Stephen Kinzer, former chief of The New York Times bureau in İstanbul from 1996 to 2006, has said Turkey has started to handle its domestic and regional problems in a more democratic and peaceful way as the world has been evolving in the same direction, and in this world, there is no longer any military control of politics.
“The role of the military in Turkey has changed a lot. And it has to change more because in relation to what the world wants, armies do not participate in politics,” said Kinzer in İstanbul, where he was conducting research for his next book dealing with US relations with Iran, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Kinzer pointed out that the new US administration under President Barack Obama will support civilian democracy in Turkey in a stronger way.
“I certainly think that there will be no covert encouragement for the military to continue to play a role. For example, after the March 2003 vote about the Iraq war, one American official [former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz] went on television and said, ‘I was disappointed that the military didn't step up and play a role.' This was terrible. It's almost like encouraging a coup. You won't hear that anymore,” said Kinzer, who after completing his assignment to Turkey published “Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.”
According to Kinzer Turkey can become a regional power, and this can benefit the United States as well.
“When [Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu goes to Pakistan, for example, he is able to talk to every faction. There are no doors closed to Turkey. But there are doors closed to America,” he said and added that “Turkey can talk to people we can't talk to. The strategic identity for Turkey that Davutoğlu sees fits in very well with Obama's foreign policy ideas.”
Kinzer expanded on the topic and more for Sunday's Zaman.
You reported from Turkey at the end of the 1990s, and you've been observing the country since then. What have you found striking in those years?
The 1990s were something like a lost decade for Turkey. There were weak coalition governments that were not able to implement coherent policies; violence in the Southeast was at a very high level; Turkey was fighting most of its neighbors; and the country just seemed adrift. Now a lot of it has changed.
What are those changes?
First of all, you have a strong government with broad popular support. Second, since 1999, when the EU accession project took on momentum, Turkey has had a framework for reform. The new government, at least in its early years, was much more committed to reforms. We used to hear from the so-called secular parties that “we must move ever closer to Europe and we must democratize.” But they did not do it. Certainly after 1999, you really saw democratization and modernization in this country. This country is now probably more democratic than it has ever been. It's also a great step forward that the “Cumhurbaşkanı” [president] would stand up and say, “The Kurdish problem is our number one problem.” You would not have heard that in the 1990s. We have gone from a time when a Kurdish kid in Diyarbakır could not even ask for “çay” [tea] in the Kurdish language to a time when you have a Kurdish TV station, and the university in Mardin is going to have a department of Kurdish language and literature. The other big change I see is Turkey's role in the world.
How do you think Turkey's role in the world is changing?
Ever since the days of Atatürk [Gazi Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey], Turkey looked mostly inward. There were some reasons for that. In the Kemalist period, Turkey was so primitive, had no roads, no schools and no hospitals. So there was so much work to do inside Turkey that they couldn't think about the world. And secondly, Gazi always wanted to calm the fears that they were going to try to build a new Ottoman Empire. That was important for that time. But now the whole [Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu project has something very important for Turkey.
What does it have?
Turkey is now looking at the possibility of becoming a regional power, and over the long run, even a global power. That's why it's opening up embassies in Latin America and Africa. But I see it going more or less in concentric circles. You want to have zero problems with neighbors, and then you can have a more regional influence, and it could go from there. I like the Turkish approach of promoting the idea of diplomacy, compromise, resolving problems with negotiations: “Let's try to get Israel and Syria together. Let's try to get America and Iran together. Let's try to get Russia and Georgia together.” Turkey has a unique ability to talk to different sides in conflicts. The strategic identity for Turkey that Davutoğlu sees fits in very well with Obama's foreign policy ideas. So Turkey's relationships with Europe and America have crossed over. If you went back to the beginning of this decade, the EU had just blessed Turkey and given it a chance to begin the accession process. Right after that George Bush was elected; as Europe was embracing Turkey, the US was bombing places. That made Europe the ideal partner. Now they've changed positions. Europe is not so friendly to Turkey, and I can see why Turks don't want to be so positive toward Europe. Meanwhile, America has emerged as a far different kind of player in the world that wants to resolve problems through diplomacy. It means the beginning of a new, close phase of cooperation between Turkey and the United States.
Do you think Turkey's diverse relations with a range of countries in the world would be all fine with the Obama administration?
Yes, I do. I don't think it was fine with the Americans all the time. We didn't like it when Turkey was talking to Iran. But Turkey didn't care and said, “We're going to talk to Iran anyway.” Now we like the idea that Turkey talks to Iran. That's why Davutoğlu's project and Obama's policies are very much in line. They can help each other.
Do you think relations could have been disastrous if the Republicans were in power in the United States?
Yes. For example, during the presidential campaign, John McCain was talking about the circumstances under which he would bomb Iran. Anybody who bombs Iran is doing something bad for Turkey. Look what happened with Iraq.
Now such threats come from Israel…
The relationship between Israel and the United States may also be changing.
In what way?
