WASHINGTON -- While Iraq has been receiving most of the Clinton administration's attention in the past several weeks, a much quieter U.S. initiative could have similarly profound consequences for the region.
In a highly risky move, Salon has learned, the administration is offering a major arms-for-human-rights deal to one of its most important allies, Turkey.
In exchange for improvements in its dismal human rights record, Turkey would get to buy $3.5 billion worth of American attack helicopters as a reward. Turkey has tentatively agreed to the quid-pro-quo -- which some human rights activists liken to rewarding a recovering drug addict with clean needles.
Apart from the domestic hurdles the proposed deal faces here, it could also be scuttled by America's closest ally of all -- Israel, which has formed a consortium with Russia to sell Turkey high-tech helicopters with no human rights strings attached.
The U.S. initiative reflects concern about the political and economic problems currently plaguing Turkey, which has served as a crucial Middle East staging post for the U.S. From Turkish bases, American warplanes patrol the skies over Iraq. Turkey is also the gateway to the oil-rich Caspian region of Central Asia, and is the geographical and cultural crossing point between the Islamic world and Europe.
While Turkey is one of the more democratic and economically powerful countries in the region, senior U.S. policy makers fear that the country's progress is being undermined by its violations of human rights, especially toward its minority Kurdish population. It was this issue that prompted the European Union recently to slam shut Turkey's entrance to the rich bloc of nations, prompting a sense of outrage and shame among Turks.
U.S. officials believe the attack helicopters may serve as a tempting carrot to induce Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz to implement long-promised human rights reforms, including a halt to torture, the release from prison of critical journalists and opposition parliamentarians and an end to the state of emergency in the southeastern corner of the country, where the Turkish army has been waging a fierce war against Kurdish rebels for the past 13 years.
Turkey, eager to buy the U.S. helicopters, has pledged to meet the administration's criteria for the sale. Two weeks ago, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck, one of the architects of the initiative, flew to Turkey for further discussions with political and military leaders on the reforms and how the United States will monitor their implementation.
"There is a recognition on the part of everybody involved that Turkey's human rights performance has got to be improved," a senior administration official said. "It can't be cosmetic."
But some lawmakers, human rights groups and arms control experts are skeptical. Turkey has made such promises before, they say, only to ignore their commitments once they received American weapons. These critics are anticipating a bitter battle on Capitol Hill if American companies win the contract and the administration tries to push through the sale without substantive proof of human rights improvements.
As if to confirm their doubts, Turkish prosecutors recently ordered the
arrests of the popular mayor of Istanbul and the entire 57-member
leadership of the People's Democracy Party, one of the country's few legal
pro-Kurdish organizations, on charges of incitement. Late last year, the
courts outlawed the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party -- which headed a
minority government for a while -- as a threat to Turkey's secular
tradition. Meanwhile, the army has continued its campaign against the
Kurds, imprisoning leaders and banning their political activities.
According to human rights activists, the military campaign in the southeast
has left more than 2.5 million villagers displaced from their
villages and thousands dead. The war also has drained the Turkish economy
and fueled the rise of anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism.
Administration officials do not downplay the risks involved with the
initiative. But they argue that a number of factors have come together to
make the administration's initiative both timely and promising.
First, Turkey, a member of NATO and one of America's closest allies in the
Middle East, has determined that it needs the helicopters to bolster its
aging fleet and already has issued its $3.5 billion tender, the largest
contract Turkey has ever offered.
Second, Clinton policy aides say, Turkey has indicated it would prefer to
buy the Super Cobra, made by Bell Textron of Fort Worth, Texas, and Apache,
produced by McDonnell Douglas/Boeing of Mesa, Ariz., partly because the
U.S.-made aircraft are considered the best, and partly because Turkey,
smarting over the rebuff from the European Union, does not want to give the
business to a European manufacturer.
Third, such a sale would deepen the political and strategic relationship
between Turkey and the United States, a development that has become more
attractive to Ankara since the E.U.'s rejection.
