A Turkish Story

Out of the many that come our way, some invitations are irresistible: tickets for the World Series, for example, or for Puccini at La Scala, or dinner at Taillevent in Paris. A night in Philadelphia doesn’t automatically qualify, but it certainly does when the purpose is to appear at an event honoring Robert Strausz-Hupé. Then it’s irresistible.

In his many books and hundreds of articles, commentaries, and cables, our friend and teacher Ambassador Strausz-Hupé has given us all a wealth of insight and instruction on that most complicated of all subjects, how the world works, the world of politics and international affairs, of statesmanship, of war and revolution, of personalities and ideologies, of time and place. And unlike the work of so many of us practitioners, part-time government officials whose work, however gratifying, is momentary, ephemeral, fleeting, Robert has created an intellectual legacy that will continue to educate, enlighten, and charm for as long as we and those who follow reflect on the nature of world affairs.

You came here tonight to join in honoring Robert and in the expectation of a lecture from me on why Turkey matters. I’ll certainly have something to say about Turkey and why it’s important to the United States and the world, but I want to approach the question of Turkey by sharing with you my experience as a Defense Department official with responsibility for the American-Turkish security relationship during the administration of Ronald Reagan, in which Robert and I were privileged to serve. I propose to discuss Turkey in this manner because the last thing you need from me tonight is yet another recitation of familiar facts about Turkey: its geostrategic location, its role in NATO, its influence now and in the future over the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union. To this audience, that story is well known, but what I hope you’ll find new and interesting is an account of events involving Turkey that Robert and I shared and some reflections on Turkey’s place in a remarkably unstable post-Cold War world.

First, a word of background. The official service in the Department of Defense, especially participation in interagency groups and missions abroad, often entails close contact with officials of the Department of State. Frequently, it involves working closely with American ambassadors at their overseas posts. This is not always a pleasant or rewarding experience.

American diplomats are deeply territorial. They guard their territory, or rather the territory of the country to which they are accredited, with a tenacious sense of possession. They jealously oversee anyone conducting official business within their assigned territory. To enforce their sense of possession and that of the Department of State, there exists a peremptory power known as “country clearance” in which State Department approval is required before the officials of other government departments may travel abroad. On more than one occasion, I had to fight bureaucratic battles wi th State Department officials to gain approval for working visits to other countries for which, at the Pentagon, I was responsible.

In fact, most American ambassadors cast a wary eye on the overseas representatives of departments like Defense, Justice, Agriculture, Commerce, and the CIA, all of whom are tenants in their embassies. Many regard them with the affection shown to boardinghouse residents by a resentful proprietor forced to put up with them in order to make ends meet. Ambassadorial suspicion and wariness of other government departments is often matched by the absence of either towards the officials of the government in whose capital they reside. Frequently, they come to see the world from the point of view of the government to which they have been dispatched. More than once, I’ve heard American diplomats apologize for the statements and policies of an American president. In its more extreme form, our diplomats sometimes develop a disability known as “clientitis,” which means exactly what you think it means: a tendency to regard the foreign country in which they serve as their client and to represent its outlook and interests to the government in Washington.

This unflattering picture does not apply uniquely to American diplomats; I think it applies, pretty broadly, to diplomats everywhere. It is a rare ambassador indeed who rises comfortably above bureaucratic particularism and mobilizes a broadly based interagency team in order, most effectively, to advance the interests of the United States. And no one did that better than Robert Strausz-Hupé. It is even rarer for an American ambassador to invite a Defense Department official to take charge of a sensitive negotiation that would normally be handled by the Department of State, yet that is precisely what Ambassador Strausz-Hupé did in Ankara in the 1980s.

For more than six years, a period that began with the military government in Ankara, headed by General Kenan Evren, and ended with an elected government, headed by Turkey’s greatest leader since Ataturk, Turgut Ozal, I had the privilege of working with Robert in Ankara. It is that extraordinary collaboration that I wanted to share with you this evening.

Robert arrived in Ankara at an age when most diplomats would have long since retired and with more energy than most of them brought to their first junior posting. He was tireless in developing and reporting an incisive assessment of the complicated political and security situation in Turkey, in meeting and earning the respect and admiration of Turkish leadership at all levels, in reporting reliably about what we knew and, perhaps even more important, what we didn’t know. In all of this, he brought to the post of ambassador a profound knowledge of history and a deft professionalism per fected during tours in Sweden, Brussels and Sri Lanka, and at NATO.

