Help

Nation Topics - Foreign Affairs

Topic Page

Nation Topics - Foreign Affairs

Articles

News and Features

As world leaders convened at the 56th Session of the General Assembly of the UN in early November, the main topic of discussion was the fight against terrorism.

The United States takes the couch.

TASHKENT--In the markets, on the streets, even in the privacy of their homes or cars, the people of Uzbekistan are sphinxlike. They think things are going...well, as best as could be expected.

Alongside the White House and the Capitol building on the alleged terrorist hit list for September 11 was another, little-noticed target: Incirlik, a US airbase in southern Turkey. In a recent raid on a suspect's apartment in Detroit, the FBI found extensive drawings and materials relating to the base. Why Incirlik?

For the past ten years the base has been home to several thousand US military personnel and the fifty US fighter planes used for bombing the northern no-fly zone in Iraq. But it was during the Gulf War that the base earned its notoriety in the region. Throughout the war, Incirlik served as a headquarters of US operations, providing the launching pad for major troop offensives and thousands of bombing missions.

Built in 1951 by US Army engineers as a cold war outpost, Incirlik is one of the most strategically important footholds for the United States in the Middle East. It is not only within striking distance of Iran and Syria but also a short flight from the oil- and gas-rich former Soviet republics. Recent events have further enhanced the base's value; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has even floated the idea of shifting the center of future regional operations there. With the imminent possibility of stepped-up attacks on Iraq, this shift could occur sooner rather than later.

The recent history of Incirlik offers a small window on the moral incoherence and dubious alliances that characterize US foreign policy in the region. Since Turkey reviews US access to the base every six months, it has had a powerful lever with which to influence the United States--and in turn, the United States has made costly compromises to preserve its access. "If a Turkish Ayatollah Khomeini came to power tomorrow," a high-level military official recently commented to me, "the US would still stay on bended knee to avoid losing that base."

The most scandalous of these compromises involves the US role in northern Iraq. The ostensible humanitarian purpose of the northern no-fly zone is to safeguard 3.3 million Iraqi Kurds. Unfortunately, US concern for the Kurds extends only to those being attacked by our enemy Saddam, not to those being attacked by our ally Turkey. Over the past fourteen years more than 23,000 Kurds fighting for greater autonomy and self-determination in southern Turkey and northern Iraq have died at Turkish hands. When Turkey sends US-made F-16s or thousands of troops to attack the Kurds across the border, as it did last December, Washington looks the other way. It's an "obscene piece of hypocrisy," writes John Nichol, the British pilot who was shot down in 1991 and tortured by Iraqi forces. "Turkish authorities ground our aircraft so that their own can attack the very Kurds that [we were] protecting just a few hours before." One investigation by Air Force Times revealed that the Turks were grounding more than 50 percent of US missions.

Incirlik is a factor on other fronts as well. Last year our House of Representatives was poised to vote on a resolution to recognize the 1915 Turkish massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. As the bill gathered support, Turkish officials threatened to end US access to Incirlik. President Clinton quickly persuaded the bill's sponsor to drop it.

After September 11, Washington immediately turned to Turkey, the only Muslim nation in NATO, for public support. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit enthusiastically stepped forward, while also criticizing past US softness toward terrorism as an attitude of "let the snake that does not bite me live for a thousand years." Meanwhile, despite the fact that more than 70 percent of Turkish citizens oppose US military action against Afghanistan, the government has already begun making widespread arrests of human rights workers and leftists protesting the recent airstrikes.

Emboldened by a sense of indispensability, Turkish generals have been appearing regularly on television boasting that Turkey will be admitted to the European Union, a long-sought goal. But the constitutional reforms recently passed by the Turkish Parliament duck the main human rights requirements demanded by the EU as a condition of admission. "It's a step backward," says Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. Where real improvements might previously have been possible, the Turks are now advancing mere "cosmetic measures to ease relations with international partners." The death penalty and basic limitations on the right of ethnic minorities to free expression are safeguarded, and provisions in the Constitution that facilitate the widespread use of torture remain unchanged. The few improvements Turkey has made do not apply to the southern Kurdish regions, where almost all of the cases of torture occur.

