Turkey, Central Asia, & the Failure of Imperialism

In April 2012, a watershed broke in American foreign policy and, as is typical in the bureaucratic halls of the National Security State, it came from the Council on Foreign Relations. A large, blue-ribbon panel headed by Steven Hadley, the extremely influential National Security Advisor in the second Bush term, and Madeline Albright, Clinton’s Secretary of State, released a 90-page report titled “U.S.-Turkey Relations: A New Partnership.” It urged that U.S. policymakers “make every effort to develop U.S.-Turkey ties in order to make a strategic relationship a reality.” This is an interesting statement, as any student of recent history would think that the U.S. and Turkey already held a longstanding “strategic relationship,” of some 60-plus years. And yet in this conundrum lies the current fulcrum of U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades, the elusive quest for control over the resources and populations of Eurasia.

But first Turkey, the massive Anatolian Plateu connecting Asia to Europe and a brief history lesson. Let’s begin (although it is not the start of western intrigue) with Harry Truman’s decision to start the Cold War in 1947 by announcing that he would furnish military aid to Turkey and Greece, both in the underbelly of the USSR.

Within five years, Turkey had joined the newly-born North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), despite being rather far from the North Atlantic. Within a decade, Turkey had hosted major NATO military drills—Operation “Grand Slam” and “Deep Water,” with as many as 2,000 warships and 8,000 marines taking part. Most consequentially, Turkey, along with Italy, agreed in 1962 to host a battery of U.S. ballistic missiles, equipped with nuclear warheads, near the coastal city of Izmir. Moscow, in a typical turn of Cold War logic, felt that they needed a similar capability and set up their own nuclear missiles in Fidel Castro’s new communist Cuba, setting off the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thankfully, this was resolved diplomatically and both the U.S. and USSR respectively removed their missiles from Turkey and Cuba.

At the end of the Cold War, during the Reagan years, the U.S.-Turkey relationship grew stronger still, under the cunning eye of Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupe, one of Washington’s original cold warriors. Influenced by the horrors witnessed in his native Europe in the first half of the 20th century, Strausz-Hupe was of the breed that preached a hardline American foreign policy, seeing the Cold War as a constant global battle against ideological extremes. His main pulpit was the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) founded in 1955 at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business, where Strausz- Hupe was a professor. In the inaugural issue of Orbis, the journal of FPRI, Strausz Hupe made his neo-imperial worldview clear to all: “Will the coming world order be the American universal empire? It must be that…. The coming world order will mark the last phase in a historical transition and cap the revolutionary epoch of this century. The mission of the American people is to bury the nation states, lead their bereaved peoples into larger unions, and overawe with its might the would-be saboteurs of the new order who have nothing to offer humankind but a putrefying ideology and brute force.

“It is likely that the accomplishment of this mission will exhaust the energies of America and the historical center of gravity will shift. But this will matter little, for the opening of new horizons which we now faintly glimpse will usher in a new stage in human history…. For the next 50 years or so the future belongs to America. The American empire and mankind will not be opposites, but merely two names for the universal order under peace and happiness. Novus orbis terrarium.”

While this type of message may seem blunt today, the FPRI was very popular at the time, assembling among its staff of “associates,” as they were called, William Elliot, the Harvard Professor and CIA founder; as well as William Kintner, head of the Army Planning Staff; and, among the younger members, Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger. FPRI hosted fancy dinners under the sarcophagi at Penn’s museum of history and long-winded salons at Washington’s elite Cosmos Club, building the ideologies behind the new “American Universal Empire.”

Strausz-Hupe’s diplomatic career began in 1968 when he was appointed ambassador to Sri Lanka. Over the next 12 years, he moved around posts in Europe, including as Ambassador to NATO in 1975. During this time, he led the negotiations with Britain over the use of a military base at Diego Garcia, which London had just made room for by brutally expelling the Indian Ocean island’s population. When he was appointed Ambassador to Turkey in 1980, Strausz-Hupe chose a young version of himself to serve as his prime assistant, Washington’s famous Prince of Darkness, Richard Perle. Both men were bon vivants and think-tank scholars (Perle at RAND), who shared a hardline view of world affairs. Strausz-Hupe, as ambassador under the charge of the State Department, even subverted normal government operations to bring on Perle, who was at the time working in the Pentagon and would normally have no connection to diplomatic negotiations. Perle himself told an audience at the Foreign Policy Research Institute of the rarity of an “American ambassador to invite a Defense Department official to take charge of a sensitive negotiation that would normally be handled by the Department of State, yet that is precisely what Ambassador Strausz-Hupe did.”