Let me take a moment to describe the circumstances surrounding Robert’s decision to infuriate his State Department bosses by inviting me, a Defense Department official, to take over the negotiation of the key agreement defining the U.S.-Turkish relationship, the so-called Defense and Economic Co operation Agreement, or DECA. When Robert and I began our Turkish collaboration, negotiations to renew that basic agreement defining the security and economic relationship between the United States and Turkey were languishing. A further agreement, allowing us the use of certain key air bases f or NATO purposes, the so-called Colocated Operating Base Agreement, actually turned out to be very important during Desert Storm. The negotiations for that were apparently beyond reach, having been stalemated for years by differences at every level between the civilian and military authorities of our two countries.

The seizure of power by the Turkish armed forces in September 1980, a response by the Turkish armed forces to the breakdown of order and security and the rise of terrorism and widespread random violence in Turkey, threatened to undermine American support, both popular and official, for Turkey and for close cooperation in security affairs between the United States and Turkey. Long a student of civil-military relations and intrigued about the role of military institutions in civil society, Robert (appointed U.S. Ambassador in 1981) understood the situation the Turkish nation faced in the early 1980s.

The failure of the elected government of Suleyman Demirel to maintain law and order had resulted in chaos and disorder throughout the country. Dozens of people were dying each week in ambushes, assassinations, murders, and bombings. Tens of thousands of weapons were in the hands of individuals and gangs who roamed, more or less, freely through large parts of the country. Despite the widespread criticism in the U.S. and Europe of the Turkish military government, Robert wisely understood that the military leadership had been driven to take over the reins of government by the extremity of the security situation the country faced and the inability of the elected government to cope with it. He was confident that there would be a return to democracy if Turkey’s friends and allies showed sympathy and understanding for its plight and refrained from debilitating sanctions that would make a restoration of the democratic civilian order more, not less, difficult. Robert’s judgment ran counter to the instinct of most western politicians, whose first reaction has often been to punish, isolate, or sanction Turkey whenever it departs from the standards of conduct associated with tranquil democracies that have few problems at home and friendly neighbors on their borders. Civil strife, banditry, terrorism combined with the likes of the Soviet Union, Iraq, and Syria for neighbors counted for little to those posturing Scandinavian politicians, wives of French presidents, anti-NATO activists, and foreign office bureaucrats who thought the way to respond to the intervention of the Turkish army was with punitive measure and isolation. Robert counselled patience and he worked to persuade officials in Washington, as well as his diplomatic colleagues in Ankara, that it was likely to be rewarded by the stabilization of the country and a return to democracy.

That, of course, is precisely what happened, and, in a political development that proved the resilience of Turkish democracy, the military first gained control of the security situation, disarmed the lawless bands who daily claimed the lives of Turkish citizens, and arranged for new elections and the restoration of parliamentarian democracy. In a little over three years, the period of military rule was ended and the Turkish electorate voted for a candidate opposed by the military, Turgut Ozal, who became prime minister in December 1983.

Ambassador Strausz-Hupé understood the importance that Turks attached to the security relationship with the U.S. and Turkey’s need for assistance from the U.S. to modernize its military forces. Turkey had the largest army in Europe and the most disciplined and courageous officers, but it was woefully ill-equipped and it faced a massively superior Soviet military machine. Robert knew that the Department of Defense was far better positioned to gain the confidence of the Turkish government than was his own department, and he knew that it was vital to move forward on an agreement providing for NATO’s use of Turkish bases in the event of a conflict with the Soviet Union. For one thing, the Cold War was in a particularly acute phase, and for another, success in concluding a base operating agreement would pave the way for the broader and more important Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement, which would soon require renegotiation.

So Robert took me aside on a visit to Ankara and asked whether I would take over the base negotiations immediately, and, in due course, the negotiations on a new Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement. I told him I’d be delighted to accept the challenge involved, and I made a suggestion: that we propose to the Turks the establishment of a high-level U.S.-Turkish consultative group co-chaired by the Pentagon and the Turkish general staff. There could be no doubt that such a suggestion would cause consternation in the State Department in Washington. This was an unprecedented encr oachment on the State Department’s monopoly control of state-to-state relations. Any ambassador who endorsed such an idea would be seen as a traitor to the department. Robert didn’t hesitate to agree.