Despite its abysmal human rights record, Turkey is one of the largest recipients of US arms, which average more than $800 million annually. This number is sure to grow now that Washington plans to pay for Turkish support with increased weapons transfers. Soon after George W. Bush announced that he would ease restrictions, Turkish military officials called an emergency meeting to speed up negotiations on a range of major purchases, including a $4.5 billion deal to buy 145 King Cobra attack helicopters from US defense contractor Bell Textron. The deal had been blocked by a dispute over whether a portion of the source code for the helicopters' mission computers could be withheld for security reasons. Since US officials have not ruled out an invasion of Iraq as part of its antiterrorist campaign, Incirlik's value is at a premium. "Now more than ever, no one needs to mention the base by name," remarked Kate Kaufer, analyst for the Arms Trade Oversight Project. "It forms the backdrop to all these military transactions."

Not everyone in Turkey will fare as well as the military. Already in a deep recession, the Turkish economy took a further dive last February, leaving some 600,000 Turks without jobs. Unemployment has risen by 42 percent in the past year, while the Turkish lira has shed half its value. IMF austerity formulas such as tighter controls on unions and social spending come at a particularly vulnerable time. Suicides, domestic violence, prostitution and petty theft are all up. Turkey is currently the single largest debtor to the IMF, owing more than $9.6 billion, which gives the Bush Administration leverage to use for its own strategic purposes. When Turkey needed an emergency bailout this past summer, it was Bush who did the bidding. After September 11, Turkey again turned to the United States to pressure the IMF for a delay of loan repayment.

Recently, at a reception in the US Embassy in Ankara, Gen. Carlton Fulford Jr., deputy commander of US forces in Europe, spoke of the ever-growing closeness of US and Turkish armed forces. He closed by saying that this relationship "will only get stronger in the days ahead." The question not answered was: at what cost?

While the United States has spent the past few weeks imploring other countries to cooperate with our war on terrorism, behind the scenes it's apparently retaining an isolationist agenda. In a particularly ill-timed maneuver, the Administration on September 25 pledged to support the deceptively titled American Servicemembers Protection Act (ASPA), sponsored by Republicans Jesse Helms, Henry Hyde and Tom DeLay.

Although it has largely eluded public attention, ASPA is a slap in the face to the many allies that have spent years struggling to construct a legitimate vehicle for combating the most vicious war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. For ASPA not only prohibits all US cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC), it suspends military assistance to any non-NATO member (except certain allies like Israel, Japan and Egypt) that joins the court, rejects participation in any UN peacekeeping operations unless the Security Council exempts American soldiers from prosecution by the court and authorizes the President to use "all means necessary" to liberate Americans or allies held by the international tribunal (hence its European nickname, "The Hague Invasion Act").

Until now, the bill might have been dismissed as meaningless venting by a handful of extremists. But the Administration's support gives it a far more sober--and sinister--tone. The Administration signed on after negotiating changes that eliminate some of the original bill's thornier constitutional problems. (The President could now provide military assistance to a country that participates in the ICC if he deems it in the national interest, for example.) But those changes and Bush's support also make it far more likely that this public proclamation opposing an international effort to bring perpetrators of terrorism and genocide to justice will become law.

This obstruction is particularly ironic now, when the United States is insisting on world collaboration against terrorism. But it's also distressing because our government is a signatory to the 1998 Rome treaty that created the court. Although Clinton expressed reservations when he signed it, he at least committed the United States to work toward creating an international court it could support. Even if this Administration won't ratify the treaty in its current form, supporting a bill that undermines a treaty we've already signed and threatening the treaty's supporters is a remarkably underhanded maneuver, given the mask of international cooperation we're now strutting out on the world stage.

