The Boys Next Door

As beleaguered Iraq continues to list, lawless and malfunctioning under ineffective American leadership, I am reminded of a prophetic evening before the war, a dinner of fortune telling and historic premonition, when the guests could not yet envision a positive post-Saddam Iraq, and an Ottoman imperial setting supported the chaos theory. It was a warm autumn night in Istanbul 2002 and I was dining with my Turkish in-laws and some friends, members of Turkey’s military elite.  We sat at water’s edge in the shadow of Feriye, a nineteenth century Ottoman palace now transformed into an elegant restaurant. Over platters of grilled grouper and plates of garlicky eggplant, familiar jocularity soon devolved into graver matters, the geopolitical concerns of soldiers: succession in bordering Iraq.

“There is no clear replacement for Saddam,” declared General Çevik Bir, large palm striking linen. Vigorous and handsome, the sixty-three year old retiree paused dramatically. Candles flickered in the breeze, the black Bosporus lapped at ancient stone embankments. And we, family and friends, waited, forks poised.

The general knows the pandemonium of a power vacuum. Rising to world prominence in 1993, he commanded the United Nations peacekeeping force in Somalia during the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident. He is also one of Turkey’s most engaging dignitaries.

“No one can go in there before the leadership problem is solved.”

Up went a chorus of supportive murmurs. “So right, paşa,” chimed well-wishers who’d gathered behind our chairs, waiters and chefs and other diners charmed by the celebrity of prominent soldiers. Since its founding in 1923, in the democratic, Western-oriented but Muslim republic, the military is especially revered as guardian of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular philosophy.

Bir lifted to his lips a tall glass of milky rakı, the national anise liquor, signaling he relinquished the floor. The crowd, including Istanbul’s chief of police Hassan Özdemir who had drifted over from the next table, returned to their respective dinner parties and kitchen duties.

A wiry guest with dark eyebrows seized his opportunity.  Leaning forward in a roomy navy suit, General Neçdet Timur, former chief of staff of the Turkish army, countered that stabilizing Iraq demands more than locating an appropriate leader, it requires a government palatable to the region. “Arab nations won’t support a new war,” predicted the soft-spoken Timur, in Turkish. Another guest, an elegant woman wrapped in a beige shawl, translated for me.

“Even if the U.N. institutes a democracy, he says, it will be poorly received by those who lack that kind of culture,” she whispered to me as the small man concluded, folding his hands in his lap as pristine waiters swept the table of fish-bones and lemon wedges.

Intrepid civilian from the U.S., drunk on the geopolitical experience at the table, I tried my hand in the debate before considering its strength. “What about that fellow from the Iraqi National Congress – you know, the one exiled in America?” As I interjected, I realized my failure to even remember Ahmed Chalabi’s name signaled that my words did not demand serious attention from the military men. The clueless question hung in the air while the generals turned in their chairs and scanned the terrace for servers with trays of plump figs and oozing, flaky baklava. They had grown bored with the circuitous and intractable issue, one they had undoubtedly pondered many times before.

Sometimes generals just want to have dessert.

These particular retirees have other more satisfying outlets for discussion than dinner with uninformed civilians like me. Alongside fellow generals, admirals, ambassadors and university intellectuals, both men contribute geopolitical and military analysis to National Strategy, the Turkish defense magazine where Bir is managing director.

As a sliver of moon rose above the colonnaded palace the woman in the beige shawl once again came to my rescue, introducing a different subject: the history of the palace.  In the very rooms our dinner was prepared, she explained, in 1876 a disastrous sultan committed suicide after being deposed by reformers known the Young Turks.  I had actually heard of the Young Turks, and was quick to tell her so. Encouraged, my feminine companion glanced around the table for other contributions but no one was listening. The generals had reverted to trading jokes with a new visitor, the stylish Vedat Başaran, Feriye’s chef and general manager, a man dedicated to reviving the glories of Ottoman cuisine.

“With no fitting successor, the empire suffered what we call the year of the three sultans,” my impromptu historian explained, describing a spiraling year of unsuitable and decadent leaders, all quickly replaced.  Her tale trailed off as Turkish kahve was served in tiny cups painted gold with tulips. Thick black coffee was too strong for me to drink at that late hour, but there was no refusing tradition.

When I urged her to finish her story, she pressed on, irony beginning to dawn. She had not succeeded in changing the subject.

“Finally, a liberal sultan was enthroned, and he swore to make a constitution,” she wrapped up tidily, drained her coffee and flipped the cup onto its saucer. Not yet tired of prophecy, one of the generals had offered to interpret our fortunes from muddy grounds.

Later that night, amped on caffeine as expected, I couldn’t sleep.  A quick peek at the Ottoman history books revealed that progressive Sultan Abdul Hamit II -- the broadminded ruler who swore to improve the welfare of the people -- soon reneged on his promise, over-burdened by the task. There was simply too much work to do.

These days it often seems that there is too much work to do in Iraq, from restoring basic utilities to protecting the populace and the economy. But if the generals’ theory and history’s warning that night in Istanbul offer any insight, Iraq is suffering the initial power vacuum of a poorly-planned reformation attempt. Call it “Iraq’s year of the three sultans”.  A time of confusion, danger and spiraling ineptitude, the substitutions certainly are underway in Baghdad as U.S.-appointed interim administrator L. Paul Bremer III swiftly replaced General Jay Garner and local councils emerge, corrupt and disband. Perhaps by this spring a promising new Iraqi leader will be installed, one who will swear to make the necessary changes.  For the sake of his fortune, he better be a student of history.

++ This appeared in The Drexel Online Journal, September 22, 2003.