There was intense struggle in Washington over the establishment of the group, but with the ambassador endorsing it and a good deal of help in the National Security Council, the State Department was forced to concede and agree to it, and it worked. The so-called high-level defense group quickly became the central venue for the conduct of U.S.-Turkish relations and the mutual confidence between the United States and Turkey that grew out of its deliberations played a vital role in the conclusion first of the base agreement and then the Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement.

Negotiation of the latter, the DECA, was an extraordinary experience. It was a high visibility event in Turkey, widely and, most often inaccurately, reported in the press. There was a sense among many Turks, widely promoted in the press, that the DECA was a favor conferred on the Americans by the Turks, for which an appropriate price should be paid. The idea of an agreement providing for extensive cooperation on security and other matters in our mutual interest was beyond the comprehension of many of those with whom we had to deal. This was certainly the attitude of certain Turkish diplomats, some of whom were transparently anti-American.

Hour after hour, we met and argued and drafted and traded concessions. Some sessions lasted through the night. More than once, it looked as though we would fail. Sometimes, especially when it was two or three in the morning and we’d been going at it for hours, Robert would settle in his chair and close his eyes. If you didn’t know better, you would have thought he was sleeping, but if a statement was made that needed to be replied to, if the Turkish side made a suggestion that was unreasonable or misrepresented our view, Robert would bolt upright and make precisely the right point at just the right moment.

The concluding days of the DECA negotiation included a photo finish. Only the direct intervention of Prime Minister Ozal got us across the line. I think he must have overruled several layers of Ottoman diplomats between two in the morning and breakfast at eight, but we finally signed the agreement after a three-day marathon. Robert’s instinct that it was better to have the Pentagon lead was right, and with Ozal’s support, we put in place the charter that would guide U.S.-Turkish relations throughout the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war against Saddam Hussein.

Ozal was an extraordinary man, launching the boldest program of political and economic reform in Turkey since Ataturk, who was unquestionably the greatest social and political reformer of the 20th century. Turgut Ozal opened the Turkish economy to the world by tearing down protectionist walls, instilled in tired bureaucratic departments a small army of talented, energetic, mostly western-educated officials, positioned Turkey at the center of the western alliance, and, although religious himself, embraced, without reservation, a vision of a fully democratic, secular, liberal Turkey firmly aligned with the United States. Long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when he saw the vulnerabilities in that declining empire, President Ozal began to send bright young proteges to posts in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakstan and elsewhere so they would be ready to assume the burdens of independence and reform when freed from Soviet colonialism.

Ozal was in the middle of an ambitious reform program when he made a serious political error. He gave up the prime ministry in order to run, successfully, for president. He believed that he would be able to shift much of the power of the prime minister to the presidency, and that, freed from dependence on the parliament, which possesses some of the less attractive features of the Russian Duma, he would be able, from an enhanced presidency, to carry his reforms farther and faster than he could hope to do within the confines of the political structure under which he labored. In the end, he was unable to effect the constitutional change he had in mind and he became hugely frustrated at the resistance to his reforms. I suspect that his most untimely death was hastened by a sense that his reforms were losing momentum.

He was a great man, a courageous leader, a true visionary. In an age in which the Reagans, the Thatchers, and the Ozals have gone, sadly replaced by politicians who shift with every breeze and read polls rather than history, recalling Turgut Ozal is one of life’s little pleasures.

Well, you may well ask what does this nostalgic account of Turgut Ozal and Robert Strausz-Hupé have to do with the question of why Turkey matters. Well, the answer is this: while there are good geopolitical reasons why Turkey matters to us, to our security, to our well-being as Americans, the truth is Turkey matters less than it might, because it has suffered from confused squabbling and a failure to pursue Ozal’s vision of the Turkish republic.