Sure, Jesse Helms labels it a "kangaroo court," but keep in mind what the International Criminal Court will be. Hammered out over more than five years by hundreds of international lawyers, scholars and diplomats, including many Americans, the court--which is expected to receive the necessary sixty ratifications by next summer--will be a permanent institution based in The Hague equipped to try, in addition to genocide and strictly defined war crimes, just the sort of crime against humanity we saw on September 11. Setting aside whether military action is justified to seize the perpetrators, if the court existed today it's possible we could have avoided the issue altogether. An international court holds a legitimacy in the eyes of the international community that a United States court cannot. Even a government like the Taliban might have a harder time refusing to turn over suspected terrorists to an international tribunal than to what it views as suspect US authorities.

Opponents claim the court would place American soldiers and officials at risk of frivolous political prosecutions. That ignores the many elaborate constraints written into the Rome statute. Moreover, the court will be controlled by our allies. Right now, we're aligned with countries like Iraq that oppose it. But all NATO members (except Turkey) have signed and most have ratified the treaty, as have most of the nations in the EU, which has announced its intent to ratify, calling it "an essential means of promoting respect for international humanitarian law and human rights." Recently, Great Britain--now our closest ally in the war against terrorism--became the forty-second country to ratify. (Switzerland is the latest to follow suit.)

Republicans have whipped up fears that the ICC is a rogue court that would prosecute Americans and deny them due process. But the treaty provides virtually all rights guaranteed by the US Constitution except a jury trial. Notably, the American Bar Association--always sensitive to such concerns and hardly a body of radicals--is a strong ICC supporter.

Given all the statute's safeguards, the only people truly threatened by the International Criminal Court are those who commit genocide, intentional large-scale war crimes or "widespread or systematic" crimes against humanity. The Administration's support for ASPA suggests it wants to raise American officials above international law. This is a bad time to be pressing that point, both on our allies and before our enemies. For if part of what sparks hostility toward the United States is our arrogance, then actively undermining this landmark step toward worldwide enforcement of the rule of law will only fuel it.

Since September 11, Thomas Friedman has been in fine form. In his New York Times column, he has composed a letter for George W. Bush to send to Osama bin Laden, urged Vladimir Putin to enlist the Russian mafia to rub him out and berated those who would use the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks to raise questions about US foreign policy. In an October 5 column headlined, "Yes, but What?" Friedman wrote, "One can only be amazed at the ease with which some people abroad and at campus teach-ins now tell us what motivated the terrorists. Guess what? The terrorists didn't leave an explanatory note. Because their deed was their note: We want to destroy America, starting with its military and financial centers." Friedman reserved special scorn for those seeking to use the attacks to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: "Have you ever seen Osama bin Laden say, 'I just want to see a smaller Israel in its pre-1967 borders,' or 'I have no problem with America, it just needs to have a lower cultural and military profile in the Muslim world'? These terrorists aren't out for a new kind of coexistence with us. They are out for our nonexistence. None of this seems to have seeped into the 'Yes, but...' crowd, whose most prominent 'Yes, but' states: This terrorist act would never have happened if America hadn't been so supportive of Israel."

Friedman is hardly alone in pushing this line. In Newsweek, for instance, Jonathan Alter blasted "Blame America Firsters" who have "repeatedly breached" the line "between explaining terrorism and rationalizing it." Jim Hoagland, in the Washington Post, warned that the United States should not be inhibited from using "coercive power" in the Middle East by "excessive fear of reaction in the so-called 'Arab street.'" The New Republic has repeatedly inveighed against what it sees as the capitulationism of the Yes, but-ers, and Christopher Hitchens in these pages kicked up a storm by arguing against "rationalization" of terror. "Does anyone suppose that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have forestalled the slaughter in Manhattan?" he asked.

Against this backdrop, I was fascinated to read "Why Do They Hate Us?" Fareed Zakaria's cover story in the October 15 Newsweek. Zakaria is a blue-chip member of the foreign policy establishment. A native of India who earned a BA from Yale and a PhD from Harvard, he served from 1993 to 2000 as managing editor of Foreign Affairs. A sort of junior Kissinger, Zakaria has never hidden his disdain for those naïve souls who do not share his hardheaded balance-of-power worldview. I recall attending a discussion group several years ago, when the Clinton Administration was still debating whether to intervene in Bosnia; Zakaria expressed world-weary impatience with those who argued for humanitarian intervention and nation-building.