As point person for negotiating with the new military government in Ankara, Perle ran a scenario straight from the textbook of empire building. With simultaneous negotiations taking place over both its massive external debt and its military acquisitions, Turkey was transformed into the prototypical neo-colonial outpost. While Washington-based international lenders like the IMF and World Bank imposed strict financial dictates on government spending and export laws and enforced the privatization of state-run industries, the Pentagon and State Department colluded to negotiate U.S. arm sales and basing rights. At the close of the decade, Perle, who had led the negotiations with Ankara on the basing and defense agreements, then went into private practice in order to profit off his new closeness with the Turkish security establishment. He opened a consulting firm, International Advisors Inc, with his associate Douglas Feith. Their major customer? The Turkish government.

At the time, with the USSR disintegrating around them, Turkey saw itself as a new regional power and, as such, initiated a policy to bring under their influence the newly independent states of the Caucasus and Central Asia. “Pan-Turkism,” an Ottoman-era ideology that imagined one united people stretching from the Mediterranean into Western China, was reintroduced into official language as the Soviet Union collapsed. As the decade turned, “Turkey’s cultural, linguistic, historical and religious bonds with the newly independent states were frequently mentioned as the basis for Ankara’s influential future role in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia,” and, as such, a “Turkish speaking community of states stretching from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China increasingly became part of official discourse” (Jung & Piccoli, Turkey at the Crossroads, 2001). In the fall of 1991, a meeting was held in Ankara between Turkish president Turgut Ozal and the presidents of all five republics plus Azerbaijan. Here, Ozal “pledged to support their declaration of sovereignty and emergence of a Pan-Turkic world.”

Washington was very supportive of this policy, as a “Pan-Turkic World” also served as a geopolitical dream, a march of hard and soft power straight into the heart of Eurasia and a corridor that bifurcated the energy rich lands of the Caspian Basin and the Persian Gulf. On February 12, 1992, President Bush met with the Turkish Prime Minister in Washington. Afterwards, Bush stated, “Turkey is indeed a friend, a partner of the United States, and it’s also a model to others, especially those newly independent republics of Central Asia. In a region of changing tides, it endures as a beacon of stability”(WP, 2/12/92).

At the very same time, Secretary of State James Baker was on a five-day whirlwind tour of the Caucasus and Central Asia, visiting Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turk- menistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In an unusually frank assessment back in Washington, one of Baker’s aides stated that the secretary’s conclusion, on visiting this vast new swath of Eurasia, the political spoils of the Cold War, was that “some of these new countries are going to make it and others are going to join the swelling ranks of third world basket cases, just limping along. Those that are most likely to make it are those like Turkmenistan that have economies based on agriculture, oil, gas, and minerals” NYT, 2/15/92).

Meanwhile, in the Pentagon, Dick Cheney ruled over a clique of empire-builders dead set on expanding into the “newly independent states” of the former Soviet Union. These are the “defense intellectuals” and apparatchiks, paper pushers and agenda writers like Paul Wolfowitz, Irving Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and Zalmay Khalilzad, men who played huge roles in facilitating the recent U.S. drives to war. They were Cheney’s aides and assistants during the presidency of George H.W. Bush where they witnessed the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. A decade later, they attempted to replicate this experience in the Middle East under H.W. Bush’s son George. When asked to produce their own national security doctrine for a post-Cold War world, they infamously planned for world domination. In an article published in Harpers Magazine at the start of George W. Bush’s Fall 2002 “marketing campaign” for an invasion of Iraq, David Armstrong, the Washington bureau chief for the National Security News Service, wrote of their beliefs: “The Plan is for the United States to rule the world. The overt theme is unilateralism, but it is ultimately a story of domination. It calls for the United States to maintain its overwhelming military superiority and prevent new rivals from rising up to challenge it on the world stage. It calls for dominion over friends and enemies alike. It says not that the United States must be more powerful, or most powerful, but that it must be absolutely powerful.”

Defense Planning Guidance

The document in question is the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, a biannual planning document charting the future of Pentagon policy. In charge of writing this strategy was Paul Wolfowitz’s Pentagon Policy office. According to a report published in the New Republic, “On Saturday mornings, Wolfowitz’s deputies convened a seminar in a small conference room in the Pentagon’s E Ring where they sat Cheney in front of a parade of Sovietologists,” many of whom, “were mavericks who believed the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse” (Foer and Ackerman, “The Radical,” the New Republic, 11/20/03). James Mann, in his group biography Rise of the Vulcans, elaborates on these meetings, writing that they were led by Zalmay Khalilzad. Participants included Wolfowitz, his deputy Scooter Libby, and long-time military strategists like Andrew Marshall, Albert Wohlstetter, and Richard Perle. 

