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The Story Behind Turkey’s ‘No’ Vote on Iraq in 2003

On March 1, 2003, the Turkish parliament voted to refuse the United States military the permission to invade Iraq from the north on Turkish soil.  Although this event was both condemned by the United States Government and hailed by much of the Islamic world as an act of clear defiance, in reality the decision itself hinged on a mere three votes (264-251 with 19 abstentions) and occurred within in a context of official U.S.-Turkish cooperation on Iraq throughout 2003 and beyond.  Thus the decision was neither clear nor defiant, but rather the result of a nebulous and conflicted process of political maneuvering within the Turkish government, in spite of the near unanimity of public opinion against the war as well as a set of shared concerns among political elites.   In a limited sense, the tense and murky decision-making process reflected Samuel Huntington’s (1996) notion of Turkey as the epitome of a “torn country,” where elites and masses conflicted over different visions for their country’s strategic and cultural orientation.

Doug Penhallegon is a Summer Research Fellow at the Rethink Institute in Washington, DC and a PhD student in political science at George Mason University.  He is also an adjunct professor of history and Middle East politics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA.

However, whereas Huntington crudely divided Turkish politics between the secular establishment and the Muslim / pro-Islamist majority, the politics of the March 2003 vote on “Article 92” were in fact complicated by a dual paradox: the recent electoral triumph of a pro-Western Islamist party (the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP, aka the Justice and Development Party), and a chastened, conflicted military elite (Turkish General Staff, or TGS) that for various reasons did not perform their usual role as Washington had come to expect.  Given these anomalies, explaining the reasons behind Turkey’s historic refusal to countenance the Iraq war requires a look into the “black box” of the state, an endeavor that can be further elucidated through realist scholar Kenneth Waltz’s (1959) “levels of analysis” for explaining international relations.  This paper argues that of Waltz’s three images – individual, state, and systemic – the second image focusing on Turkey’s internal structure and ensuing political dynamics yields the greatest explanatory purchase.  For it is on this level that the peripheral pressures of the international system as well as the personal views of Turkey’s leaders were absorbed by domestic political factors and the structure of the Turkish state.

Summary of the Foreign Policy Problem

From a global historical perspective, Turkey has long played a critical role in the East-West geographical and cultural divide, and therefore repeatedly has found itself having to navigate a strategic path between the two regions.  As an historical aside, centuries and even millennia before the inception of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923 the land once known as Asia Minor was home to the Hittites, the great rival to the Greeks during the Trojan War, a seminal event upon which the original “Western” identity was constructed.  Later conquered by Alexander the Great and the Seleucid Dynasty that followed, and in turn the Romans, this region was further Christianized and Hellenized under the authoritarian auspices of Byzantium, an empire that survived the fall of Rome in the West by a millennium and throughout the Middle Ages absorbed various waves of Muslim expansion and conquest.  From the fifteenth century to the end of World War One Turkey was the seat of the Ottoman Empire, which embraced Sunni Islam and ruled much of the Arab “Middle East” until 1918.  For the rest of the twentieth century Turkey lunged westward, embracing a staunch program of secularism and modernization under the banner of Kemalism, named after the Republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal (aka “Ataturk”).  Though widely beloved and revered by the Turkish people then and today, Kemal’s vision has also lent itself to regular military interventions (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997) into the Turkish parliamentary system in order to protect the secular power base of the country from a potential Islamicization of the social and political order, and is often justified under the pretense of “saving democracy.”  Indeed, this tension between secularism and Islam became acute in the 1990s and remains the central theme in Turkish politics today (Patton, 2010).

While Ataturk unequivocally embraced secularism under the French model of laicism, thereby granting coercive powers to the state to prohibit and/or strictly regulate the practice of religion, his main objective was to facilitate Turkish nationalism by encouraging his people to jettison their Ottoman, Muslim, Middle Eastern heritage and embrace a new identity as modern citizens of Turkey.  Such nationalism was designed to empower the Turkish people to withstand the colonial designs of Europeans which were wreaking havoc upon the Arab Middle East at the time.  Thus, Ataturk’s program sought to emulate the Western model in order to become strong and independent like the West, in order to then withstand future imperial challenges from Europe as well as Turkey’s other historic rival to the north, Russia.  Given this latter concern, along with the United States’ lack of a direct colonial legacy in the Middle East and the exigencies of the Cold War, it is no surprise that Turkey and the United States became close allies in the late 1940s and remained so through the 1960s, and arguably to this day.  One of the original repositories of the Truman Doctrine, Turkey later joined NATO in 1952 and throughout the next four decades largely supported the United States along with its allies Israel and Iran (pre-1979) much to the collective ire of Arab nations, many of whom aligned with the Soviet Union.

