We military personnel stationed in Turkey were issued chemical weapons suits and gas masks (both hilariously antiquated compared to today's equipment) and trained in their use upon arrival. At the sound of the klaxon, we had nine seconds to get the masks out of their hip-strapped satchels and over our faces. We would then hurl ourselves under the nearest embankment or into one of the five-foot-deep gullies that crisscrossed the base to sluice away the almost biblical spring rains.
Despite the Cold War escalation of words, the general mood at Incirlik then was not fear. The klaxons only went off during exercises, and Incirlik was a sleepy little base, where, due to an agreement, no U.S. planes could be stationed longer than 89 days. Once a "broken" F-16 reached the 80-day point--termed a "hangar queen" by maintenance personnel--we had to remove its wings in order to shovel the fighter into the hold of a C-5 cargo plane and ship it out before the 89-day mark. If a plane stayed longer, it became property of the Turks, we were told.
Back then, the Turks were our friends and staunch NATO allies, despite their constant enmity with neighbor Greece, and it reflected in the general comfort the Turks had with Americans there.
How times have changed.
In 2003, the Turkish people have become so anti-American that they forced their parliament to reject the United States' request to use Incirlik as a launching point for a second war in Iraq. Our friends have decided that we have become lousy house guests.
How did we get to this point? In the presidential debate on Oct. 11, 2000, candidate George W. Bush said, "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us."
We are trying to buy off the leadership of Turkey against the will of its people and, in the process, are selling out the Kurds in northern Iraq. As Washington Post foreign policy columnist Jim Hoagland put it, "Republican administrations abandoned the Kurds to Baghdad's atrocities three times in three decades: in 1975 at the end of the Kurdish rebellion, in 1987 when Hussein used chemical weapons against them, and in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War."
This administration has alienated old allies like Germany and France, and is starting to issue veiled threats to neighbor Mexico, and a total lack of a policy is causing the North Koreans to escalate their brinkmanship almost daily. All this for Iraq.
The administration's reasons for armed incursion of Iraq keep shifting like a weathervane. First, they said Iraq might have nuclear weapons. Then, when it became clear that a nuke program was difficult to build and nearly impossible to hide, it was chemical weapons. Later, we were told that Iraq is in "noncompliance" with U.N. resolutions--yet other nations have ignored U.N. resolutions, and we find no quarrel with them (for instance, Middle East allies whose names begin with the letter "I").
It was for freedom for the Kurds--as already noted, that answer is clearly a prevarication. We've heard talk about the need for "regime change," which could begin a bloom of democracy throughout the Middle East. Not likely--our friends the Saudis have little interest in democracy, nor do the fundamentalists that rankle under their rule.
The administration has said a war in Iraq could lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but that theory bears a disconnect with reality. And so does the explanation that we are attacking Iraq because we were attacked by militant ex-Saudi terrorists based in Afghanistan.
The United States is not a "humble" nation when it systematically alienates its historic allies. It is not a friend when it unsubtly makes threats, saying that Mexico's citizens may see retribution from the administration's corporate and fiscal cronies--because of its vote on the U.N. Security Council--similar to the way the Right has stirred up feelings against the French.
Amid the debate, more than 225,000 troops gather in the Middle East, with the knowledge that this time the goal is not just to repel Iraq from Kuwait but to expel Saddam Hussein from rule, and then to allegedly create a new form of democracy in a region that has never seen such a thing.
If there is one person the amateurs running U.S. foreign policy have deified, it is Reagan. But in their zeal, they should go back and take to heart a phrase he made at the start of his "Evil Empire" speech: "Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root."
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201