Wexler's Travels

South Florida's bellicose congressman carves up the Middle East

Robert Wexler loves to talk Turkey. The congressman from Boca Raton gobbles on and on about that troubled country, calling it a role model for all Muslim nations to follow and praising its help in the so-called war on terrorism.

"Turkey is secular and democratic, and they are a steadfast ally of the United States," he recently told me. "They are leading the fight in Afghanistan, and I think America has an obligation to help Turkey like they are helping us."

It's a stretch to call the Republic of Turkey a democracy, but everything is a little exaggerated when it comes to Wexler and Turkey. He doesn't just vote for the country's causes; he founded the Congressional Turkey Caucus last year to help build a pro-Turk coalition in the capital. He isn't just friendly with the powerful Turkish lobby; he won a "leadership award" from the American-Turkish Council this past March. Wexler doesn't just want to increase trade with Turkey; at the behest of leading Turkish businessmen, he is working hard in Congress to end tariffs on the country's exports to the United States.

All this for a near-military state with a terrible history of human rights abuses, illegal invasions, and genocide. The republic's anti-democratic ways have kept it from membership in the European Union, but the congressman, along with the Bush administration, hails it as a shining light among nations.

And Wexler, bless him, is doing it all for war.

The Democrat, whose district spreads from north Broward County to parts north of West Palm Beach, has been one of the strongest supporters in Congress for military action in Iraq. During the past couple of years, he's tried to help secure allies in the region, traveling to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, and Jordan, among other countries. And Wexler, who counts the president of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations among his campaign contributors, has made at least two trips to Turkey's capital city, Ankara, since May 2001. No wonder: The country borders northern Iraq, and the United States already uses the Turkish airbase in Incirlik to patrol no-fly zones. No other nation is more important strategically in the fight with Iraq.

To really understand Wexler's motivations, though, you must know about Turkey's relationship with Israel. Any friend of the Jewish state is a friend of the 41-year-old Wexler's. And during the past several years, Turkey has become Israel's close friend, militarily and strategically.

The two countries aren't really natural allies. Though Jews were welcomed in Istanbul in 1492 after they were expelled from Spain, the relationship has had very rocky times. After World War I, for instance, Hebrew language and culture was banned in Turkey for 20 years. During World War II, the predominantly Muslim country was neutral and at times assisted Hitler's Germany. Turkey has, of course, become a bit more moderate since then. It was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel and establish diplomatic ties to it.

Israel and Turkey do have things, mostly negative things, in common. Both, for instance, illegally occupy other people's lands, Turkey in Cyprus and Israel in the Palestinian territories. Both have been accused of massacring civilians. A strong sense of nationalism pervades both countries, and both have militaries that are woven deeply into civilian life. They share common enemies, like Syria and Iraq, and possess seemingly insatiable appetites for armaments.

But Turkey's main arms supplier, the United States, at times has cut off the flow of guns because of Ankara's pesky human rights problems. Israel, which operates under no such silly moral constraints, came to the rescue in 1996, signing a military pact with Turkey. And since then, the Jewish state has helped Turkey procure billions of dollars' worth of arms and modernize its military.

Because of its own interests in the region, principally oil and Israel, America has helped foster the Ankara-Jerusalem alliance. And, lest our politicians lose interest, Israel is pushing its key supporters in Congress -- like Wexler -- to advocate for Turkish interests in the United States. Wexler has performed dutifully in that respect, sponsoring and cosponsoring numerous pro-Turkey bills. The American Jewish establishment is also doing its part: Just this past December 18, nine major Jewish groups -- including the American Jewish Congress, B'nai B'rith International, and the Anti-Defamation League -- wrote President Bush a letter asking that the administration provide Turkey "debt forgiveness, trade concessions, and/or further International Monetary Fund relief." In July, Congress authorized Bush to give the country $228 million in aid.

Money is one thing; propaganda is another. In July, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, another devout backer of Israel, traveled to Ankara and made this amazing declaration: "I think a real test of whether a country is a democracy is how it treats its minorities. And actually it's one of the things that impresses me about Turkish history, the way Turkey treats its own minorities."

