War's Fog, Democracy's Light

It's a messy business, building a war coalition. In the process, democratic principles can get trampled, and, sadly, Turkey is a prime example of how this can happen.

Last week, the Turkish parliament voted to allow US military engineers into their country to upgrade bases and ports. The work is necessary to prepare for a possible attack on Iraq by US troops waiting to be deployed to Turkey, which shares a 218-mile border with northern Iraq.

By moving ahead with preparations, the parliament rightly contributed to the only condition that ever prompts Saddam Hussein to back down - the threat of real force. And by allowing for the opportunity of a US invasion from the north, Turkey is making a two-pronged attack on Iraq possible - a strategy that could well shorten a war and help secure victory.

But how the parliament carried out this vote represents a step backward for a country eager to show its democratic credentials even as it seeks European Union membership: The parliamentary debate and vote were closed to the public and will remain secret for the next 10 years.

"You are afraid of the people!" yelled one legislator, amid desk banging from the opposition. Indeed, opinion polls show 80 percent of Turks oppose war with Iraq. Yet if the leadership of Turkey's governing party can make a case to its lawmakers, it can make a case to the people. Too bad it was only after the secret vote that Turkey's prime minister addressed the nation, explaining it was better for Turkey to be involved in war planning than to be shut out from it.

Lawmakers in the US Congress can also duck accountability - through voice vote. But floor debate is rarely closed (usually only for consideration of classified material), and objecting lawmakers can demand recorded votes. In Turkey, the opposition - about a third of parliament - had no such right, and the subject can hardly be described as classified.

Despite its democratic failing, Ankara came out on the right side of the issue. By turning to its parliament at all, it also showed more commitment to representative government than American friends like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt.

Yet what is Turkey's reward for even this halfway step? A slap in the face from its NATO allies Germany, France, and Belgium, which at the last hour yesterday blocked a proposal to start planning the alliance's defense of Turkey, in case it's attacked by Iraq.

The trio says such a decision would force the "logic of war," but Turkey correctly counters that it's merely contingency planning. With NATO built on the idea of collective defense, it is hard to dispute the US defense secretary's characterization of the blocking action as a "disgrace."

It's not too late for improvement. On Feb. 18, Turkey's parliament votes on allowing US troop deployment. That debate should be open, and votes recorded. NATO, meanwhile, was considering Turkey's case as the Monitor went to press. If the vote has not been reversed, there's still time.

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