Middle East

Published — May 30, 2007 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

The price of independence: $1 billion

Once-loyal Turkey passed up aid to maintain its own Iraq policy


Despite an offer of $6 billion in cash from the United States in the weeks leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, the Turkish Parliament voted against allowing U.S. troops to use Turkish territory as a base for launching a northern front against Iraq.

With that rejection, the United States quickly learned that Turkey was no longer the predictable NATO ally of the Cold War years. Many in Washington were outraged, including then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who later blamed Ankara’s lack of cooperation for some of the subsequent U.S. misfortunes in Iraq.

The grant resulted in part from an aggressive lobbying campaign headed by a former speaker of the House of Representatives, Louisiana Republican Bob Livingston, whose lobbying firm has represented the Turkish government since 2000 for an annual retainer of $1.8 million, Department of Justice records show. However, that didn’t slow down the Washington lobbyists for the Turkish government, and it certainly didn’t stop the flow of U.S. funds to a country with a long history of human rights abuses. In 2003 Congress appropriated a $1 billion grant to Turkey as a disincentive, in part, for Ankara to unilaterally invade northern Iraq, where Turkey has fought its own war against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for many years.

As war preparations were under way, many in Congress were disappointed that Turkey was unwilling to let the United States use Turkey as a staging ground for an invasion of Iraq. Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California Republican now serving time in prison for an unrelated bribery conviction, introduced an amendment that would have deleted the proposed $1 billion Economic Support Fund grant to Turkey from the 2003 war supplemental bill.

But in the weeks leading up to the vote, lobbying records filed with the Department of Justice show that Livingston lobbyists reached out to, among others, then-Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and his staff; members of the House and the Senate Appropriations committees; the office of the vice president; and Marc Grossman, who was then the undersecretary of state for political affairs. The lobbyists also accompanied the then-Turkish ambassador to the U.S., Faruk Logoglu, to meet with several members of Congress. Many of those visited, including Republican Reps. Ander Crenshaw of Florida, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Dave Hobson of Ohio, later voted against the Cunningham amendment to repeal the grant.

The day the amendment was up for a vote, on April 3, 2003, Livingston arranged for a delegation of Turkish officials to stand outside the House floor, a tactic that allowed him to introduce the Turks to his acquaintances on their way into the chamber, The Washington Post reported.

The Livingston Group also brought in another former member of Congress, Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y., a longtime associate of Livingston’s who has helped the former House speaker represent Turkish interests before Congress. Lobbying records show that before the amendment was voted on, the former congressman called Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., and Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense, “to discuss issues affecting U.S.-Turkish relations.” The day of the vote, the Livingston Group paid Solarz Associates $200,000 in “fee sharing” on behalf of the government of Turkey, lobbying records show.

Livingston declined to comment for this story, and Solarz did not return calls.

The amendment to rescind the grant was ultimately defeated by a large margin, but a condition was quietly added to the billion-dollar grant as the bill made its way through Congress: Washington would retain the right to cut the funding if Turkey did not cooperate with the United States in Iraq or if it deployed troops into northern Iraq.

Because of the attached strings, the Turkish government ultimately decided not to accept the grant, and Congress rescinded the funding in 2005. In contrast with other coalition countries that readily aligned themselves with Washington and secure significant increases in economic and military assistance, the Turks seemingly wanted to remain independent — and keep open their options in northern Iraq.

Inscrutable partner

Experts say that promises of lucrative foreign aid no longer carry the influence they once did with Turkey. “Dealing with Turkey today is much more like dealing with Germany or France,” said Ian Lesser, a Turkey specialist at the German Marshall Fund and a State Department official during the Clinton administration. “It’s a more complicated, less predictable scene. There’s no question about it.”

A State Department spokesman said the only purpose of the $1 billion grant was to help stabilize the Turkish economy and restore investors’ confidence. But a source with firsthand knowledge of the Turkey-U.S. negotiations over the money said the grant was “a gesture by the U.S. government to get Turkey to cooperate in Iraq.”

Tuluy Tanc, minister consular at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, said in an interview with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that the Turkish Parliament and government were not willing to accept a grant that had political conditions attached. He said that Turkey had no intention of going to northern Iraq but added that in the past, Turkey had had “reason to follow the PKK [Kurdish] terrorist organization into northern Iraq with the agreement of the Iraqi government,” then headed by Saddam Hussein.

