Rick Perry created an international controversy when he claimed, with no basis in fact, that Turkey “is being ruled by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists.” That may be his opinion, but the fact is that the Republic of Turkey is a U.S. ally and a secular democracy ruled by elected leaders. It is not on the State Department’s list of “state-sponsors of terrorism,” and its leaders have not been implicated in any acts of terrorism.
Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., issued a statement that called Perry’s comments “misplaced and ill-advised.” Selcuk Unal, a spokesman for the Turkey foreign minister, called Perry’s statements “baseless and improper.” Mark Toner, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Obama administration officials “absolutely and fundamentally disagree” with the Texas governor’s characterization of Turkey.
Perry’s remarks about Turkey came at the Jan. 16 Republican presidential debate in response to a question from Fox News moderator Bret Baier about whether the country “still belongs in NATO.” The question referenced the country’s high rate of violence against women, restrictions on freedom of the press and, most important, its strained relations with Israel — all of which are true.
Baier: Governor Perry, since the Islamist-oriented party took over in Turkey, the murder rate of women has increased 1,400 percent there. Press freedom has declined to the level of Russia. The prime minister of Turkey has embraced Hamas and Turkey has threatened military force against both Israel and Cypress. Given Turkey’s turn, do you believe Turkey still belongs in NATO?
Perry: Well, obviously when you have a country that is being ruled by, what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists, when you start seeing that type of activity against their own citizens, then yes. Not only is it time for us to have a conversation about whether or not they belong to be in NATO, but it’s time for the United States, when we look at their foreign aid, to go to zero with it.
Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that Perry had “no basis in fact” for calling Turkey’s leaders “Islamic terrorists.”
Cook, Jan. 17: There is no basis in fact that the Justice and Development Party, which has won repeated free and fair elections in Turkey since 2002, is an Islamic terror organization. Neither the party nor any of its members have ever been implicated in violence.
Perry’s foreign policy adviser, Victoria Coates, told reporters after the debate that Perry’s remarks were in response to “questioner’s references to violence against women and to association with Hamas, I think both of which are things that many people do associate as he said with Islamic terrorists.”
It is true that violence against women, “including honor killings and rape,” is a “widespread problem” in Turkey, according to the State Department’s latest human rights report for that country. Citing figures from Turkey’s justice minister, the Voice of America last year reported that 66 Turkish women were killed in 2002 and a staggering 953 through the first seven months of 2009 — an increase of 1,400 percent, as Baier said in his question.
It is also true that Turkey supports Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is on the State Department list of “foreign terrorist organizations.” Cook, the Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Turkey has a “blind side when it comes to Hamas’ record of violence.”
It’s Turkey’s support of Hamas that has been a source of strained relations with Israel — relations that worsened in May 2010. That’s when a six-ship flotilla sought to break an Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, and the Israelis responded with a raid on the Mavi Marmara, the largest of the six boats, that killed nine Turks and wounded 55 other persons (three Israeli soldiers were also wounded). In explaining Perry’s remarks, Coates cited Turkey’s “support for the flotilla against Israel.” She said, “It’s deeply concerning, and I think it’s something that any future American president needs to be aware of.”
Israel says it was trying to prevent weapons, terrorists and money from entering and exiting the Gaza Strip, and flotilla organizers claimed they were trying to provide humanitarian aid. Cook said that “there are allegations that the IHH, which was a Turkish organizer of the flotilla, has links to terror organizations. Both IHH and the Turkish government reject these claims and insist that the real issue is Israel’s blockade of Gaza and what they see as Israel’s excessive use of force when Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara.”
A September 2011 United Nations report on the incident determined the flotilla was “a non-governmental endeavour, involving vessels and participants from a number of countries.” It described attempts to breach the blockade as “dangerous and reckless” and the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara as “excessive and unreasonable.” As for the government of Turkey’s role in the incident, the U.N. report said that Turkey tried to get the flotilla organizers to “change course,” but it also said “more could have been done to warn the flotilla participants of the potential risks involved and to dissuade them from their actions.”
