vital NATO ally out of the American orbit. And to further destabilize Iraq.

Under the ruling AK Party, which won reelection in July with a crushing mandate, Ankara had laid out an ambitious and contentious domestic reform program, which would have included a revamp of the current military-drafted Constitution and could have strengthened Turkey's pro-Western democracy by expanding freedom of expression and civil rights, addressing the Kurdish issue and asserting civilian control over the military. Washington's missteps have now forced Turkey to shift its focus toward foreign policy. A rare moment for change may have been lost.

The United States' errors have been twofold. First, the House of Representatives has come dangerously close to passing a resolution recognizing the 1915 Armenian genocide. The measure was approved in committee but its passage by the full House is now in doubt (a result of Turkish threats and pleas from the president).

Similar resolutions have surfaced periodically over the years at the urging of the U.S. Armenian community. Yet the timing of the current measure couldn't have been worse. After long opposing the 'genocide' label, Turks have recently started discussing the events of 1915 much more openly. They have not yet come to grips with their history and see Congress's meddling as a gratuitous blow against a major ally that would open the way to reparations claims.

It's hard to say what Ankara will do if the resolution does indeed pass the full House. The pressure on Turkey to respond would be intense, yet its options would be limited. Like Washington, Ankara is susceptible to domestic pressure and it could be forced to take measures that are in neither country's interests—such as denying Washington access to Incirlik Air Base, which is vital to U.S. military operations in Iraq.

The United States' second big error has been its continued unwillingness to deal seriously with the PKK problem. Denounced as terrorists by both the Turkish and U.S. governments, the Kurdish separatists have stepped up attacks in Turkey in recent months, using Iraqi Kurdistan as a base and staging ground. The Turkish public is incensed by the bloodshed and the American inaction and is demanding a hard-edged response, including a full-scale military operation across the border. For years, Ankara has repeatedly pressed the Bush administration (as well as the Iraqi Kurds) to deal with the problem. Apart from U.S. expressions of sympathy for Turkish casualties, little has happened. More than a year ago, Washington did appoint a highly regarded former NATO commander as a negotiator between the parties, but it gave him little to negotiate with. While George W. Bush is thought to favor firm action, his power on this issue seems not to extend beyond the White House lawn.

Turkey's patience is finally running out. The result of America's inaction could be disastrous: last week Turkey's Parliament authorized Ankara to carry out a cross-border operation any time in the next year. Any sizeable incursion could draw in Iraqi troops, revive nationalism among Turkey's Kurds, and shatter the calm and prosperity of northern Iraq.

The damage to U.S.-Turkish ties could be deep and long-standing. Already the PKK problem is sapping the political strength and focus of Turkey's progressive government, making it increasingly difficult for it to risk the fallout of wholesale democratic reform. Were the conflict to heat up, reform would get even less attention.

America's standing in Turkey has had many ups and downs over the years, rising when Washington supported Turkey's admission to NATO or the EU, falling over differences regarding Cyprus or the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq and the advent of a Kurdish ministate have caused a long decline. Now the genocide resolution and Washington's indifference to the PKK have vastly exacerbated Turkish hostility.

The tragedy is that this was all avoidable. Turkish leaders have made it clear during the past year that they don't want to carry out a major military operation in northern Iraq, despite the PKK's provocations. Even the recent move by Parliament may have been a final attempt to pressure Washington into acting. If the United States refuses, domestic politics could well force Ankara's hand.

Washington can still mend the breach—if it rallies its Iraqi and Kurdish allies to block PKK operations and drops the ill-timed genocide resolution. This is a defining moment in Turkish-American relations. Only action, not more words, will resolve the crisis now.