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A Turkish Peace Plan?

How will the American people react, once they realize that war-making is a pay-as-you-go business?

February 21, 2003

How will the American people react, once they realize that war-making is a pay-as-you-go business?

It was never supposed to be this way. After all, the United States has always stood firmly by Turkey.

It did so even to the point of irritating major European governments with its insistence that the country finally be admitted to the EU — during the Copenhagen Summit on EU expansion in December 2002.

Moreover, for all the political stagework, the military still holds a lot of influence behind the scenes. Most of these powerful generals were trained in the United States — and maintain close personal, if not business, relations there.

And yet, with countries such as Germany and France already beyond the point of intolerable obstinacy in the eyes of the Bush Administration, now Turkey has joined the “It’s Time to Resist America” show.

What happened? Simply put, this crucial ally smartened up. This is a change from the times in the early 1990s when Turkey heard warm — but ultimately empty — words from Washington in the run-up to the Gulf War.

“Yes, we will help you financially” they were told. But once things got into play, the Turks found that they could not really cash those statements in at any bank counter in the world.

And while Turkey’s economy certainly has plenty of home-made weaknesses, the lasting loss of regional trade business — amounting to more than $30 billion in lost trade with Iraq alone — after the Gulf War has exacerbated those problems significantly.

Now that the Turks — financially weakened and as a nation on the brink of bankruptcy — are holding out for a solid bargain, they will certainly earn the same kind of howls of ungratefulness and scorn that have been showered over the French and Germans.

There will be those who say that, to the Turks, foreign policy and matters of war and peace are apparently nothing but a Turkish bazaar — where there is plenty of intrigue, but everything is on sale anyway.

The reality, however, is that — after the IMF’s $16 billion bailout package following the deep financial crisis in December 2001 — the country’s government is not much helped by the loan guarantees that Washington has offered.

Already much too in debt, Turkey’s leaders are rightfully concerned about any “generosity” that is but a loan to be paid back later. In short, they already have more than enough commitments of that nature to meet in the future.

That is why, in the presumably generous aid package, the Turks are understandably holding out for not just loans but real dollars. No respectable economic or financial advisor would tell them otherwise. Certainly, the IMF wouldn’t — and/or shouldn’t.

It is also true that some U.S. commentators will talk of a disgraceful Turkish penchant to start a bidding game.

Their cynicism will be tempered only by the reality that war-ready U.S. troops are floating just off Turkey’s shores — ready for disembarkation and deployment near Turkey's border with Iraq. That firm planning assumption currently seems to be a bit up in the air.

And yet, if one steps back from the case of Turkey and its immediate financial concerns, important questions arise.

What does this precedent say about the future of U.S. war-making? Can the United States afford to be forced to pay off governments of what it frankly considers to be vassal states? Worse, can it afford not to?

And what will the American people say when their troops — absent a UN mandate — have to pay for the privilege of liberating other peoples around the world — such as the Iraqis? Will they turn isolationist, or at least militarily unadventurous, once they realize that war-making is a pay-as-you-go business?

Is the memory of the Gulf War perhaps an overly glorious precedent to consider when thinking about the future of U.S. interventions? And what does it say generally about the state of U.S. power in the world that the United States has to face such demands?

Is it not an indication that the presumed world hyper power has overshot — and perhaps already passed its zenith?

Should the focus not now be on the smart preservation of American power, rather than on the go-for-broke maximization of it — as seems the current game plan?

However the specifics of Turkey’s financial pre-war aid package turn out, it is hard to overlook a deeper logic in this turn of events. One may even be tempted to call it a peculiar kind of Turkish Peace Initiative.

Since what ultimately matters most to Americans is their pocketbook, the fact that Turkey — certainly a stout ally of the United States even under an Islamic government — dares its master and sends a message directly to the American people, all the way from Ankara.

Regardless of what the Bush Administration tells the American people (or doesn’t) about the very real financial as well as immaterial costs of going to war, those costs are staggering indeed.

In that sense, Turkey’s bidding shows more fiscal rectitude on the global stage at a time of great crisis for that country than the Bush Administration has let on.

After all, unlike the Turks, the Bush Administration has not made plain to its own people just how costly the war exercise is going to be.

The new budget proposal is stunningly silent on that subject. In the end, what the Turkish episode teaches Washington is a vital lesson: Be truthful and transparent in your cost accounting at all times.

That it is apparently taking the Turks to bring these messages home to Americans is just one of the finer ironies of life in today’s global community.

So, even if — in the case of Turkey's government — it turns out that at some point, the "price is right", Americans have been served up with lots of questions worth pondering.