All these elements, together with Yilmaz's public pledge to "bring human
rights in Turkey to the highest level," have given the administration a
degree of leverage that it hasn't had before, the officials say.
The administration first broached the offer last November, when Turkish
military commanders met in Washington with senior State Department and
Pentagon officials. Quoting Yilmaz's pledge, the Americans said that in
exchange for improved Turkish performance in a dozen areas of human rights
concerns, the administration would permit U.S. companies to compete for the
helicopter tender. In addition to ending torture, restrictions on free
speech and the state of emergency in the southeast, the suggested list of
improvements also includes greater police accountability, reopening of
human rights offices, resettlement of villages and economic aid to refugees.
Within a matter of days, administration officials said, the Turkish
Yilmaz followed up in December with a visit to Washington,
where the same list of concerns was presented to him. Pentagon officials
say the list was the only item on the agenda during Yilmaz's meeting with
Defense Secretary William Cohen. When Yilmaz met later with President
Clinton, the Turkish leader went through the list again, pledging improved
performance in all areas. According to officials who were present at the
White House meeting, President Clinton replied, "We just want you to do
what you say you will do."
On Dec. 23, the State Department granted a marketing license that allows
American companies to compete for the Turkish contract. Turkey is expected
to announce the winner in the spring of 1999.
That gives the Turks a year to prove they're serious about improving their
human rights performance. Officials say the Turks have been made aware that
the final judge of their performance -- and any proposed U.S. weapons sale
-- will be Congress, which can signal its opposition to the sale within 30
days of its announcement. A two-thirds majority in both houses is needed to
override the president on the sale.
"The Turks tend to think our Congress is like their parliament, that when
push comes to shove, the government always can get a congressional stamp of
approval," one official said. "That isn't the case here."
Indeed, opposition on Capitol Hill toward the administration's initiative
is already building. One senior senatorial staffer questioned the sincerity
of the human rights component, saying it was "tacked on" to enable the
administration to give American companies the green light to bid on the
contract. "They'll try to get the Turks to improve their performance, just
as they have in the past," the staffer said. "But in the end, if there
haven't been any improvements, they'll just dream up some."
Perhaps the strongest opponent of any arms sales to Turkey is Sen. Paul
Sarbanes, D-Md. In previous years, Sarbanes, who is Greek by heritage and
backed by the powerful Greek lobby in Washington, has held up several
proposed arms sales to Turkey, and congressional aides say he will fight
any helicopter sale as well.
"I can't see any big weapons sales coming by that won't encounter huge
opposition," one aide said.
In an effort to garner support, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe
Marc Grossman and Shattuck held a briefing recently for human rights groups
and arms control experts, stating that Washington will be looking for
"significant progress in all areas over the next year." But what, some of
the activists present wanted to know, constitutes "significant progress"?
Another major concern expressed by participants was how the administration
would enforce its pledge to monitor the use of the helicopters once
they were in Turkey's hands. Administration officials admitted the details
had not yet been worked out and that some of the items on the list, like
the use-monitoring clause, could be "deal-breakers."
Meanwhile, lobbyists for the aircraft industry are preparing to weigh in on
Capitol Hill, arguing that a rejection of the Turkish contract would cost
15,000 jobs and force companies like McDonnell Douglas and Bell Textron to
close down assembly lines. "If [the U.S] threatens to make them buy from
somebody else, then what they do is buy from somebody else," says Joel
Johnson, a lobbyist for the Aerospace Industries Association.
Highlighting Johnson's concerns, a new bid for the Turkish contract
recently came in from an unexpected quarter: a Russian-Israeli consortium
that is offering the Kamov KA-50 attack helicopter packed with
super-sophisticated Israeli avionics. Israel, which has won contracts to
modernize Turkey's fleet of F-4 and F-5 warplanes, also offers financing,
which the United States does not. Some officials have expressed concern
that the Russian-Israeli bid could undermine the administration's Turkey
"You know they're not going to bother the Turks about human rights," said
Johnson, sounding wistful. "The Turks and the Israelis understand each