Here Wolfowitz proves he's not willing to let the truth get in the way of a good war. He must be familiar with Turkey's early-20th-century oppression of the Jews. And for the past 80 years, Turkey has repressed its 15 million Kurds in horrendous ways, not the least of which has been to ban their language and culture. When Kurdish rebels rose against the military in 1984, the Turks beat down the uprising during the next 15 years, killing 30,000 Kurds, destroying more than 3,000 Kurdish villages, and leaving 3 million Kurds homeless, according to generally accepted figures.

Even more damning is the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1924, an atrocity Turkey has yet to own up to. For the past several years, Turkey has blockaded the border of Armenia to keep goods -- including humanitarian aid like food and medicine -- from reaching that impoverished nation.

If you have the stomach to ignore all of that, Turkey is still far from being a real democracy. Though it is a secular nation of Muslims, which is certainly a worthy attribute, it also has a troublesome history of banning Islamists from running for office. Turkey, in fact, is brutally oppressive to all dissidents, including journalists and political activists. It still employs torture and beatings in its "justice" system, according to numerous human rights groups. They don't call them Turkish prisons for nothing.

The Turkey-Israel dynamo strikes fear in the heart of the Arab world, the region inhabited by 30 million Kurds, Greece, and, of course, Armenia. An article at a popular Greek website (greeksunited.com) conveys some of the consternation felt in the area: "The crude power games played by Turkey and Israel in the Middle East constitute an enormous inflammatory danger to regional peace and to vital American interests in that part of the world."

Human Rights Watch put it this way in its recently released 2002 report: "Turkey's persistent problems relating to torture, free expression, and minority rights kept it as a case apart."

Wexler, in his bullish bid to help Israel and the West dominate the Middle East, seems oblivious to such realities. In May 2001, when the congressman traveled to Turkey on a diplomatic mission, he had war on his mind. "As Iraq's northern neighbor," he said, "there cannot be an anti-Saddam Hussein strategy without the full involvement of Turkey."

This past February, Wexler led a delegation of six members of Congress to Turkey and Israel, where he praised the two countries for their "critical assistance in the war on terrorism... The relationship between Israel and Turkey, which has improved dramatically in recent years, has led to increased stability and security in the region and has improved cooperation on economic, military, cultural, and strategic matters."

In July, the House International Relations Subcommittee on Europe passed a Wexler-sponsored resolution to commend Turkey and Israel. Wexler hailed it in a press release, in which he called upon the Middle East "to follow the example set by these two nations in promoting democracy, peace, and tolerance."

Even as Wexler and the Bush administration have praised the stuffing out of Turkey, the republic has yet to sign on to an Iraq invasion. The issues run deep. During the first Gulf War, Turkey was swamped with Kurdish immigrants -- the last thing that government wants. Today, Turkish leaders fear a repeat of that, and they're afraid that if Iraqi Kurds are liberated, Kurds living in their country will clamor for the same.

The Turkish government especially loathes the mention of one particular word, says Kani Xulam, a Turkish Kurd who runs the Washington, D.C.-based American Kurdish Information Network. "In Turkey, just saying 'Kurdistan' in a political context can get you ten years in prison if you have a zealous prosecutor," he says. "Men like Wolfowitz and Wexler are wrong that it is a model state. Hearing that makes me sick to my stomach. They are pumping up Turkey with what it is not. It has massive problems. It is a dysfunctional, racist state, and its democratic façade is very, very, very thin."

Iraq under Saddam Hussein is even worse, Xulam acknowledges. But he says Kurdish leaders are concerned that America will abandon them when the dictator is gone, just as it did after the first Gulf War. He opposes a U.S. invasion and holds out hope that the anti-Hussein forces in northern Iraq can do the job themselves within the next couple of years.

"The idea of the United States attacking Iraq fills me with great trepidation," Xulam says. "Call me cynical, but I believe the [administration's] wish is that another strong dictator will take over there, only the new top guy will listen to Washington. If I had the ear of Bush, I would tell him that the land is saturated with blood, and adding American blood to it will not make the problem any better. If anything, it will make it worse."

Such concerns don't keep pro-war politicians like Bush and Wexler from constantly referring to the plight of Iraqi Kurds in their pitch for war. In America, Kurds in northern Iraq are deemed freedom fighters while their Turkish brethren are regarded as terrorists. Xulam decries this contradiction and complains that the United States' coddling of Turkey amounts to sheer hypocrisy. "This world we live in can't be home to both tyranny and freedom side by side," he says simply.

It's a bit of wisdom Wexler has yet to acquire.

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