In March 1992, when a polished draft of the strategy was circulated among the Pentagon, it was leaked to New York Times reporter Patrick Tyler by an anonymous individual who believed that “this post-cold war strategy debate should be carried out in the public forum.” And the individual’s concerns were justified, as Tyler writes “the classified document makes the case for a world dominated by one superpower whose position can be perpetuated by constructive behavior and sufficient military might to deter any nation or group of nations from challenging American primacy” (NY Times, 3/8/92).

When the draft was covered in the Times and the Washington Post, it garnered an uproar in Washington. Senator Joe Biden, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, characterized it as an attempt by the Pentagon to erect a “Pax Americana, a global security system where threats to stability are suppressed or destroyed by U.S. military power.” Even within the Pentagon the leaked paper elicited cold shoulders. Khalilzad felt that even Wolfowitz “didn’t want to be associated with it,” leaving Khalilzad to feel ostracized for a number of days. That is, until he was approached by Secretary Cheney who told Khalilzad that his paper had “discovered a new rationale for our role in the world” (Mann, Rise of the Vulcans, 211).

In line with Cheney’s thinking, throughout the 1990s Washington DC took advantage of the new “Pan-Turkic World” to provide military training to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Through the State Department’s International Military Education and Training program (IMET), the U.S. military provided training and support to nearly every government newly independent from Moscow. From 1989 to 1999, Turkey was the largest recipient in the world of IMET training, according to a report from the Federation of American Scientists, adding on to the 23,000 Turkish officers who have been trained by the U.S. since 1950. Subsequently, these Turkish officers then trained their Central Asian counterparts. Cevik Bir, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Turkish Army, noted in 1996 that “2,000 army officers from Central Asian nations such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are studying in Turkish military schools and academies” (WP, 6/6/96).

NATO, of which Turkey is a member, also took part in the effort, establishing a misnamed “Partnership for Peace” structure, which served to integrate and control the new militaries of the region. By 1995, a NATO-controlled “Central Asian Battalion” had been established between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, and large-scale military exercises were being conducted at Fort Polk, Louisiana. One such exercise, named Cooperative Nugget, held over 18 days in August 1995, was attended by 970 officers from over 14 states, all “Partnership for Peace” countries. They received training from American, British, and Canadian soldiers. In 1997, the Central Asian Battalion held their largest drills yet, which began with 500 paratroopers from the 82nd airborne making the longest flight in human history to Shymkent, Kazakhstan, where they would lead a week of aviation and ground training drills with troops from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Turkey, and Russia.

Two months later, when Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited Washington, the two nations formalized their military ties by signing a Defense Cooperation Agreement that called for, among other things, 40 similar missions to take place in 1998. A training exchange program was also set up between different state National Guards and Central Asia. In what Chalmers Johnson describes as a “military version of the ‘sister-city’ relationship,” Kazakhstan was paired with Arizona, Kyrgyzstan with Montana, and Uzbekistan with Louisiana. Michael Klare, in his prescient book Resource Wars, wrote of this change: “The extension of American military power into the Caspian Sea regions is, by itself, a momentous geopolitical development. As shown by the CENTRAZBAT exercises, it will require Washington to build and sustain military relationships with the Central Asian republics, as well as to construct a globe-spanning logistical capability. In time, it could also involve the establishment of American military bases in an area that was once part of the Soviet Union.”

NATO, the Cold War “defensive” military alliance, was now immediately being turned into a structure to take over the Eurasian continent, a land-grabbing machine that aimed to build bases as far as the mountainous hinterlands of Central Asia. Within a decade, conflicts had led to the construction of new American military bases in the Balkans, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan, as well as the massive militarization and base construction in the Persian Gulf that followed the 2003 Iraq war. As it was put by Thomas Donnely, a director of the Project for a New American Century, in an email circulated among military analysts, the United States “Imperial Perimeter” was expanding into the heart of Eurasia.

Throughout the 1990s, Turkey played a willing role in this imperial expansion, through the above mentioned IMET training, as well as by hosting NATO warplanes taking off on daily patrols and, at times, bombing runs over Iraq, the famous “No Fly Zone” enforced without UN approval by Washington, London, and Paris. At the same time, brutal sanctions were put on the Iraqi economy, leading to a plague of death from malnutrition and sickness across Iraq. The Iraqi industrial base, such as electricity and water-treatment plants, was destroyed in the U.S. carpet-bombing that took place during the 1991 Gulf War and then sanctions prevented them from ever being rebuilt. Hospitals could not get supplies or equipment. Turkey, as an aspirant to regional power, certainly seemed to be following the dictates of the Atlantic capitals when it enabled genocide against its southern Arab neighbor.

