This week I attended an impressive Fourth of July party at the American Consulate General in Istanbul, Turkey. Dignitaries from other consulates and embassies packed the courtyard, along with many special Turkish guests. Food booths from Starbucks, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and another dozen international companies served loads of free food and drinks to the guests. Everyone got a lapel pin with the Turkish and American flags side by side. It was a massive effort sponsored by the Consulate to improve the image of the U.S. in Turkey.
In spite of the gourmet coffee and champagne, the atmosphere never quite reached a festive peak. In a recent Pew Poll measuring the attitudes of countries around the world toward their neighbors and toward the United States, Turkey showed up with the least favorable attitude toward the U.S. government and the American people, coming in behind even the Palestinian territories and Iraq. Turks also reported that they view the U.S. as their greatest national security threat. Turks feel grumpy, very.
But why? For decades Turkey and the U.S. have basically enjoyed a positive alliance as members of NATO. In a politically unstable region, the U.S. has consistently counted on Turkey. Times have changed. Turks deeply resent the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Just eighty years ago the Ottoman Turks ruled the Middle East and still feel cheated out of the oil rich regions around Kirkut. They resent their defeat by the allies at the end of WWI and the partitioning of their empire. They see themselves as a rightful world power and long to regain their place at the table.
Then there’s the Kurdish problem. With the fall of Sadaam Hussein, the Kurds of northern Iraq have flourished. That brings the threat of free Kurdish state, which could inspire separatist’s movements in Southeast Turkey. But there’s also the problem of Kurdish terrorists who operate out of Northern Iraq staging attacks on Turkey. This year nearly 100 Turkish soldiers have died in terrorist attacks. And who do Turks blame? The U.S.! New Turkish conscripts are shown films that depict American military helicopters airlifting Kurdish terrorists.
In this foment of suspicion, pride, and anger the chances of a Turkish-U.S. armed encounters have risen significantly. Turkish troops are posed on the Iraqi border awaiting orders to go into Iraq to fight Kurdish rebels. If they do so, they might not pull out quickly. And if they do, they might fire upon American troops. It is a frightening situation, given the level of anti-Americanism currently brewing in Turkey. The next few days and weeks will require extremely skillful and wise diplomacy to avoid another Middle Eastern crisis that no one can afford to face.
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