TURKEY'S President Turgut Ozal is inching out on a limb that hangs over his powerful southern neighbor, Iraq. The US and Turkey's other NATO allies must do what they can to keep him from falling - and also to ensure that the limb doesn't snap off from its European trunk. Although most of them are Muslims, the people of non-Arab, secular Turkey have little sympathy for the quasi-religious, aggressive pan-Arabism of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Moreover, Turkey's political elite long ago made the strategic decision to align with the West: Turkey joined NATO as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, and it aspires to membership in the European Community.
But if Turkey's place in the coalition against Saddam isn't surprising, President Ozal's boldness is notable. After Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, Ozal shut down two Iraqi oil pipelines that cross southern Turkey. More recently, Ankara has permitted its territory to be the staging ground for a second front in the air war against Iraq, allowing American combat planes to launch sorties from Turkish bases.
Ozal's policy poses risks from at least three directions. One, obviously, is Iraq, which has threatened to retaliate against Turkey for the US air attacks. Short of a major ground offensive by Iraq, any military threat against Turkey will be containable. And Turkey's NATO allies have pledged to help defend it against a severe military threat.
But will they? That's the second big risk for Ozal. The support of most NATO members for the Gulf war is already lukewarm (Britain is the exception), and how willing will they be to engage Iraqi forces on the Turkish border? US diplomacy must be directed to shoring up Turkey's NATO backing and giving Ankara the assurance it deserves.
Finally, in his war policy Ozal has marched out far in front of many, perhaps most of his countrymen. The US or other countries can do little to strengthen Ozal's political position, but they can demonstrate to Turks that his loyalty and courage will yield long-term gains for Turkey.