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A Historic Weekend

Does March 1, 2003 mark a major turning point for both the United States, Turkey and the world?

March 4, 2003

Does March 1, 2003 mark a major turning point for both the United States, Turkey and the world?

The weekend of March 1 and 2, 2003 may enter the annals of modern history as:

    (1) The greatest opportunity for the Bush Administration to refocus on the real 9/11 agenda — weeding out global terrorism.

    (2) A clarion call for all the world to hear the power of Muslim democracy loud and clear.

    (3) The turning point that marks Turkey becoming an integral part of the European Union.

    (4) A reminder about what it really takes to have allies in the age of democracy.

What a day that Saturday of March 1, 2003 was. In a spell-binding double hit, the Turkish parliament does not approve the stationing of U.S. troops for the looming invasion of Iraq.

And Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, one of the key operatives of al Qaeda, is arrested in Pakistan — in what is probably the most significant capture since the World Trade Center towers collapsed one and a half years ago.

If President Bush and his advisors read the writing on the wall, they will try to make a hard trek back to the days when they were last globally successful — and well-liked.

That was during the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Mr. Bush rallied the world to defeat the forces of anti-civilization, read: al Qaeda.

Ever since those days, Mr. Bush has drifted away from that unifying — and action-oriented — agenda.

On many issues that are crucial to Muslims, U.S. policy is actually counterproductive in the war against terror: The reluctance to better fund the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan and to make a serious run at ending the grinding war between Israel and the Palestinians contrast sharply with the eagerness to attack Iraq, a fellow Muslim nation.

For reasons that are still mysterious, Mr. Bush chose to replace his main priority — the elimination of al Qaeda — with an agenda item that many nations around the world regard as divisive and extremist: the immediate toppling of Saddam Hussein by means of a military invasion.

In recent weeks, the president's drift has even spread to rationales with which he justifies action against Iraq.

One day, it is weapons of mass destruction. Then, it's on to regime change. And when that approach did not take, it was finally on to democracy-building in Muslim lands.

Mr. Bush should extract himself from all that drift and misery — by switching his rhetoric yet again. If he had the courage to do so, a luring prize awaits him.

He could once again experience the thrill of having virtually the entire world follow his lead.

The price he has to pay for that near-universal support is to put al Qaeda — and global terrorism — back into his primary crosshairs, while Saddam Hussein, for now, switches more to the background as the United Nations sharpens its teeth on the man and his despotic regime.

One can only hope that President Bush realizes that, as a matter of fact, he does not even have a choice in terms of turning back to al Qaeda as Public Enemy No. 1.

Why is that? Just remember that — as a consequence of his recent pronouncement — the attainment of Muslim democracy is now at the top of the list of all justifications for war with Iraq.

It would be more than a cruel irony in light of those pronouncements from the President if he now proceeded on to war with Iraq anyway.

In Turkish eyes — and those of other aspirants for democratic rule in the region — it would look like it did not matter much what they deliberated to do, since the United States views itself as powerful enough to proceed no matter what.

Thus, there is a very real danger that, in one fell swoop, the President would demonstrate that the democratic wishes of the one functioning Muslim democracy in the Near and Middle East do not really matter.

True, this is an unfair conclusion from the vantage point of the Bush Administration as well as in terms of democratic theory. After all, all the Turks can reasonably hope to determine with their votes is whether or not Turkish soil will be used for U.S. troop stationing.

And yet, what matters most in the fickle world of public diplomacy is how the effects of that vote are perceived by the Muslim world's fledgling democrats. And to them, it would appear as callous disregard for their courageously expressed democratic wishes.

But the fallout from the Turkish vote extends well beyond the Bush Administration itself. In fact, it may shed an even harsher light on U.S. Democrats.

Without a doubt, the courage of the parliament in Ankara makes the Democrats in the U.S. Congress positively look like a rubber-stamp, run-away-from-responsibility crowd.

That finding, of course, stands in embarrassing contrast to the elevated (or rather: extremely exaggerated) self-perception these legislators have about themselves.

Unlike their Turkish colleagues, though, they were the ones who gave their own president a carte blanche — no further questions asked. Talk one more time about who's got civic courage … and just which part is the world's most deliberate body?

It is a well-known fact that France's leaders, in particular, are ardently opposed to having Turkey join the EU in any fast fashion. And yet, with his war plans, President Bush inadvertently handed the Turks the best opportunity ever to turn around the French on the historic matter of their EU membership.

How? Simple. With the Turkish parliament's decision — if it stands — to hold the line against U.S. designs for advance troop stationing on its soil, this Muslim country truly shaped the global agenda. The significance of this move is not that it undermines the Bush Administration's war plans, although it does that too.

The historic importance of the vote lies in the fact that the Turks now have a trump card to play in order to gain France's support for Turkish membership in the EU. After all, no other nation comes even close in courage to what the Turks have accomplished.

The stakes were certainly enormous. Lest we forget, Turkey — to a large extent — is a U.S. client state. Moreover, its government had managed to negotiate quite a bounty as damage protection for the economic consequences of going to war alongside the United States.

But despite all these considerations and enticements, the Turkish parliament took a principled and courageous stance against rushing to war.

There is no way that this accomplishment will not be rewarded by the core European countries.

After all, there isn't another issue of similar magnitude with which the Turks could prove definitively to Germany and France that they truly are a European nation.

And yet, the Turkish vote must trigger reconsiderations on all sorts of fronts. How can Mr. Blair not have second thoughts — now that the Turks aren't along for the ride?

Moreover, how can the Labor Party in the House of Commons not have second thoughts about being wimps?

Compared to the courage of Turkey's legislators, the famed British MPs increasingly look like a bunch of responsibility-shy, U.S.-style Democrats. That is, they try to talk a good game, but are always eager to get along — by going along.

And so, regardless of whether war with Iraq is to follow in short order or not, we will remember Saturday, March 1, 2003, as the day when the vitality — and meaning — of alliances and democracies had its defining day.

It was a powerful reminder of two things: First, of what the real scourge in the world is today — al Qaeda, not Saddam.

And second, we will learn more about just how much true democratic legitimization — via parliaments voting on concrete actions — matters or not.

So far, the U.S. Congress and the British House of Commons have punted. They have closed their eyes — and tried to get away with letting their nation's leaders do whatever they see fit. Evidently, that kind of leader followership is not what characterizes the Turkish democracy.

If war with Iraq will happen shortly, what is of real significance over the long run is the aftermath of that skirmish — not the military action against what is at best a third-rate opponent.

And, in that context, for the nations which opposed proceeding to war with Iraq now to know that their parliaments — and hence the essence of their democracy — acted courageously and deliberately, while other parliaments tried to look the other way, would be a major turning point in the annals of world history itself.