A time for the Turks

Turkey has often, rightly or wrongly, felt itself regarded by others as a second-rate member of NATO. Yet the fact is, it is one of the most committed to the alliance - maintaining the largest standing army in Europe - and strategically one of the most important to it. The Reagan administration's efforts to broaden military cooperation with the Turks is therefore a prudent move. It makes strategic sense, and it should strengthen the military government's hand as it seeks to restore democratic, civilian rule.

NATO will be the immediate beneficiary of larger defense cooperation with Ankara. Given the relatively poor state of Turkish military equipment (compared with other NATO members), the southern flank of NATO has been relatively weakened and needs shoring up. Buttressing Turkish defenses has significance beyond the European theater, however. While the administration has not publicly suggested so, it is obvious that Turkey can play a vital role in enhancing stability in the Middle East. The Turks have close ties with Iran and other countries of the region. They know it well from the time of Ottoman rule. Indeed it may not be going too far to say that Turkey makes a better potential linchpin of Western strategic strength in the area than Saudi Arabia, whose long-term political stability remains in doubt.

Turkey not only is stable. It has great potential for political democracy. Turkey's friends abroad are troubled that the military government which took power in September 1980 has not yet returned it to civilian leaders. Some West European nations in fact are withholding aid to Turkey because of human rights violations. It may strike some as ironic that whereas once it was the US which was stressing human rights in Turkey and West Europeans who were downplaying it, the reverse is now the case. However, all nations of the West have a keen interest in a restoration of Turkish democracy, and pressure on the Turks to move in this direction with deliberation is useful.

At the same time it bears reminding that the present transition government under the leadership of Gen. Kenan Evren has a remarkable record. It has restored law and order following a period of rampant terrorism that was taking more than 20 lives daily. It has freed up trade and rejuvenated the faltering economy - to the point where there is talk of a ''Turkish miracle.'' By all accounts, the Turkish people, though devoted to Ataturk's democratic reforms, are buoyed by the stability which benign military rule has brought and are not feeling themselves oppressed. The expectation is that, once the presently functioning constituent assembly produces a revised constitution, elections will be held and the country returned to parliamentary government.

It is possible that the increased support for Turkey now coming from Washington will give the military officers more room for political maneuver as they edge back toward democracy. If Turkey continues to make political and economic progress, there is no limit to the positive influence it can exert both as a defender of the West and as a bastion of enlightened, democratic government.

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