Why Turks no longer love the U.S.
US Secretary Rice arrives Friday to defuse tensions over Kurdish rebels in Iraq.
Istanbul, Turkey — The US has hailed Turkey as moderate Islamic democracy, the kind it would like to see develop elsewhere. It's a key NATO ally, with US aircraft stationed here.
Yet, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Ankara Friday to defuse tensions over Kurdish rebels operating in Iraq, she faces a nation that is now the most anti-American in the world, according to one survey. In the meetings with Ms. Rice, and next Monday in Washington with President Bush, Turkey's prime minister is expected to press the US to take steps against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels in Iraq.
That might help soften attitudes here toward the US. But given the depth of anti-American feeling that has developed in just the past few years, few expect Turkish public opinion to turn quickly.
In a recent global survey by the Pew Research Center, only 9 percent of Turks held a favorable view of the United States (down from 52 percent in 2000), a figure that placed Turkey at the rock bottom of the 46 countries surveyed.
"People have become accustomed to this plot line of America being a threat to Turkish national security. This was inconceivable five years ago, but now it has come to be the prevailing view," says Ihsan Dagi, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University.
That perception has been reinforced in the past two years by some of Turkey's most popular books and films which portray the US and Turkey at odds – if not at war. Turkey's all-time box office champ, 2006's "Valley of the Wolves," saw a ragtag Turkish force square off heroically against a whole division of bloodthirsty American soldiers in northern Iraq.
"Metal Storm," a bestselling political fantasy book from the year before, went even further, describing an all out war between Ankara and Washington in the not so distant future (the year 2007, to be exact), in which Turkey ultimately prevails with the help of Russia and the European Union.
Analysts say the public's mood represents a trend that has worrying implications for the future health of the ties between the two NATO allies.
"The public is really convinced that the United States is no longer a friend and ally. That is really frustrating," says Professor Dagi.
Real life events have also done little to improve America's image in Turkey. The recent passage by a US congressional committee of a resolution recognizing the mass killing of Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide – something Turkey strongly rejects – set public opinion aflame.
At the same time, the renewed attacks on Turkish forces by PKK guerrillas have only strengthened the widespread belief that Washington is doing little to get rid of the PKK in northern Iraq. Ankara has been building up its troops on the Iraqi border and threatening an invasion, something Washington strongly opposes.
"The clearest fact is that the real threats against Turkey come not from its neighbors, but from its 'allies' and each new development brings Turkey face to face with its Western allies," Ali Bulac, a columnist for the liberal-Islamic Zaman newspaper, recently wrote. "The United States ... is taking its place on the stage as the force behind the PKK."
Says Gunduz Aktan, a former Turkish ambassador who is currently a parliamentarian with the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP): "The entire Turkish public opinion now is one of frustration and exasperation and a kind of acute expectation of the US to do something meaningful and concrete [on the PKK issue] and to understand the problem that we have in Turkey."
But experts say Turkey's growing anti-Americanism also has a domestic element. The success of the Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has forced Turkey to confront the issue of how to reconcile secularism with Islam, while the renewal of PKK violence has again brought to the surface the decades-long struggle to square a strong national Turkish identity with the country's diverse ethnic identities.
"Turkey is caught right now between East and West, between Islam and secularism, between Kurdish and Turkish nationalism," says Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Since the cold war ended, we are living in an era where all the problems that defined the Turkish Republic in the early years are back, and Turkey is blaming the West for this."
The Rice visit and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's trip to the White House on Nov. 5 are part of an effort to stave off any further deterioration in US-Turkish relations. "I will openly tell him [President George Bush] that we expect concrete, immediate steps against the terrorists," Mr. Erdogan recently told parliamentarians from his party. "The problem of the PKK terrorist organization is a test of sincerity for everybody," he said. "This test carries great importance for the region and in determining the fate of our future relations."
Observers inside and outside Turkey say Ankara could play a role in easing regional tensions by dropping its objections to speaking directly with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq and its leader, Massoud Barzani.
But METU's Dagi says that without American action on the PKK front, there is little Ankara can do to defuse the public's growing dislike of the US.
"The government has somehow been taken hostage by this public mood," he says. "The first thing is to deal with this mood, and in that America has to contribute something."