However, by the 1990s the partnership between the United States and Turkey was coming under strain.  The end of the Cold War removed the shared threat of the Soviet Union, and as Russia retreated from the world stage in order to confront its severe domestic challenges, Turkey felt less reliant on the U.S. / NATO security umbrella and therefore sought out an expanded and autonomous presence in central Asia and later the Middle East.  Not wanting to lose its superpower patron, however, during this same time Turkey firmly committed itself to the Washington Consensus and underwent a tremendous economic boom as a result which yielded a virtuous cycle of growth at home and engagement abroad (Fuller 2008, 40-41).  In an effort to demonstrate Turkey’s ongoing relevance to the USA, President Turgut Ozal also committed his nation to the American-led coalition against Saddam Hussein in 1991, although this proved to be a disaster that would linger in Turkish memory well into the next decade.  Over all, the Gulf War cost Turkey 1.2$ billion in lost revenue from oil and tourism, sparked a massive refugee crisis from northern Iraq, and established a de facto Kurdish autonomous zone under Western protection, all of which “greatly increased Turkish ambivalence about the costs and benefits of close strategic support for U.S. policies in the region” (Fuller 2008, 41). This ambivalence exacerbated broader political fallout as Islamism in the form of the Welfare Party led by Necmettin Erbakan benefitted from its criticism of the excessively Western orientation of the secular establishment.  Eventually the establishment orchestrated a “soft coup” in 1997 forcing Erbakan to resign from his post as Prime Minister, but not before “the Islamists … had shown themselves capable of good municipal administration and were noted for their lack of corruption” (Fuller 44).

Given the surging appeal of Islamism in Turkey that threatened to undermine public confidence in the secular establishment (as embodied mainly in the military, judiciary, and higher educational institutions as well as the Republican People’s Party aka RPP / CHP), as well as a severe economic collapse in 2001 which many Turks blamed on the neoliberal policies of the IMF / Washington Consensus, the terrorist attacks on September 11th were viewed by both nations as an opportunity to bolster their alliance.  For their part, the Turks had been waging a “war on terror” against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) based in northern Iraq, whose ultimate goal was to fracture the territorial integrity of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran in order to forge a sovereign Kurdistan.  The Turkish government therefore saw the new and urgent focus on terrorism from the United States as “vindicating,” and “moreover, the obscuritanist character of both the Taliban and al-Qaida enhanced the ruling secular Turkish civilian and military elites’ view that making concessions to Islamists, whether in Turkey or in the Middle East, was the beginning of a slippery slope” (Barkey 2007, 455).  Thus the Turkish government eagerly positioned itself as a key supporter of the Bush Administration’s war in Afghanistan, providing logistical and material support as well as its “credentials as a Muslim ally of the United States at time when many in the Islamic world [including a majority of the Turkish public] began to perceive the war on terrorism as a war on Islam” (Barkey 2007, 455).

Along with economic crisis and other domestic issues, this tension between a pro-American secular elite and a disillusioned public inclined more toward Islam and a reengagement with other Muslim nations manifested itself most dramatically in the parliamentary elections of November 3, 2002.  Indeed, a full 79% of eligible voters turned out to create a “political earthquake” in which the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamist faction recently formed out of the ashes of the banned and defunct Welfare Party, captured 34.2% of the vote and 363 out of 550 seats in Grand National Assembly (TBMM), or parliament (Patton 2010, 435).  Trailing in distant second was the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) with 19.4% of the vote, while all other parties failed to surpass the 10% threshold required for representation (Paton 444).  The AKP was initially led by Prime Minister Abdullah Gul because the real power behind the scenes, former mayor of Istanbul Teyyip Erdogan, was officially banned from politics due to his past critical statements toward the government, although in mid March 2003 (after the March 1 incident) Erdogan became prime minister while Gul assumed the job of foreign minister.

The triumph of the AKP in November 2002 marked the convergence of several social and ideological trends with foreign policy implications, which Omer Taspinar (2008) and other scholars have aptly termed “neo-Ottomanism” or “soft Islamism.”  Neo-Ottomanism refers to the effort to move beyond the confines of the Kemalist obsession with nationalism and “Turkishness,” and to embrace a more inclusive ethos regarding ethnic minorities, as well as a reengagement with the Middle East and Islamic world at large.  Although the AKP had very little experience with foreign policy and mainly appealed to voters based on their affiliation with well-run Islamic charities and social services (Hale and Ozbudun 2010), they did support the vision of “strategic depth” as promulgated by Ahmet Davutoglu in 2001.   Davutoglu is a prominent scholar and political appointee in Turkey and a longtime advisor to the AKP who argues that Turkey should move beyond its traditional role as a pro-Western satellite and a “bridge” nation between East and West, and assert itself as a central, active player through the projection of “soft power” diplomatic and economic engagement, and whose invigorated sphere of interest would now include central Asia, Russia, China, and the Middle East.  However, the byword for “strategic depth” was “zero problems,” in that the vision of the AKP was to pursue these new interests without alienating old friends or abandoning prior agendas, such as the United States (though there was some distancing from Israel, at least rhetorically) and the bid for accession to the European Union, respectively.           