The Turkey that matters most to us is one that has freed itself from the dead weight of bloated, ineffective state enterprises, that faces the future, confident of its secular democratic heritage, that has aligned itself to the West and is sure of its identity. The Turkey that looms large in world politics is one which serves as a role model for other states with Muslim populations, a modern state that does not seek to define itself by its opposition to the non-Muslim world. Such a Turkey can have a profound influence on the Turkic republics in the former Soviet Union. Turkey surely can assist in integrating them into the West, in developing their political institutions along democratic lines, in shaping their economies as free markets that move away from state control and encourage entrepreneurship, but whether Turkey can do these things will depend, in the end, on how well governed Turkey itself is.

But since Turgut Ozal, the picture has not been encouraging. Endless political squabbling among parties that have few differences on the right, a deep divide between the right and center parties, on the one hand, and the fundamentalist party in various guises, on the other, has profoundly diminished Turkey’s influence and Turkey’s ability to matter most to us and to the West.

Through the long ordeal of the Cold War, Turkey was among America’s most reliable allies, yet, again and again, we allowed domestic politics and the influence of the Greek-American and Armenian-American communities to shape American policy toward Turkey in a way that has damaged American interests while accomplishing nothing useful for Greeks or Armenians or their American descendants. What’s so frustrating about the particularism that infects much of our foreign policy, and, in particular, with respect to Turkey, is that, in the end, it’s not producing a useful result for any of the parties who believe they have an interest in diminishing the bonds between the United States and Turkey.

The damage done to the U.S.-Turkish relationship has resulted, in part, from the failure of American administrations to fight in Congress and in public opinion for what it knows to be in our national interest. Anyone who served in Washington dealing with matters affecting Turkey knows that there is a near consensus within the executive branch of government on the importance of Turkey and the importance of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, and yet rousing that great government establishment in Washington to defend that proposition in public, in the Congress, and in the press has proven to be extraordinarily difficult. There is an amazing collapse of courage when it’s time to go out and say that this is an important relationship to us, and the facts about the relationship have been widely and dangerously distorted by bipartisan politics.

The Clinton administration faces this challenge now. They have before them a number of decisions affecting licenses for military equipment. The Turks have never fully gotten over the fact that we once embargoed them and refused to sell them the means they needed for their own defense, and we d id so during the Cold War when they were gravely threatened— potentially, anyway— by the Soviet Union, and when they were among our closest allies. Now, we approve licenses, but it takes weeks or months or years, even as bureaucrats at the Department of State fumble and argue and debate whe ther they can afford to engage Senator Sarbanes over the substance of the license that, in the ordinary course of events, wouldn’t get another moment’s thought, and there will be more of this to come. In particular, there’s a very important license decision pending having to do with helicopters Let me just say that if the administration doesn’t rise to this occasion and doesn’t fight in Congress and elsewhere to secure the appropriate licenses, it will do irreparable damage to the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey. What is needed is a willingness on the part of the administration to explain the importance of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, to help our public understand the complicated context in which the debate over Turkish observance of human rights is now taking place.

Well, I’ve kept you a long time, recalling some wonderful days when I was privileged to be able to work with Robert. He made an immense contribution to a terribly important relationship, the value of which it would be difficult to overestimate when you think back to Desert Storm, in particular, and the fact that a Turkish government was most adversely affected and first to line up in support with the U.S. and its coalition partners in dealing with Saddam Hussein. It’s just a small part of the Strausz-Hupé legacy, but it’s an important one, and I wanted to share it with you this evening.


About Robert Strausz-Hupé

Born in Vienna in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Strausz-Hupé witnessed firsthand the destruction wrought by World War I. He entered the U.S. in 1923, initially embarking on a career as an investment banker. Strausz-Hupé earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, began teaching there in 1940, and soon became one of the most popular lecturers on campus. In 1955, he founded the Foreign Policy Research Institute and, two years later, the journal Orbis. He educated a generation of Americans in the fundamentals of geopolitics, giving that generation a critical intellectual weapon with which to wage the Cold War. At age 65, he became a professional diplomat, serving as Ambassador to Ceylon, Belgium, Sweden, NATO, and Turkey. One of his earliest books, Geopolitics: The Struggle for Space and Power, published in 1942, is said to have introduced the word “geopolitics” into the American vocabulary. See “The Wisdom of Robert Strausz-Hupé,” by Walter A. McDougall, FPRI Wire, March 1999.