I was thus surprised by his 7,000-word take on the current crisis. Zakaria devotes the first part of his article to an astute dissection of the failures of the Arab world. Today, he observed, almost every Arab country "is less free than it was 30 years ago." Analyzing the causes of that decline, Zakaria described how young Arab men, often better educated than their parents, leave their villages in search of work and "arrive in noisy, crowded cities like Cairo, Beirut and Damascus." Here, "they see great disparities of wealth and the disorienting effects of modernity; most unsettlingly, they see women, unveiled and in public places, taking buses, eating in cafes and working alongside them." Surrounded by the shiny products of globalization but unable to consume them, and denied all outlets for venting their frustrations, these alienated young men have fed a resurgence of Islam.

That, in turn, has sparked a wave of what he calls "raw anti-Americanism." In exploring the roots of this, Zakaria harshly scrutinizes US policies in the region. As recently as the 1960s, he writes, America was widely admired in the Arab world. Since then, however, "the daily exposure to Israel's iron-fisted rule over the occupied territories has turned this into the great cause of the Arab--and indeed the broader Islamic--world. Elsewhere, they look at American policy in the region as cynically geared to America's oil interests, supporting thugs and tyrants without any hesitation. Finally, the bombing and isolation of Iraq have become fodder for daily attacks on the United States." Zakaria especially faults the United States for its "sins of omission," including its failure to press Arab regimes to open up. In response to the current crisis, he goes on, the United States should adopt a long-term strategy on three fronts--a military effort, aimed at the "total destruction of Al Qaeda"; a political effort, stressing multilateralism, cooperation with the United Nations and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and a cultural strategy seeking to help Islam "enter the modern world," in part by pressing Muslim nations to reform.

This seems a far cry from Henry Kissinger. And, toward the end of his piece, Zakaria acknowledges his changing views: "I have myself been skeptical of nation-building in places where our interests were unclear and it seemed unlikely that we would stay the course." In the current instance, he added, "stable political development is the key to reducing our single greatest security threat. We have no option but to get back into the nation-building business."

Zakaria's interest in nation-building and a peace settlement in the Middle East does not mean he's rationalizing terrorism. On the contrary, he fully supports the current campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. His position shows that re-examining the US role in the region does not preclude taking a tough stand on terrorism. In fact, it can be argued that adjusting US policies in the Middle East--for instance, by resolving the Palestinian problem--could further the campaign against bin Laden by making it easier for Washington to keep its coalition together.

At least one other conservative has made an about-face similar to Zakaria's. George Bush's recent endorsement of nation-building in Afghanistan and his expressions of support for a Palestinian state show that he readily accepts the need to reassess US policies in the Islamic world. To the extent that there is a "Yes, but..." crowd, the President seems to be its leading member.

US actions abroad have repeatedly led to unintended, indefensible consequences.

Unfounded attacks on school textbooks have had disastrous consequences.

Blogs

A deal is in reach, if the Obama administration has the guts to pull it off.

October 16, 2013

The White House has no leverage when it comes to reshaping Egypt after the July coup d’état.

October 10, 2013

Obama’s no-show at APEC underlines America’s decline in influence in East Asia.

October 9, 2013

Netanyahu's extreme rhetoric isolates the Jewish state.

October 2, 2013

It doesn’t justify a unilateral US attack, but the Syrian government did indeed use poison gas.

October 1, 2013

The new Iranian president, who won big in June’s election, has a mandate to proceed with a deal.

September 29, 2013

Vast carnage in Iraq as Syrian spillover threatens to reignite Iraq’s own civil war.

September 26, 2013

A call for regional disarmament in the Middle East would bring scrutiny to Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons supply.

September 26, 2013

There are plenty of reasons to intervene, including oil, and we’ll do so, says Obama.

September 24, 2013

The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, offers a range of perspectives on the Syrian dilemma from within Syria and beyond. 

September 17, 2013