After the U.N. report was released, Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Israel that he has authorized warships in the future “to protect our ships that carry humanitarian aid to Gaza.” Baier referenced that military threat in his question to Perry.
What has all this done to U.S.-Turkey relations? Perry used the past tense to describe Turkey as an ally. Turkey “was our ally, that worked with us, but today we don’t see that,” he said. Cook said that, too, is wrong. Cook described U.S.-Turkey relations as “quite good.”
“There are differences and there have been tensions over Iran and Israel, but overall the Obama administration and the Erdogan government have worked together constructively on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the changing politics in the Arab world,” Cook said.
In his statement, the Turkey ambassador to the U.S. stressed his country’s partnership with the United States in “fighting terrorism” and weapons of mass destruction.
Tan, Jan. 17: Turkey is a secular democracy that has for decades been an essential and trusted partner of the U.S. Our bilateral relations are based on the common values of democracy and respect for human rights, rule of law, and free market economy. Whether in the fight against terrorism or violent extremism, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria or against the proliferation of WMD, we stand side by side to tackle the many common threats and challenges of our times.
Obama, Dec. 19: Turkey and Israel are both key allies of the United States. The relationship between them has been a source of regional stability, and one we have encouraged. I support Turkey’s and Israel’s efforts to find an acceptable way forward, and I encourage both nations to do everything they can to repair their relations.
Update, Jan. 20: Ross Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, also told us that Turkey is “not led by ‘Islamic terrorists’” and, on the contrary, “its policies are oriented to address, combat and where necessary confront ‘Islamic terrorists’ – i.e., al-Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as the Taliban and other groups.” He added that “not one analyst I know of in this country” would agree with Perry’s statement. Wilson, who served as ambassador from 2005 to 2008 under President George W. Bush, responded to our request for an interview after we published this item and after Perry dropped out of the race. His full email is below.
Wilson, Jan. 19: I would not want to speculate on why Governor Perry spoke the way he did. The fact of the matter is that the Turkish government is not led by “Islamic terrorists.” Not one analyst I know of in this country, including those who are extremely skeptical of the character and motives, internationally and domestically, of the current Turkish government leadership, has made such a statement or assessment. On the contrary, Turkey and its government leaders have been the target of repeated terrorist threats and attacks, including from al-Qaeda successfully in 2003 and on a number of other occasions less successfully since then. Its policies are oriented to address, combat and where necessary confront “Islamic terrorists” — i.e., al-Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as the Taliban and other groups — as well as other terrorist groups, including [Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front] DHKP-C, which has targeted Americans, and the so-called Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). These efforts have been strongly supported by the United States. I would be hesitant to use the term “support” to characterize Turkey’s policy toward Hamas. It has carried out a dialogue, limited for the most part except for the visit of Hamas leader Khalid Mashal to Ankara in 2006, that has aimed, according to senior Turkish leaders involved, at drawing Hamas away from terrorism. This dialogue has not succeeded (though Gaza/Hamas PM [Prime Minister Ismail] Haniyeh has, allegedly made official statements that some may interpret as moving the organization in that direction), but this does not mean that it is or should be equated with support for terrorism, including Hamas terrorism. It should be noted, however, that PM [Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has referred to Hamas as “freedom fighters,” and US and other leaders have confronted him on this. And Turkish leaders have been unequivocal about support for the Palestinian people, including those in Gaza, but this also does not constitute support for terrorism per se, and Turkey has strongly supported Israel’s right to exist and the diplomacy of the United States and others to bring about a two democratic states solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are many aspects to the so-called flotilla incident that are unpleasant and reflect poorly on Turkey, among other parties, but terrorism is not one of them. Finally, Turkey has been a major supporter — as a NATO member and otherwise — in US and allied efforts to combat terrorism, as well as on a broad front of other issues. Its agreement to host a missile defense radar station in its southeast — not far from the Iranian border — on NATO’s behalf is the most recent reflection of Turkey’s strong, pro-NATO stance on the most compelling transatlantic security threat of the 21st century. Most of Turkey’s work with us and with others on terrorism issues is, correctly, classified, but I would characterize it as strong policy and operational backing on a broad front and in various parts of the region around Turkey.
– Eugene Kiely