Modern Turkey

Turkey and Lessons from Iran's Easter parade of British hostages

by Barbara Lerner

Should Turkey join the European Union? Western opinion is sharply divided on this question; Turkish opinion is increasingly so. In 2002,[1] I argued that Turkey's political history more than justified its admission to Europe's premier political club.

Despite the stubborn Western habit of ignoring it, history records the fact that the Turkish republic has been a free, independent, secular, and mainly democratic state ever since Ataturk created it out of the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923. Great Britain aside, that's a record very few European states can even approach.

Rethinking the question five years on, I still think the EU should say yes to Turkey, but developments in postmodern Europe -- illustrated, most recently, by the responses of Britain and the EU to Iran's brazen Easter parade of British hostages -- convince me that Turkey should say a polite but firm no to the EU.

This conclusion may startle, at first, because, until now, almost all the millions of words that have been written and spoken, pro and con, about whether Turkey should join the EU have focused either on the hoped for benefits membership might bring to Turkey, or on the feared burdens it might impose on the EU.

Very little has been written or said -- at least in Europe and America -- about the possibility that EU membership might also have a downside for the Turks, that it might impose unacceptable burdens, costs, limits, and constraints on the heretofore sovereign Turkish Republic. The governing assumption, all along, has been that because Europe's standards are more advanced than Turkey's, Turkey can only gain by rising to meet them, reshaping itself to conform to the European way of doing things.

There is, arguably, some truth to this assumption, when the standards in question pertain to certain domestic issues -- free speech, for example. Most Turks are understandably wary of the unrestrained freedom to advocate violent jihad that was the norm in Britain, for example, until very recently, and is still the norm in a number of EU nations.

Nonetheless, many Turks think section 301 of their own penal code goes too far in the other direction, and welcome EU pressure to either revoke it or limit its reach by narrowing its terms. Yet the fact that the European way of doing things may be better than the Turkish way to some degree in some areas provides no support at all for the automatic, blanket assumption that the European way is always better.

National Security: Ataturk's Way versus the Eurocrat Way

Especially when it comes to national security, Turks and their friends, in America and elsewhere, should think long and hard about the very real possibility that the Turkish way -- Ataturk's way of peace through strength -- is, in fact, far superior to the new and very different approach embraced by postmodern Europe.

If Ataturk's way really is better, then Turks could lose much more than they gain by reshaping themselves to be more like today's Europeans in the vitally important area of national security. Britain's Easter humiliation at the hands of the Iranians is only the latest example of these potential losses, but it is an especially poignant one.

After all, Ataturk's way -- before, during, and after World War I -- was also Britain's way, in the pre-EU days when Churchill and Thatcher led a sovereign Great Britain to victory in World War II and the Cold War. These British leaders shared Ataturk's bone-deep belief that peace through strength is the only real peace there is, and, like Ataturk, never let their countrymen forget it.

All three pursued peace avidly and succeeded, ultimately, in achieving it by always insisting on the two great fundamentals of national security: 1) an unblinking appraisal of the true aims and powers of hostile states and movements, and 2) an absolute commitment to maintaining the military strength and moral will needed to deter enemies when possible, defeat them when necessary. All three were skilled practitioners of the kind of diplomacy that is firmly grounded in those fundamentals.

All three were scathing and prophetic in denouncing the opposite kind of diplomacy, the diplomacy of smoke and mirrors that obscures fundamentals, hiding them behind pious proclamations, backed up by paper agreements and ever-proliferating bureaucratic rules.

All three urged their countrymen to look through the smoke and past the mirrors, and see to the fundamentals instead, lest they deteriorate beyond repair. All three spoke in similar terms of "peace-making" that ignored fundamentals: "weakness," "appeasement," "retreat," and "defeat."

If, by chance, anything in the preceding paragraph stirred you, or even struck you as halfway sensible, then, dear reader, you are totally out of tune with much of postmodern Europe, and all of the elite bureaucrats who dominate the EU.

To these Eurocrats, all that "peace through strength" stuff is just a load of outdated bellicosity, reflecting an understanding of the world that is at best simple-minded, at worst, savage and primitive.

Eurocrats, working with their partners in the U.N. and the Arab League, believe they have created a vastly more civilized and sophisticated new world, a world of transnational entities, relying on multilateral institutions and complex.

