The Feb. 28, 1997 coup, which has been added to the list of coups being prosecuted in Turkey, has provoked discussions of the American impact on military interventions.
Washington's record on opposing military coups, particularly during the Cold War era, is extremely poor. However, the role of the US during the postmodern Feb. 28 coup staged in the post-Cold War era involved tacit endorsement rather than encouragement or direct involvement. The strong connections between the coup makers and Washington do not suffice to prove that there was direct involvement of the US in toppling the Erbakan-Çiller coalition government.
Intimidating potential opponents is one of the crucial steps in a coup. Attracting support from the international community is, for this reason, extremely important. In order to show that they are strong, the coup crafters try to make sure external agents who are influential in the international arena appear on their side. To this end, the actors involved in military tutelage in Turkey have used their ties with the US to intimidate local people as part of their psychological warfare in the coup process. The trips to Washington have been integral parts of the coup processes.
Convincing all involved in the coup that the US is supporting the coups is also an important part of the preliminary work. Although meetings are held with individuals who do not fully represent the general tendency in Washington, the coup makers come to believe that the US favors their action. For instance, during the Feb. 28 process, there were some civilians in Ankara who traveled all the way to Washington to facilitate the military coup in Turkey. One of the most active figures was highly regarded by the pro-Israel lobby. It was obvious that the Israeli right-wingers and their influential supporters in the US were eager to topple the National View (Milli Görüş) politicians. Like the pro-secular Kemalists in Turkey, they were seeing “Islamic reactionaries” as their number one threat. Conversely, the Democratic Clinton administration with its liberal tendencies was not so Islamophobic. The Sept. 11, 2001 events that damaged the genes of American democracy had not yet taken place.
That brings us to the meeting on Turkey hosted by then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with the participation of select intellectuals in March 1997. The meeting was a traditional brainstorming activity on current topics in Washington. The only difference was that it was organized as a dinner in a more informal setting. Apparently, experts from different backgrounds were invited for intellectual diversity. This was not the only activity that was organized by the administration back then. For instance, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott also invited a group of experts to hear their views. Such meetings seek to better understand what is happening in spotlighted countries and the probable implications for the US. These meetings are not venues of political decision making. Therefore, I do not think that the coups were planned there.
Even though his visit to Libya and his discourse on uniting the Islamic world were disturbing many in Washington, then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was not seen as a serious threat to American interests. He did not take any major action to undermine the US. One could even argue that some liberal American circles, uneasy with the Kemalist domination in Turkey, were holding that political movements able to reconcile democracy with religious values should be given a chance. For all these reasons, it's highly unlikely that the US was involved in an attempt to overthrow the elected government in Turkey.
Crocodile tears from the US
On the other hand, Washington did not strongly oppose the political and social engineering -- marred by human rights violations – that aimed to consolidate the Kemalist regime. The only red line for the Americans would have been a classic coup d'état with a strong militarist appearance. It would have been impossible to justify such a gross violation of democratic principles in a NATO member country. I believe that for these reasons, Albright called for Turkish actors to stay within constitutional lines in June 1997 at a time when there were strong rumors that a coup d'état was about to be staged. American administrations have built their relations with Turkey upon the principle of going along with the political actors in power. For this reason, up until recently, they have refrained from criticizing the General Staff and their civilian supporters, who have together comprised the leading power center in Turkey up until recently. Because of the dominant role of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), the Pentagon has always been more central than other US actors in Washington's policy drafting process on Turkey. The Pentagon may not have encouraged the Turkish General Staff to stage a coup during the Feb. 28 intervention. However, it cannot be denied that in the mitigation of American objections against and criticisms of the interventionist Turkish generals, the Pentagon and the US military-industrial complex have played a significant role.
In conclusion, economic and strategic interests usually take precedence over democratic values in American foreign policy. In general, the makers of American foreign policy shed crocodile tears for democracy and human rights violations in foreign countries including Turkey. If the violations are committed by allied countries, the prevalent attitude favors covering them up. This has been the case in the American approach towards the Feb. 28 coup process. And it seems that this attitude will last for 1,000 years.