It was a reception for the cultural and political elite of Washington — the grand opening at the city's Corcoran Art Gallery of an exhibition of artifacts from the Ottoman Empire. Serenaded by a 10-piece orchestra, senators, diplomats and art patrons scoffed hors d'oeuvres and pricey Chardonnay. Sprinkled among the crowd at the March 1 function were beaming executives from Boeing, which kicked in $100,000 to help the Turkish government show off its treasures.
Why would a U.S. defense contractor have a sudden passion for jeweled helmets of the 15th century sultans? The answer is that Boeing was then still in the running for a $4 billion contract to build 145 attack helicopters for Turkey. A mere 100 grand might grease the skids for its Apache Longbow, each one of which has at least a $20 million price tag.
Unfortunately for Boeing, all it ended up with were very expensive art show tickets. The week after the reception, it was announced in Ankara, the Turkish capital, that Boeing hadn't made the cut and that its fierce competitor, Bell Helicopter Textron, was the lone U.S. finalist, along with the Italian manufacturer Augusta and a Russian-Israeli consortium, Kamov-Israeli Aircraft Industries.
Bell Textron has been an equally ardent suitor, shuttling execs from its plant in Fort Worth, Texas, to Ankara for the past two years to market its $14 million King Cobra gunship. Turkey's generals may announce the winner next month.
The contract is "the helicopter deal of the century," says Joel Johnson, vice president of international affairs for the Aerospace Industries Association. This is particularly so for the U.S. chopper industry, which has seen its sales shrink, largely because of Pentagon budget cuts. But winning the contract won't be enough for Bell Textron: even harder will be getting a government license to deliver on it. Which means some extremely expensive lobbying is now getting under way.
The same day the Corcoran opened its exhibit, the Turkish Embassy in Washington signed a $1.8 million contract with three of Washington's top influencers: former Louisiana Congressman Bob Livingston and former New York Congressmen Gerald Solomon and Stephen Solarz. Their job, says Livingston, is "to put the best foot forward" for Turkey.
That's a big step. The American Hellenic Institute, the lobbying arm for 3 million Greek Americans, plans to fight the sale, as does the Armenian National Committee of America, which represents 1.5 million Armenian Americans. Amnesty International is organizing a letter-writing campaign to dissuade the State Department from granting an export license. Though Turkey's war with Kurdish guerrillas in the southeast has subsided, its human rights record remains "among the worst in the world," says Republican Representative John Porter.
Turkey has used U.S. weapons in the past against the Kurds, and human rights groups worry that it would deploy the Cobras if Kurdish guerrillas again took up arms. But the Clinton administration is leaning toward granting a license if Bell Textron wins. Turkey is a valued nato ally; it cooperated in Balkan operations and provides bases for U.S. planes to patrol northern Iraq. To do so, however, the White House has to find a way to sidestep a firm promise State Department officials gave human rights groups two years ago, when just allowing U.S. firms to compete for the contract was the issue. The Administration pledged that it would not finally approve a sale unless Turkey had made "significant progress" on seven human rights benchmarks.
In February, the State Department's human rights bureau released a scathing report on Turkey's record in 1999. It still flunked all seven benchmarks. Though Ankara has made some progress, police torture "remained at high levels," free speech restrictions were still "a serious problem," and government harassment of opposition groups continued.
Given that report card, the Administration is now trying to retrospectively water down the promise. The fixed benchmarks have become merely "the areas that we would like to see progress in." Turkey doesn't have to pass them all with flying colors to get the choppers.
That fudging gets short shrift from Amnesty's Maureen Greenwood, who insists a promise is a promise — "and we're going to hold them to it." Opponents in Congress will be taking a similar line.
But Bell Textron is a hardly a weakling in Washington power politics. Its parent company, Textron Inc., pumped more than $650,000 in contributions to Democratic and Republican Parties for the 1996 elections. And it has already spent $102,000 between both parties for this year's race. If Clinton says yes, the sale will probably go through. The last word is with Congress, but it has never blocked an arms export license the White House has approved. When it comes to making billions in a weapons deal, no one much worries about the people at the other end of the barrel.