The relationship between the United States and Israel is developing. And I still feel that it is unlikely that Israel would take some hugely dramatic and radical step in the Middle East, like bombing Iran with the realization that America was 100 percent against it. If America says that “we don't like it but after all Israel is its own country,” that's kind of a signal, then, maybe Israel will do it. But if the United States makes it very clear that “we do not want you to do it,” which is what we are saying to Israel, then, it is hard for Israel to do it.
You referred to Davutoğlu's foreign policy project of zero problems with neighbors. It has not been entirely achieved yet. What is your view of the most important unachieved problems in that regard?
Armenia, Cyprus and the Kurds. We were waiting for a big breakthrough on the Armenian issue, but it didn't happen. Obviously, there was a push back from Azerbaijan. However, Davutoğlu has told journalists that Turkey has not given up on this. That has a deadline every year because of the genocide resolution in Washington. We cannot get to next April 24 and still not have this resolved. The problem is how to bring Azerbaijan into the equation. This is an obstacle in Davutoğlu's achieving his diplomacy, compromise, negotiation policy in the world. When he goes out and tells Israel, for example, “You don't want to bomb Hamas. You want to talk to Hamas. You want to negotiate,” naturally they say, “What about you?” I love this phrase “Yurtta Sulh Cihanda Sulh” [Peace at Home, peace in the World]. But America and Turkey each have one half. America has peace at home. When we have conflicts in America, they are always peaceful. Turkey should learn from that. But we are warlike in the world. We need to learn from Turkey. Turkey has peace in the world. So each of us has half.
Why do you think the Kurdish issue is one of the most difficult to address?
Because it requires such a change in mindset with everything we've been told up to now. The policy still in the minds of most Turks has been “we must kill every terrorist.” We have to get past that. Kurds are brother citizens of the Turkish Republic. Every citizen has rights. They should be applied equally to all. There is also this existential fear in the Turkish soul that comes from the “Sèvres Syndrome.” One thing you see all through Turkish history is that Turkey does not stay isolated from the currents in the world. Even under Sultan Selim III, the French Revolution had an impact here. Then in the 19th century, the democratization in Europe had an impact here. This ideology of positivism in Europe really affected Mustafa Kemal and also had a negative effect in the 1930s. Europe embraced racist nationalism and the suppression of minorities. That also had an influence in Turkey. Then, after World War II, the United Nations was founded; countries were supposed to be more democratic. That's when we had the first election, multi-party system and [late Prime Minister Adnan] Menderes came in. In the 1980s and the early 1990s, the Cold War was ending, and countries were opening up to the market economy. There was Turgut Özal. Now the world is getting to a point where we want to resolve domestic conflicts democratically and peacefully. Turkey cannot remain apart from this.
You also said that Turkey is trying to become a global power and opening embassies in far-off places such as Latin America and Africa. There are also a lot of Turkish schools in those areas. What do you think of these?
I guess you can argue that there is going to be an Islamic component to this project, and this might be the best Islamic component you could have. Again, this requires an evolution in Turkey. But Turkey is playing a stabilizing role. As for Turkey really having an influence in Africa or in Latin America, we are a long way from that yet. Let's work on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, etc. Once Turkey establishes itself in the region, then we can think about bigger projects. But if you look 50 years ahead, if Turkey can succeed, it's reasonable. However, the upper limit is Turkey resolving the problems in the neighborhood. You've got to get those. As long as the Kurdish conflict is not solved, and Armenia and Cyprus are not solved, the amount that Turkey can do in the world is limited.
Are you following the Ergenekon investigation?
How can you not? When it started, it was positive for many Turks. Some corners of the carpet are being turned up and the dirt underneath is being brought to light. But it seemed to run a bit out of control. I am wondering if it is being used politically by some people. It is good as long as it is kept within the limits that evidence proves and it doesn't just become a witch hunt against people with different ideas.
What did you think when you heard about the document published recently by Taraf daily allegedly detailing a smear campaign organized by the military against the ruling party and the Gülen movement?
I found it very troubling. I don't think we know the whole story yet. So there are three possibilities. Either it is a project of the General Staff or it is a project of someone in the army who is not connected to the General Staff or it is a fake. There is now journalism that brings it to light - - it's good.
Considering the fact that the military used to be so untouchable in the past -- as you know very well from the 1990s when you were here…
Yes. The role of the military in Turkey has changed a lot. And it has to change more because in relation to what the world wants, armies do not participate in politics.
The United States has been supporting the Turkish military…
That was true in the past.
What has changed now?
Support for civilian democracy is going to be ever stronger under the Obama administration. We will not subordinate our desire for democracy to our desire for security.
Do you think we will see some concrete steps concerning US relations with the Turkish military…
I certainly think that there will be no covert encouragement to the military to continue to play a role. For example, after the March 2003 vote about the Iraq war, one American official [former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz] went on television and said, “I was disappointed that the military didn't step up and play a role.” This was terrible. It's almost like encouraging a coup. You won't hear that anymore.
Interview published June 21st, 2009. Available online: http://www.todayszaman.com/tz-web/detaylar.do?load=detay&link=178650&bolum=8