The Turkish government's delay in deciding whether to host U.S. troops for a possible invasion of Iraq mainly reflects deep skepticism among Turks that such a conflict would benefit their country politically or economically. But the hesitation is reinforced, analysts and diplomats here said, by the timing of the U.S. request and the inexperience of the new Turkish government fielding it.
Turks at all levels of society remember the economic setback they suffered as a result of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraq, one of their main trading partners, came under sanctions. In addition, Turkish officials and military officers fear that Iraqi Kurds could take advantage of a conflict to reinforce the autonomy they enjoy in northern Iraq, setting a troubling separatist example for Turkey's own Kurdish minority.
A nationwide poll released last week found that 88 percent of Turks oppose a new war on the southeastern border and almost two out of three believe that Turkey should stay out of it if there is one. "The sensitivity of the Turkish public is very high," said Fehmi Koru, an analyst in Ankara, Turkey's capital. "There's no room to maneuver."
The Pentagon has asked Turkey for bases to house about 80,000 U.S. troops near Turkey's 250-mile border with Iraq, plus use of Turkish airfields and ports. It is an ambitious request, and it fell to a new Turkish government that took office only in mid-November. "It's not easy taking the country into war a month after taking over the government," said Egemen Bagis, a member of parliament in the ruling Justice and Development Party.
It is especially hard for Justice and Development. Although the party has roots in political Islam, it was swept into office on a populist platform, promising to shake Turkish politics out of a recent tradition of elitism and corruption that many Turks see as a cause of the financial collapse that has cast millions of Turks out of work since 2001.
But rather than moving to provide the economic relief it promised in its campaign, the new government was immediately confronted with three major foreign policy questions: Turkey's troubled candidacy for membership in the European Union, a deadline in February for a Cyprus settlement and the looming war in Iraq.
Turkish foreign policy is traditionally controlled by what is called the "deep state," generals and senior bureaucrats who remain in power as elected governments come and go. But the European Union made clear that Turkey's generals -- who have taken power outright three times since 1960 -- must move out of politics if the country is serious about qualifying for membership in a club of genuinely democratic nations. So rather than quietly handling the U.S. request for bases, the Turkish general staff this week briefed lawmakers and urged them to make a "political decision."
"That's hard to criticize when the EU and everyone is telling the Turks that the military has to stay out of politics," said a diplomat familiar with war planning. "But unfortunately the timeline is such that it's frustrating our need for a quick decision."
The government has delayed a vote on the bases until after Jan. 27, when the U.N. Security Council is due to receive a report from inspectors scouring Iraq for evidence it has continued developing weapons of mass destruction. But U.S. officials say that it may be too late by then to prepare bases for the troops.
The Pentagon would hesitate to spend $200 million to $300 million on upgrading Turkish bases for U.S. troops without an assurance from Turkey's Grand National Assembly that it would vote to allow in the foreign troops. And diplomats have said they are troubled by the performance of Justice and Development leaders who voice general support for U.S. objectives but show no sign of steering public opinion that way.
Particularly dismaying to the United States, according to diplomats and analysts, is the government's emphasis on the economic fallout Turkey might face because of the fighting without mentioning the consequences of remaining on the sidelines. The United States is offering economic aid worth as much as $14 billion, but the Turkish public is not being told that Congress is unlikely to vote the money unless Turkey's parliament votes to open the bases.
Koru, a columnist for the Muslim-oriented Yeni Safak paper, agreed that the link between aid and cooperation has not been made to the public. "This is a misconception on the part of the Turkish public," he said. "Nobody talks about the Congress."
But even if the aid connection sinks in, Koru said, the United States still must overcome concerns that temporary bases would become permanent U.S. installations, a concern diplomats call realistic.
"The big problem is the lack of trust between the Americans and the Turks, despite the fact we've been allies since 1946," said Mensur Akgun, an analyst at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, a respected Istanbul research organization. "Traditionally this country has been afraid of great powers, especially when they behave unilaterally."
Turkish memories, analysts said, are nearly as long as Turkish history -- a point brought home today during a visit by Geoff Hoon, the British defense minister. In Ankara reportedly to discuss basing British forces on Turkish soil, Hoon was repeatedly reminded that the last time British troops were in Turkey was for partitioning the Ottoman Empire after World War I, creating what one member of parliament termed "historic sensitivities regarding a British troop presence."