Recorded Oct 19, 2007
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: President Bush held an unusual press conference in Washington on October 17, partly unusual given how rarely there are any press conferences given by President Bush. But at any rate, aside from some domestic issues, he also discussed the US foreign policy in relation to a wide range of countries and global issues. I’m joined by our Senior News Analyst, Aijaz Ahmad, to discuss the implications of what President Bush said. And let’s start with Turkey. So here’s what President Bush was asked, and here’s what he had to say about the possibility of Turkish troops entering Iraq.
White House Press Conference
October 17, 2007
GEORGE W. BUSH, US PRESIDENT: We are making it very clear to Turkey that we don’t think it is in their interests to send troops into Iraq. Actually, they have troops already stationed in Iraq, and they’ve had troops stationed there for quite awhile. We don’t think it’s in their interests to send more troops in. There’s a better way to deal with the issue than having the Turks send massive troops into the country—massive additional troops into the country.
JAY: Can you start with giving us a little bit of background? Who’s fighting whom here? What is it that the Turkish parliament’s concerned about? And then how serious is there about a massive troop movement from Turkey into Iraq? And what would be the implications of that?
AIJAZ AHMAD, SENIOR NEWS ANALYST: Well, you see, this is a very long-standing problem. There are large concentrations of Kurdish population in Turkey, in Iraq, in Iran, and to a lesser extent in Syria. These are also highly centralized states, which do not recognize rights of religious or cultural or linguistic minorities, particularly Turkey. Turkey has always been very sensitive, always said there’s one Turkish nation, there’s one Turkish language, which is the national language, and so on and so forth.
JAY: In terms of the Kurdish population, how many Kurds live on the Turkish side of the border, and what’s the Kurdish population on the Iraqi side of the border?
AHMAD: The whole of eastern Turkey is essentially a Kurdish zone in which other ethnic minorities also live. But it’s predominantly a Kurdish area. Similarly in Iraq it’s a very large part of the territory.
JAY: So some of the Kurdish political forces want to unite Kurdish Iraq, Kurdish Turkey, in an independent Kurdish [crosstalk].
AHMAD: Kurdish Iraq, Kurdish Turkey, Kurdish Iran, and even Kurdish Syria. And if they were to be united, that would in fact form a very substantial, very large state.
JAY: So all these other states—Syria, Iran, Turkey, Iraq—have a common interest in stopping this.
AHMAD: That’s right. And one of the fallouts of the creation of a virtually semi-sovereign state of the Kurds in western Iraq after the US occupation is that all the other three states are very nervous that sooner or later this Kurdish zone in Iraq will gain full sovereignty and will become the base from which military incursions into these three states will increasingly be stepped up towards the realization of such a state.
JAY: And there’s a tremendous amount of oil and natural resources at stake here. If there were an independent Kurdish country in Iraq, if it became to try to include the Kurdish population in the neighboring countries, we’d be talking a relatively wealthy state here.
AHMAD: Yes. Actually, Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991 has already become quite a stable and prosperous state. It has some oil of its own, but it is also claiming that the Kirkuk area, which is so far not a part of Kurdistan, in Iraq—. Kirkuk area actually has a Kurdish population, a Turkman population, which is historically of a Turkish origin, as well as Arab populations. So it’s actually ethnically a mixed area, Kurdistan. The Kurds’ parties in Iraq claim that as a part of it. If they get that area, then they become a very major oil power.
JAY: Now, the Kurds, certainly since this no-fly zone, if not before, but since that point have had quite a close relationship to the United States, closer than any of the other Iraqi political forces. What is the American strategic interest here? ‘Cause one could imagine it might be in America’s interest to have an independent Kurdistan, a Kurdish state, although then it positions the United States in a direct conflict with Turkey. The White House said they were opposed to this congressional resolution on the genocide of Armenians, but Congress voted for it, and then included a lot of Republicans voting for it.
AHMAD: You see, it’s very interesting to me that this bill condemning the Armenian genocide of 1915 came up at all, in the sense that of course there was a genocide. It’s a very tragic part of Turkish history and Armenian history, I must say. Of course it happened. But why should this year, a year before the next US elections, should such a bill be—? So at a certain level it is a deliberate provocation towards the Turkish state. They want more and more Turkish compliance. On the question of Iraq, you would recall that Turkish parliament had refused to endorse the idea of sending Turkish troops as part of the coalition troops in Iraq.
JAY: In the original invasion [crosstalk]
AHMAD: And invasion is being prepared now for Iran. Turkey and Iran are drawing closer on the Kurdish question, because both states face the same problem. This is partly to put pressure on Turkey to dissociate itself from Iran, from improving it more, the relationship. Then, you see, these Caspian Sea, the small states that have arisen in the Caspian Sea basin are Turkic (Turkish)-speaking. They used to be a part of the Ottoman Empire until late 19th century when the Tsarist Empire conquered them.
JAY: And these are the leaders that just met in Iran that Putin’s visit that we’re going to talk [crosstalk]
AHMAD: That’s right.
JAY: [crosstalk] in the next segment about.
AHMAD: That is right. And those states are drawing closer and closer to Russia. Turkey has its own regional ambitions in those areas. The United States wants to press Turkey to play a more aggressive role in relation to those states in terms of containment [crosstalk] The Americans want to support a sort of Turkey-dominated Caspian Sea basin, so far as that other side which lies between Russia and Iran is concerned. In fact, it is part of the rising cold war between the United States and Russia, in which the United States wants Turkey to play a more active role. I think they were very surprised by the level at which the response came from Turkey, because the response came not even so much from the prime minister, Erdoğan, but from the chief of staff of the Turkish army. Now, Turkey has the largest army in NATO. Turkey has a kind of weaponry that the United States has not supplied even to Germany. It’s an extremely powerful army. And when the chief of the Turkish general staff says that Turkey will have to reconsider its military relationships with the United States, that is, when they start backing off.
JAY: Are we seeing the fallout of perhaps a somewhat new strategic weakness of the United States, post-Iraq war? But all the powers in the region are starting to reassess what their strength is and what the future is.
AHMAD: Absolutely. I agree with you, because underneath all this, the US is suggesting somewhere there in Turkey that if you do not follow some of these policies that we want you to follow, then Iraqi Kurdistan can remain an area from which incursions will continue and expand into Turkey. And Turkey retaliated immediately.
JAY: A very dangerous game.
AHMAD: Yeah. It’s a kind of brinksmanship. And you are seeing this happening in country after country, where the US exerts pressure, and to the extent possible the country retaliates by saying, no, we are not going to follow the policies that you are telling us to follow. And that is an indication of declining US strategic power.
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