Ironically in fact, by 2002 the AKP was almost more pro-Western than the Kemalists, in the sense that the latter was growing fatigued with the constant pressures from the EU to reform along democratic and liberal lines, while the former exploited such recommendations in their effort to penetrate the secular establishment and become a mainstream force in Turkish politics.  Furthermore, the AKP’s commitment to human rights and democracy also entailed greater participation for the Kurdish minority in the southeast, and a relaxing of secularism away from laicism (state dominates religion) toward a more “Anglo-American” model of separation of religion and the state (Patton 2010).  Additionally, the AKP embraced the United States’ efforts to depict Turkey as a bastion for moderate Islam as part of its broader ideological struggle against radical jihadism, while the Kemalist CHP balked at this notion, arguing to the contrary that the AKP had a hidden authoritarian and Islamic agenda.  It was into this domestic climate of mistrust and political upheaval between the staunchly secular establishment and the ultra-moderate Islamists that the United States then “dropped the other shoe” (Barkey 2007, 455) – that is, sought Turkey’s permission to utilize its airspace and military bases for the pending invasion of Iraq.

Analysis of Formulation Process for the Policy

A. First Image: The Individual Level of Analysis

Of the three levels of analysis put forth by Waltz, the individual level is the least helpful.  First of all, there are critical information gaps that must be overcome before any meaningful insight can be gleaned along these lines, as “a full account of the failed negotiation over the northern front cannot occur without the declassification of government documents in the United States and Turkey,” which will not occur until at least March 2013 (Kapsis 2006, 2).  Second, because this issue occurred fairly recently and many of the key players (especially in the AKP) are still in positions of power, the academic literature remains limited and much of the first-hand accounts given through interviews took place off the record (Kapsis 2006, 15).  Third, the actual vote on March 1, 2003 was closed, meaning, individual Members of Parliament (MPs) did not have to disclose their position to the public as only the final count mattered.   This deliberate strategy on the part of Erdogan to give members cover to support the resolution backfired, as instead they voted their conscience and defeated the measure without fear of retribution (Kapsis 2006, 10). Finally, the Turkish National Security Council and National General Staff, two bastions of the secular establishment, are notorious for exercising power from behind the scenes and therefore rarely produce prominent individual personalities amenable to a First Image framework.
That said, one could make a case that because the final ballot came down to only three votes, it is possible that a slight shift borne of a strong individual presence could have made all the difference. Specifically, because then-Prime Minister Abdullah Gul expressed grave concerns about the measure and is suspected to have even voted against it, whereas Prime Minister-elect Erdogan publically supported it but did not yet have the official power within the party to sway more votes, this could have been decisive.  As one scholar wrote:

“Erdogan has always been the head of this party but he was prohibited from running for parliament in elections last November.  Therefore when his party swept to power with close to two-thirds majority in parliament, he was not elected to parliament nor was he allowed to be prime minister. In his place, a close associate, Abdullah Gul, was prime minister and most observers I think in Turkey feel certainly in retrospect that it was partially his failure to really put his personal credibility on the line behind the passage of the resolution at the beginning of March that allowed up to close to 100 members of their party group to defect” (Online NewsHour, 2003).

This analysis is supported by another scholar who claimed that Gul and his inner circle embraced an idealistic, moralistic worldview rooted in the vision of Turkey as a peaceful force toward the resurgence of pan-Islamic civilization, whereas the more street-savvy Erdogan, who had come from a poor family and gone on to become the popular mayor of Istanbul, tended toward a more pragmatic and opportunistic bent, and thus prioritized courting American favor to prove the AKP’s “moderation” above all else (Yavuz 2009, 233).