Intertwining webs of ever more enticing multicultural carrots, a world where skillful actors with proper, postmodern mindsets have moved beyond crude, old concepts like "enemies" and "friends," a world where military power has less and less relevance because the critical task is not to win battles but to deescalate conflicts by mediating and negotiating them away.

From a peace-through-strength perspective, this new world may look like a world of make-believe, but belief in it has major real-world consequences. Belief in this new world is the reason why EU leaders feel free to starve their militaries in order to coddle their civilian populations in otherwise unaffordable cocoons, protecting them from harsh, old rigors like the need for most healthy adults to work 40 or more hours a week.

It is why Britain's navy was allowed to shrink from 388 ships and submarines in 1950 to 46 in 2004. Further cuts are planned. If they are carried out, Arthur Herman tells us:[2] "By this time next year, the once-vaunted Royal Navy will be about the size of the Belgian Navy." It could hardly be otherwise. Britain spends only about 2.4 percent of her GDP on military expenditures. And by EU standards, that's high.

If you rank-order all 27 EU countries on the basis of their military expenditures, Britain is fifth from the top. Germany spends only 1.5 percent of its GDP on military preparedness; Spain 1.2 percent. Only two EU countries spend more than 2.6 percent. Cyprus spends 3.8 percent; Greece 4.3 percent.

Belief in this new world is also the reason why the British government and its postmodern military commanders sent Her Majesty's sailors and Royal Marines into Iraqi waters -- waters known to be infested with marauding Iranian war parties -- armed only with rifles and pistols, and with rules of engagement focused on "de-escalating conflicts," not on winning battles.

Iran lives in a different world. That's why six Iranians with machine guns and RPGs were more than enough to instantly reduce 15 of Britain's new finest to helpless hostages, ready, willing, and able to play the part of dhimmis in the Easter television spectacular Iran's mullahs had planned for them.

National Security 2: Economic Sanctions and Border Controls

In theory, of course, the EU could have struck back on behalf of its wronged British brothers by using its still impressive economic powers to at least discourage Iran from visiting similar humiliations on other EU members in the future, and to send a message about the consequences of proceeding on the truly terrifying nuclear path Iran is racing down.

In practice, it didn't quite work out that way. Europe is Iran's largest trading partner: 25 percent of Iranian exports go to Europe; 40 percent of Iranian imports come from Europe, and much of this trade is, in effect, subsidized by European largesse. Take Germany, for example.

It is Iran's largest trading partner in Europe, and it provides export guarantees for 65 percent of German investments in Iran. More, thanks to Matthias Kuentzel,[3] we have this revealing quote from Michael Tockuss, former president of the German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce in Iran:

"Some two-thirds of Iranian industry relies on German engineering products. The Iranians are certainly dependent on German spare parts and suppliers."

When you add in substantial French, British, Italian, Austrian, and Dutch trade with Iran, it is clear that if the EU chose to freeze its trade with Iran, it would deal Iran's theocracy a hard blow -- quite possibly hard enough to bring this dangerous government down.

Britain did, apparently, ask its EU brothers to do just that, or at least, to threaten to do it. They all refused. In the brave new postmodern world the Eurocrats inhabit, Britain is nothing so simple as a friend they feel morally obligated to support, and Iran is certainly nothing so crude as an enemy they are committed to defeating.

Britain may feel let down, but it is not really in a strong position to protest, because it, too, refuses to deem Iran an enemy state. This is, after all, the second time in the last few years that Iran took British hostages, and still the British choose not to shut down their embassy in Tehran, or Iran's in London.

Another key element in the national security implications of EU membership for Turkey needs to be considered here: the ability of EU members to control their own borders. The EU ideal is free, visa-less travel through all EU countries for citizens of all member states. Here, too, much has been written about the presumed benefits such access would provide to Turkey, and the presumed burdens it might impose on Europe.

Indeed, European fears of being inundated by unacceptably large numbers of relatively impoverished Turks has already led to a kind of nascent, pre-emptive restriction on the travel of Turks to EU states, even if Turkey does become an EU member. Thus far, no comparable concern has been expressed about the possible danger to Turkey posed by European travelers moving with complete freedom in the opposite direction.

