Listening to Prime Minister Erdogan’s amped-up rhetoric against the United States and Israel makes me genuinely scared for my country. I believe that people should be able to think for themselves, and to assess a situation based on the facts, not based on someone trying to make them afraid or blame some outside “bogeyman” for what’s going wrong with their lives or their country. It’s time to see those tactics for what they are: popular demagogy is a manipulative act that requires close scrutiny as people are looking toward the future to what they could become.
Look, for example, at how Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan reacted to the recent attack by the separatist Kurdish terrorist organization, PKK, near the Iraqi border, which killed nine soldiers. That attack coincided with Israel’s disastrous military operation on a Turkish flagged ship bound for Gaza with a clear anti-Israel stand and a dubious humanitarian purpose. “My beloved people know well whose subcontractor PKK is,” Erdogan said in the immediate aftermath of this heinous attack implying that Israel was behind it—an accusation that Maj. Gen. Fahri Kır, the head of the Turkish military’s internal security operations, debunked as untrue.
It is not only about Israel. Turks are suspicious of the United States, too—skeptical about the U.S. upholding their 2007 pledge to share “actionable intelligence.” Many have claimed that if the U.S. shared the intelligence in a timely way, the Turkish military would have stopped the PKK terrorists either on the Iraqi side or the border or when they crossed into Turkey. “We want to know all they have,” said Cemil Cicek, the Turkish government’s spokesman, when asked whether the U.S. was sharing intelligence—denying to clear the doubt on the cooperation. While Turkey is gathering intelligence against the PKK with the help of the U.S. and Israel, Ilker Basbug, Turkey’s Chief of General Staff, offered a very clear message this week. “The border region between Turkey and Iraq is one of the most difficult geographies in the world,” he said prior to Cicek’s comment. “I do not agree with those statements that there was a lack of intelligence before the attack in Hakkari.”
Clearly, many Turks are comfortable blaming the U.S. and Israel for every negative thing that happens to them. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates added fuel to the fire by offering a reminder that Turkey has long been disappointed at not being able to become a full member of the European Union. “I personally think that if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed—and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought,” he said.
Turks—and everyone else, it seems—are divided over the notion that their country is turning away from the West toward East. Both sides of the argument claim they know better and that their vision for Turkey is much clearer on the “big picture.” The debates go on and on, and while they argue, these “big thinkers” are running a very big risk of getting today right.
That is to say, I disagree with Gates. Turks are surely puzzled about the EU’s intentions. But what is the point of tirelessly arguing as to whether the country has shifted sides? The issue to me is that the country is recklessly selling out its friends for popular demagogy. In recent times, Turkey has accomplished to offend almost all of its special friends. And without those long time hardly won friends, Turkey may walk to its isolation and get lonely when faced with hardships.
Now, let’s take a detour in trying to explain this point. Israel undoubtedly helped to raise Turkey’s image in the U.S. Despite the fact that Turkey is a NATO member, the country is still largely an unknown in the U.S. What many Americans know about Turkey comes from their belief that what happened to the Armenians during World War I constitutes “genocide”—or from watching or hearing about Midnight Express. Turkey’s image has always been a violent one. But its relationship with Israel helped to give people a different picture. Today’s Turkish leaders fail to understand that the U.S. support for Israel is not solely won by the Jewish lobby; a broad cross section of American people genuinely support Israel’s safety and well-being, next to strong criticism of its policy decisions. Turkish leaders must learn to pay attention to the delicate balance of malicious talk and friendly criticism. They’re, unfortunately, lost in balance.
While Erdogan may like to cast doubt over Israel’s role behind the recent PKK attacks, I went back to look at my handwritten notes while covering PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s trial as a BBC reporter on the island of Imrali more than a decade ago. To many Turks, this man was single-handedly responsible for killings at least 30,000 of their brethren—and during the trial, he provided a long list of supporters. Despite Erdogan’s illusionist rhetoric to create a flawless past between Turks and Arabs—and I, as a Turk, am really not taking into account as to how Arab nations carved land from the Ottoman Empire—Ocalan provided detailed information concerning the support that PKK got from Muslim nations like Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya. Neither the U.S. nor Israel were among them. But these two countries have been tirelessly accused of having policies to divide land from Turkey in order to create an independent Kurdistan, while Arab Muslim states’ involvement is kept totally off the hook. It’s definitely a virtue for people as well as countries to forgive each other’s mistakes and move on. We can’t live in the past. Yet we may get lost if we lose our memory!
So, I’m just wondering why Erdogan presents itself willing to hide the mistakes of Muslim nations’ role in support of the PKK while provoking Turks to be suspicious of only the U.S. and Israel’s involvement behind those terrorist attacks without showing any evidence. And if, let’s say, Prime Minister Erdogan is right and the PKK is being used as a subcontractor by foreign powers, and if Arab Muslim nations support to PKK changed just because he is able to reach out to them by slamming Israel day in and day out, what will the Arabs do if Turks elect Erdogan out of office in the next general election? What if there is no Western plot against Turkey, but an Eastern one?
It’s about time that Turkey acknowledges that it was a mistake to refuse to allow the United States to invade Iraq via its land. But it is also time to remember that it was the Arab League that warned Turkey that it should not send its troops in alongside U.S. forces to Iraq because the Ottoman Empire once controlled these lands. While the Arab League had no control over the U.S. policy concerning Iraq, they were able to keep Turkish troops away. But if Turkey were to be on the U.S. side from the beginning, may be there would be less or no PKK attack today from Iraqi Kurdistan into Turkey.
Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this week is a new blow against the separatist Kurdish terrorist organization, PKK. In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the court decided that U.S. groups can’t split hairs to provide material support of a terrorist group’s “non violent” activities. Humanitarian Law Project was arguing that they were trying to help the PKK members to achieve what they want without using violence. Gunay Evinch, president of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, told me, “This is a big victory for Turkey. The court is also implicitly saying that supporters of PKK are anti-Turks. Any support to PKK will be considered a criminal act.” Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has not yet publicly acknowledged the significance of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
To conclude, Erdogan’s obsessive criticism of Israel over the Gaza operation may contain some truths—but he’s gone overboard. With his strong oratory skill, he pushed the envelope to rally the Muslim rage against the state of Israel when the Israeli military operation ended with nine Turks dead on Mavi Marmara. He sidelined the fact that other ships—on the same day—peacefully cooperated with Israeli authorities while carrying humanitarian aid to Gazans. Whatever the reasons and failures of this tragedy, Turks will always remember that Israeli soldiers killed Turks. While Erdogan made the Palestinian issue one of his priorities, these Turks were killed helping the Hamas-controlled Gaza. Whereas the U.S. and Israel provided help protecting Turkey’s security in the fight against PKK terrorism for decades. For the first time in their 87 years of nationhood, Turks saw in pictures that one of their own killed by a foreign soldier. But longtime Arab Muslim aid to the PKK ended thousands lives. I don’t know whether it really matters so much who pulled the trigger at the end. What matters is, Erdogan’s policies did not make the country safer.
Based in Washington, D.C., Tülin Daloglu is a Turkish-born journalist.