ISTANBUL -- George W. Bush didn't own a passport before 2001. Seventy-nine percent of Americans don't have one now. Maybe they're better off.Traveling can be unpleasant: pickpockets, jetlag, unfamiliar food, recirculated TB air on the plane. It can also be startling.
Just about everywhere you go these days, you learn that the United States government is pissing off the locals. Which is bad. The fact that such contempt comes as a complete surprise, even to a three-newspaper/12-hours-a-day cable-news junkie like me, is downright jarring.
Take Turkey, for example. Istanbul is my overnight layover en route to Tajikistan, a desperately poor dictatorship that serves as a base to Taliban-trained insurgents waging low-level war to create an Islamist caliphate in post-Soviet Central Asia. The action is supposed to be thousands of miles east, not here in Turkey, which is an ally of the U.S. as well as Israel. But the Turks are pissed at us Americans. And we Americans, as usual, don't have a clue.
The problem is Iraq. Not the invasion per se, which the Turkish government greeted with studied ambivalence, but the chaos unleashed by the removal of Saddam (which we were warned about).
At the start of the war in 2003, Turkey warned the U.S. that it would invade the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, now a de facto nascent Kurdistan, if the independent status of Iraqi Kurds seemed to encourage renewed rebellion among Turkish Kurds. The Kurds' aspirations of independence have long been stifled by a brutal campaign of repression waged by the central Turkish government. Four years later, Turkey is closer to carrying out its threat. "MILITARY READY FOR INCURSION INTO NORTHERN IRAQ," screams the headline of the daily Today's Zaman.
The latest tensions began after a suicide bombing in Ankara and a landmine attack on Turkish troops, both blamed on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), one of the two major parties that govern Iraqi Kurdistan. A May 22 blast at a shopping center killed seven people and injured about 100. Then two U.S. F-16 fighter jets made what the Pentagon called an "unintended" incursion into Turkish airspace. Turkish news media declared it a deliberate attempt to intimidate Turkey into staying out of Iraq. If that was the purpose, the incursion failed. Prime Minister Recep Erdogen ordered a huge military build-up along Turkey's southeastern border with Iraqi Kurdistan, involving "large contingents of soldiers, tanks, guns and armored personnel carriers." He refused to rule out a punitive strike against the PKK.
Turkish TV repeatedly broadcasts images of military convoys along the border and trains unloading additional tanks and weaponry to supply them. According to Turkey, the PKK maintains 3,800 guerilla "peshmerga" fighters in Iraq and 2,300 at clandestine bases in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. "The PKK must be eliminated as a problem between Iraq and Turkey," said Oguz Celikkol, Turkey's special envoy to U.S.-occupied Iraq. "All the explosives used by the PKK in Turkey (in the recent attacks) are traced back to Iraq."
Turkey's anger is directed primarily at the Kurds. But we Americans run a close second. "It (is) not just the PKK ... complicating matters in northern Iraq," the Turkish Daily News paraphrases the head of the Turkish military, "but also the United States (is) creating complications in the region." Moreover, America's post-9/11 declaration of the right to wage pre-emptive war is being used by Turkey as justification of its own right to invade Iraq. "Such a decision is only Turkey's business," said foreign ministry spokesman Levent Bilman.
On May 31 a battle erupted between PKK fighters and Turkish troops outside Cicekli village in Tunceli province, prompting the Turkish military to transfer 20 tanks from the border with Syria to the border with northern Iraq.
No one knows whether the government will heed U.S. warnings not to enter Iraq. This latest flare-up may end peacefully. After all, an incursion could derail Turkey's application to join the European Union. Nevertheless, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is yet another case of a dangerous situation having been needlessly escalated by reckless Bush administration policies and tactics.
Now that the U.S. is Iraq's unhappy landlord, it is largely responsible for the violence that is spreading across its borders. Bush's failure to deal with the Kurdish issue, either by granting full-fledged independence or forcing the Kurds back into a federalized Iraq, has contributed to a corrupt power-sharing deal between the PKK and its rival PUK, ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Arabs and encouragement of nationalist Kurds in Turkey. Worst of all, Bush's radical new doctrine of pre-emptive warfare -- an option that no future president, Republican or Democratic, will want to take off the table -- has created a precedent certain to be cited by everyone from Turks trying to control their borders to another Hitler out to conquer the world.
Turkey and U.S.-occupied Iraq may or may not go to war. But a big war will surely come as a result of the same feckless American arrogance that allowed things to get this far here.
Ted Rall is the author of the new book "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.
© 2007 Ted Rall