Wexler's Travels | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Wexler's Travels

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."