In 1996, Turkey also signed an extensive five-year military agreement with Israel, tying its military and foreign policy even closer to the West. The agreement called for “the exchange of military information, experience, and personnel, as well as joint training exercises, the exchange of military observers at each other’s exercises, reciprocal port access, for naval vessels, and for each country’s planes to exercise in the other’s airspace for one week four times a year.” Also strengthened in this agreement were the longstanding intelligence ties between Turkey and Israel, as revealed by Deputy Chief of Staff Bir in his April 1996 address to the Washington Research Institute when he stated, “that Israel had requested Turkey’s assistance in collecting intelligence information. Israel’s first priority target was Syria, while Iran was the second.” The third part of the agreement, which was finalized later that September, involved a sharing of military technology between Turkey and Israel. For the Turkish armed forces, the Israeli military made a unique partner, due to its “technology, reliability, and the capacity to cover almost all defense needs,” allowing Turkey to engage in “a plan for rearmament and modernization costing in the order of U.S. $150 billion in twenty-five years.”

The 2003 Iraq war served as a rude interruption to this empire building, as the Turkish public was so opposed to the war that the Parliament was forced to reject the U.S. requests to use the country as a staging ground for the invasion. Since then, Turkey’s relationship with Israel had also cooled, especially as of late. One loud conflict erupted over the Mahvi Mavara flotilla episode. The Turkish boat, part of a humanitarian flotilla mission to Gaza, which was allowed to depart from Turkey, was attacked by Israeli commandoes, and nine of the activists on board, all Turks, were killed. One of the men, Furkan Duglan, age 19, was also a U.S. citizen, having been born in Troy, New York. Included in the eight other dead men were a dissident journalist and the coach of the Turkish national Taekwondo team. This incident, coupled with Turkish condemnation of the 2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza, has put a serious damper on Israeli-Turkish relations.

Journalist Jim Lobe, Washington, DC bureau chief of Inter Press Service and an astute observer of beltway thinking, recently wrote “much of the news coverage of Turkey here over the past decade has been negative,” and that the recent Turkish-Israeli spats, “sparked a wave of anti-Turkish acrimony promoted, in particular, by neo-conservatives, who had long been hostile to the AKP due to its anti-military positions and Islamist roots. The major institutions of the powerful Israel lobby have also since quietly retaliated by supporting the Greek and Armenian lobbies against Turkish interests in Congress.”

The Chinese-Turkish Relationship Grows

Of course, as Ankara has turned away from its Western partners, the Chinese have moved in to the power vacuum with their brand of economic diplomacy. The current Turkey-Chinese relationship can be dated back to an October 2010 visit to Ankara by Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao. The stage for the visit was set by an unprecedented occurrence earlier in the month when China and Turkey held joint military air exercises, the first Chinese air force exercises to ever be held in a NATO state. Almost as significant was the fact that the Chinese fighter jets had flown over Pakistan and Iran in order to reach the Anatolian plateau. Considering that only one year earlier the Turkish leadership had been vocally angry about Chinese protest crackdowns in the ethnically Turkic Xinjiang province in western China, these developments signaled a major rapprochement.

On his visit, Jaibo’s main topic of discussion was increasing the already large trade between Turkey and China, which in 2009 amounted to $10 billion. Jaibo pledged to raise this to $50 billion by 2015 and $100 billion by 2020. Moreover, he stressed that this trade should use Turkish and Chinese currency, leaving the U.S. dollar out in the cold. The Turkish message was that increasing trade between two of world’s booming economies was great, but that an effort needed to be made to even out the balance, as Turkey was running up large trade-deficits buying Chinese goods.

Also of major discussion was Chinese investment in Turkish infrastructure, most importantly high-speed rail lines—China had become the world’s leading producer of them. The Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Corp, with Turkish partners, was already at work building the second phase of a planned 533-kilometer Istanbul-Ankara high-speed rail line, cutting the travel time between the 2 cities down from 7 hours to less than 4. The first phase, which runs 200 kilometers west from Ankara to Eskisehir, was built by a Spanish company and opened in early 2009. Phase 2, secured by a Chinese-led consortium in 2006 for $1.27 billion (the majority being Chinese government loans) runs 158 kilometers between Inonu and Kosekoy, over and through difficult mountainous terrain. The line climbs from an elevation low of 20 km above sea level to 800 km, and features 55 km of tunnels, and 10 km of bridges, the longest being 6 and 2 km respectively. (It is set to open sometime in 2013).