Nonetheless, the danger is real, because violent Islamofascist terrorism is as much a threat to Turkey as it is to all other states today. Turkey has 70 million Muslims; Europe only about half as many, but polls indicate that the proportion of terrorist sympathizers among European Muslims is significantly higher than it is among Turkish Muslims.

The reasons for this are not hard to discern. Political differences and dissatisfactions abound in Turkey as they do everywhere else on the planet -- indeed, they are especially acute right now because 2007 looks to be an especially critical election year for the Turkish Republic.

Still, an overwhelming majority of Turks love their country and feel at home in it. The proportion of Muslim citizens who feel that way about their European homes is much lower.

Large numbers of French, German, Italian, Benelux, and Scandinavian Muslims are poorly integrated into the larger societies around them. Many are deeply estranged from the majority culture and government.

Even among second and third generation European Muslims who appear to have integrated successfully, powerful feelings of estrangement often remain, as the biographies of Britain's Tube bombers suggest.

All things considered, it seems reasonable to conclude that European Muslims are generally more receptive to the most hate-filled forms of Islamist radicalism, and, as a result, more susceptible to terrorist recruitment than Turkish Muslims are, at least in Turkey.

In fact, the danger of Turkish Muslims becoming radicalized abroad in countries like Germany, and then bringing that radicalism home to Turkey, may well be greater than the likelihood of Turks becoming radicalized at home, and then exporting their radicalism abroad.

National Security 3: Turkey, Europe, the Arab World, and Iran

If this threat assessment has any validity at all, then, once again, Turks could lose more than they gain by joining the EU and allowing its blanket rules, rather than Turkish needs, to control the borders of their country. Of course, Turkey cannot and will not respond to these dangers by simply closing its borders and isolating itself from Europe, even if it decides to reject EU membership.

It will, instead, continue to do what it has always done: make its own choices about who and what to admit, and who and what to keep out. Unlike the Arab and other Muslim states that surround it, Turkey has never been isolated from Europe.

Istanbul, after all, has been a major crossroads between East and West for more than 500 years. And, thanks to Ataturk, and in striking contrast to its neighbors, Turkey has never been conquered and colonized by Europeans either.

From its inception, the unique secular republic Ataturk created has always gone its own independent way, struggling, with considerable success, to select what it deems best from both the East and the West, and to combine these selected foreign elements with the best indigenous ideas, traditions, and practices to create a unique Turkish whole.

Europe's approach to the world of the East tended to be much less selective in the past, and, in many ways, it still is, as witness the increasingly close coordination on a host of issues and policies between the EU and the Arab states over the past 30 years.

Turkey's contrasting approach, at least until the advent of the current Erdogan government, has been to strive to maintain good relations with all its neighbors, while carefully avoiding close entanglements with any of them.

Many of the more liberal-minded Turks who initially embraced the idea of joining the EU did so because they feel a strong affinity to the political systems of the West, none at all to those of the East.

For these Turks, especially, it would be a sad irony if Turkey joined the EU, only to discover, down the road, that rather than leading to the full flowering of the Western elements Turkey has long embraced, it led instead to the increasing Arabization of Turkey.

Finally, no responsible assessment of the threats to Turkey's future prospects, in or out of the EU, can fail to at least touch on the greatest danger confronting Turkey and the rest of the world today: the looming spectre of a nuclear-armed Iran holding all of us hostage to nuclear terrorism and blackmail.

Here, I will conclude by making only two points. First, the record of the EU to date makes the odds that it will take decisive action to prevent this disaster before it is too late appear vanishingly small.

Second, although the prospect of Iranian nukes poses a grave threat to Europe and America as well as to all nations in or near the Middle East, America's heartland is, for the moment at least, beyond the range of Iran's current arsenal of missiles.

Europe is within range, and Turkey is too. With that unnerving reality in mind, this doesn't look like a good time for Turkey to allow European pusillanimity to foreclose any options Turkey's military leaders might deem necessary for the security of Ataturk's republic.


1. Barbara Lerner, "The Secret of Turkish Democracy," National Review Online, November 4, 2002,

2. Arthur Herman, New York Post,

3. Matthias Kuntzel, "Europe must decide," March 7, 2007,

Barbara Lerner is a freelance writer, based in Chicago. She has been writing about American security and the Middle East for a variety of publications since 1992. She is a frequent contributor to National Review Online (NRO) This article appeared April 11, 2007 on NRO.