There are a very few places in the world where America is less popular than the republic of Turkey. Public opinion polls taken in Turkey since the beginning of the Iraq War show a 92% disapproval of the US. That’s a change from a 52% approval rate in 2000. It is hard to distinguish whether this means disapproval of simply US foreign policy or of American culture and lifestyle, including its brand of democracy. Recent comments by some Turkish politicians indicate they do not want to follow American-style democracy. This is in sharp contrast to 1999 when Bill Clinton visited Turkey to offer support after their devastating earthquakes near Istanbul that claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people. Turks still speak fondly of Clinton, as though he was their beloved president as well. The days of friendly feelings toward America are gone, replaced with anger, and in some quarters rage.
What is the source of this rage? Much has changed in the past decade with 9/11 and the Iraqi war. The majority of Turks practice Sunni Islam and feel solidarity with the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. Some even go so far as praising Saddam Hussein as a great leader and speculate that he really isn’t dead but is in hiding. The Turk on the street would say that the U.S. is to blame for any number of things, from the Iraq war to the proposed Armenian resolution, but what particularly galls them presently is the lack of American help in ending the Kurdish terrorist threat. In fact, the common thought among Turks of all kinds is that the U.S. is actively supporting Kurdish terrorists operating from safe havens in Northern Iraq using American weapons and other military assistance. Whether this is indeed the case is unclear, but not in the mind of the Turk. In their minds, the Americans have made themselves enemies of Turkey.
Much of the responsibility for this perception can be placed squarely on the Turkish mass media. Inflammatory photographs and articles splash across the front pages of the national daily papers. Marxist groups who have always been anti-American have seized the opportunity to renew their movements. Religious foundations and groups feed the anger with attempts to portray the U.S. as anti-Islamic. Popular talk shows and books discuss various angles of conspiracy theories that perpetuate the deep set Turkish xenophobia dating back at least to the end of the First World War when victorious Allied powers conquered and partitioned the Ottoman Empire (the Sick Man of Europe). Anti-Semitism may be at an all time high with Hitler’s Mein Kamph achieving bestseller status in Turkey, no small feat since it has one of the lowest annual number of books read per capita for a developed country. The general fear is that foreign forces are plotting harm against the country. The recent PKK attacks that have claimed the lives of dozens of soldiers and civilians supply evidence for the threat.
Maybe that’s why Turkey has reached the boiling point barely within the bounds of restraint. 100,000 Turkish troops are massing on the border with Iraq. If anyone doubts the severity with which the Turkish military can act, just ask someone who fought alongside of them in the Korean War, or check a little farther back in World War I when the Brits lost hundreds of thousands of men and their aim of trying to secure the straights of Gallipoli.
Is there any solution? For the U.S. to take steps to stop the Kurdish terrorists would be a major first step and would bring improvement in the relationship between the two countries. This will be Condoleezza Rice’s burden as she visits Turkey this month. It wouldn’t alleviate all the rage, but it would take away one major complaint fueling it, as well as stop the deaths of innocent people in a troubled part of the world.