In mid-April 2007, Turkey’s top military officer, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, asked the government to approve operations against the PKK in northern Iraq. Such a move would risk a major rift with the United States, and most analysts do not expect a Turkish military venture into northern Iraq anytime soon. But the move by Buyukanit was symbolic in expressing the Turkish military’s frustration with what it perceives as Washington’s lack of action against the PKK, a separatist insurgent group that Washington, the European Parliament and Turkey consider a terrorist organization.

The PKK retreated from Turkey to northern Iraq in the late 1990s and represents ethnic Kurds’ aspirations for sovereignty in the region. The PKK-Turkey fight has claimed 30,000 lives, most of them civilian, and both sides have been accused of widespread atrocities. Kurds make up about 20 percent of Turkey’s population of 71 million.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Turkey has provided logistical support and has granted American forces permission to fly through Turkish airspace to and from Iraq. Still, in several instances Turkey has complained that the United States is not doing enough to crack down on the PKK.

Competing agendas in Iraq

Lesser said that since the beginning of the war, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has been characterized by mistrust and suspicion over competing agendas in Iraq. “The Turks might have wanted a seat at the table on Iraq and were not comfortable with the fact that they weren’t going to have a seat at the table. There was suspicion and mistrust that we [the United States] weren’t taking Turkish interests seriously,” he said.

As a result of the tensions over Iraq, the United States has lost popularity and diplomatic influence in Turkey, a country it values for its strategic location and secular administration in the Muslim world. “Public opinion counts in Turkish politics now, and it has become very, very negative toward the United States,” Lesser said.

Tanc said that Turkey wants the United States to succeed in Iraq and that the two countries’ difficulties at the beginning of the Iraq war have been overcome. He mentioned the 2003 wrongful arrest of a dozen Turkish special operations forces in Iraq by U.S. forces as an example of the misunderstandings that occurred between Turkey and the United States. “But I believe that our relationship goes deeper than that,” Tanc said.

With one of the strongest armies in the region, Turkey continues to be a major buyer of U.S.-made weapons. In December 2006, it was announced that Lockheed Martin would be upgrading Turkey’s F-16 fighter jet fleet under a $635 million contract. In addition, Turkey has been part of a multinational program led by the United States to build the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, called Lightning II, which has been described as “a next-generation strike aircraft.” Turkey reportedly will soon embark on a 15-year, $11 billion program to buy 100 of the fighter aircraft.

The United States also channels assistance to Turkey through the Foreign Military Financing and International Military Education and Training programs. Between 1998 and 2004, Turkey was the top recipient worldwide of IMET grants, at $16.8 million. The IMET program imparts military skills and allows the building of person-to-person relationships with strategic foreign allies. But the program has occasionally come under fire when, as occurred in Indonesia, forces trained by the United States later committed gross violations of human rights against their own citizens.

In recent years, research and advocacy organizations have criticized the U.S. government for continuing to grant military assistance to Turkey despite its human rights record. “Turkey is so valuable that Washington turns a blind eye to human rights abuses and lack of democracy, and supports the country’s bid to become a member of the European Union despite the objections of leaders within that body,” said a 2005 report by the World Policy Institute, a policy think tank in New York. The most recent human rights assessment of Turkey by the State Department stated that members of the security forces “occasionally tortured, beat, and otherwise abused persons.”

Human rights advocates point to the Kurdish southeast area of the country, where about 375,000 residents have been displaced since the confrontations between the state and the PKK started in 1984. According to figures cited by the State Department, Turkish security forces killed 52 people in the southeast and east areas in 2005. State-sponsored village guards — Kurds armed and paid by the government to fight the PKK — have terrorized the population for years, according to Human Rights Watch, forcefully recruiting men as village guards and seizing land from its owners.

Lesser said that though Turkey still has much to accomplish with respect to human rights, the country has undertaken important structural reforms under European pressure.

U.S. officials, for their part, appear to have left behind — at least rhetorically — the days when Wolfowitz called on Turkey to apologize for not allowing the United States to attack Iraq from its territory. “We have dealt with areas in which we disagree, about Iraq in 2003 and other issues where we have had differences. But despite those differences, we remain friends,” Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told Turkish reporters in February 2007. “So our relationship with Turkey is a strong one. It is a relationship which can withstand the occasional disagreements because we are, after all, not children.”

Assistant Database Editor Ben Welsh contributed this report.

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