B. Second Image: The State Level of Analysis

Whereas the personality differences between Gul and Erdogan may or may not have had an effect on the defeat of Article 92, the structure of the Turkish political system most certainly did.  This is true in terms of military-civil relations as well as the parliamentary system, together which allowed for a degree of political calculation, confusion, and cowardice that in the end toppled the motion.  The term cowardice is warranted because in spite of the fact that the AKP was elected by an overwhelming plurality and that the Kemalist forces often claim to represent the public interest even as they are not held accountable to it, and in spite of the fact that policymakers both in the AKP and among the Kemalists held genuine qualms about lending Turkish support to the United States, the vote still ended up being as close as it was.  Bal (2004) notes that the CHP (Kemalist opposition party) was “openly against the permission. They alleged that this war is not legitimate, Turkey should say “no” to America to protect its own interest and should stay away from this war [sic]” (140). Meanwhile the military, who the CHP represented in parliament, also had been going astray from its traditionally pro-Western, pro-American roots ever since the 1991 debacle, and correctly feared that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would similarly destabilize the border and inflame Kurdish nationalist sentiments.  Thus the military was sincerely opposed to the war but reluctant to offend their superpower patron by acting on this position, and in addition saw the March 1st vote as a “win-win” in terms of their struggle against the AKP.  If the vote passed without intervention from the military, the Turkish public would excoriate the civilian leadership, but if it did not pass (once again without intervention from the military), the wrath of the United States would fall upon the AKP, and not them (Larabee 2010).  As it turned out the plan backfired in both the short and long term.  Even though Article 92 was defeated and it is not entirely clear what the military’s position was at the time (Barkey 2007), the wrath of the USA came down upon the National General Staff for not intervening to ensure its passage, while the AKP enjoyed a public relations bonanza both at home and abroad for their putative moral courage in defying the Bush Administration, even though Erdogan and other party leaders had supported the resolution as a way to curry favor with America and prove their pro-Western bona fides.  While the exact dynamics of the decision process remain a mystery to this day, two facets are clear enough: first, despite the ambiguous role of the military, “opposition to the invasion of Iraq was based on real security worries, not Muslim sentiment, and stretched across the political spectrum” (Hale and Ozbudun 2010, 145), and second, “internal party divisions played a critical role in the voting process, with most of the Islamists and the Kurdish parliamentarians voting against the motion” (Yavuz 2009, 234).  Therefore, in the final analysis it seems as if the domestic political structure of the Turkish state, which facilitated such divisive and disingenuous politicking between the Kemalist institutional establishment and the majority AKP and opposition CHP in parliament, was the main causal factor behind the demise of Article 92, and more broadly Turkey’s brief yet profound moment of resistance to American unipolar dominance in the Middle East post-September 11.

B. Third Image: The Systemic Level of Analysis

In David Singer’s review of Man, the State and War, the author claims that the ultimate question posed by International Relations is, “what are the sources and causes of war?” (1961, 453).  And yet in this case the challenge is not to answer that question but rather its converse: namely, what are the sources and causes for a nation’s decision not to go to war?  Whereas Waltz asserted that domestic politics and individual factors pale in comparison to unitary rational actor models for state behavior in an anarchic international environment, the case of Turkey and its March 1, 2003 opposition to U.S. war plans demonstrates to the contrary that there was indeed an enormous and decisive level of internal division at work.  This division completely undermined the Turkish government’s ability to speak with one voice, even as it trended toward support for its traditional Western ally both before and after this singularly provocative incident.  Therefore third level analyses privileging external pressures at the expense of domestic politics or the particular structure of a state, while often the most accurate and informative model for international relations, do not offer the greatest explanatory purchase here.  The Turkish people were almost unanimously opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq; Turkey by 2002 had almost fully evolved as a representative democracy; the military, normally a stalwart pro-American ally, did not get involved except to the extent that its parliamentary representative opposed the motion, and yet still the vote ended up being extremely close.  In the end this reflects not a unitary state acting rationally and coherently to pursue its interests in a predictably anarchical world order, but rather the complex internal dynamics of the state itself in the pursuit of multiple and even contradictory foreign policy goals.


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Kapsis, James. 2006. “The Failure of U.S. – Turkish Pre-War Negotiations: An Overconfident United States, Political Mismanagement, and a Conflicted Military.”  The Middle East Review of International Affairs, 10(3).  http://merida.idc.ac.il/journal/2006/issue3/jv10no3a3.html

Larrabee, F. Stephen and Ian O. Lesser.  2003.  Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty.  Santa Monica: RAND.
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Patton, Marcie.  2010.  “Turkey.”  In Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Michele P. Angrist.  Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

Singer, David. 1960. “International Conflict: Three Levels of Analysis.”  World Politics 12(3): 453-461. Taspinar, Omer. 2008.  “Turkey’s Middle East Policies: Between Neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism.”  Carnegie Papers, Number 10.  Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Waltz, Kenneth.  1959.  Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Yavuz, Hakan.  2009.  Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • January 31, 2021