But this feat of engineering pales in wonder at the other high-speed rail line being planned between China and Turkey, the Erdine-Kars line, which transverses the entire 2,000 km breadth of Turkey and connects South and Central Asia to Europe. The Kars-Erdine rail corridor was neatly summed up in a report in the Turkish English-language newspaper Today’s Zaman: “The line is designed to pass through 29 provinces, connecting the east and west of Turkey and reducing the duration of travel from the current 36 hours to 12. With the completion of the planned Edirne-Kars line, the total length of high-speed rail inside Turkey is expected to reach 10,000 kilometers by 2023. Under an agreement signed between China and Turkey in October 2010, China agreed to extend loans of $30 billion for the planned rail network. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway connecting Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku to Kars, currently under construction, increases the strategic importance of the Edirne-Kars line.”

The Turkish-Chinese relationship was solidified in April 2012 when a large Turkish delegation led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited China, the highest-level visit for the Turkish leadership to Beijing in 27 years. Of significant note, Erdogan began his visit in Urumqui, the capital of Xinjiang, the Western province home a Turkic, Muslim majority, as well as large oil deposits.

Turkish-Chinese economic cooperation, led by the Edirne-Kars line, was the main point of discussion between the Turkish delegation and Chinese leadership. Chinese firms are bidding to build two nuclear power plants in Turkey, at Okay on the Mediterranean Coast and Sinop on the Black Sea, as well as a major bridge over the Bosporus and a proposed third airport in Istanbul. All together, 27 Chinese CEOs attended meetings with Turkish PM Erdogan on his visit to China.

But there is no doubt that solidifying Edirne-Kars was the highlight of the visit, and rightfully so, as the high-speed rail line would create a geopolitical corridor with global ramifications. For China, the rail line represented a large step in their Eurasian Land Bridge Strategy, designed to connect the massive Chinese factory base with the large markets of Western Europe by high speed rail, cutting the time needed for freight shipping in half compared to the maritime journey. Edirne-Kars served as the final link in the planned third, southern Eurasian Land Bridge connecting the Chinese ports of Guangdong and Shenzhen to the Atlantic port of Rotterdam, and on the way hitting all the giant markets of Southern Asia, running through Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Iran.

At this point, the line connects to Edirne-Kars, and then hooks up with the existing lines to Western Europe. Overall, the third land bridge would touch 20 countries and have a total length of about 15,000 km, a distance 3,000-6,000  km less than the maritime journey through the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca. This plan was developed in 2009, at China’s Pan Pearl River Delta Cooperation and Development Forum. There is also hope to build futurer rail lines from Turkey down through Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, connecting China directly to the African Continent.

Ankara has found itself once again as a globally important land bridge, and by all appearances they are taking full advantage of it and developing the world’s latest infrastructure. As stated by Selcuk Colakoglu, director of Asia-Pacific Studies at Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization, “Turkey has transformed itself from a security state to a trading state during the past decade. If you want to be a trading state, you should have a very developed transportation link.” 

For an example of how the high speed rail networks effect commerce, one has to only turn back a year, to the launch of China’s Second Eurasian Land Bridge Project, rail lines that run through Kazakhstan to Russia, then through Belarus to Western Europe. May 2011 saw the launch of five-day-a-week direct freight rail service from Antwerp, Europe’s second largest port and rail-hub, to Chongquin, the industrial center in southwest China. It now only takes 20-25 days for cargo like automotive and chemical goods to traverse Eurasia, compared to the 36-day maritime journey. There are, however, plans to quickly cut the duration of the rail journey down to only 15-20 days, at which point the transcontinental journey would be cut in half, and the pace of industry doubled. 

For BMW, this has already become a reality, with the October 2011 launch of daily freight shipments over high-speed rail from their plant in Leipzig, Germany to Shenyang, in Northeast China, crossing a distance of 7,000 miles in only 23 days. According to Dr. Karl-Friedrich Rausch, a board member of DB Schencker, the transportation group that operates the German side of the railway, “the direct trains are twice as fast as maritime transport, followed by over-the-road transport to the Chinese hinterland.” As the excellent analyst F. William Engdahl stated in an April 2012 report, “the aim is to literally create the world’s greatest new economic space and in turn a huge new market for not just China but all Eurasian countries, the Middle East and Western Europe.”


Evan Taylor is a graduate of Marlboro College. He lives in Washington, DC where he is a writer, college football enthusiast, and student at American University.