Talking Turkey about Turkey

June 9, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared on The Huffington Post on June 9, 2010.

The international crisis over the Israeli raid on the on the Gaza “Peace Flotilla” was not yet over, but the usual suspects were already sending me emails with horrific pictures of the Armenian Genocide — and it was a Genocide — by the Turkish army in 1915 as well as other Turkey‐​bashing stuff providing details about the Turkish illegal occupation and colonization (150,000 settlers) of (northern) Cyprus and the government’s brutal suppression of the Kurdish insurgency.

And then there was the Grand Narrative. Turkey has become the New Iran, joining forces with Iran and Syria in an anti‐​American and anti‐​Israeli — if not an anti‐​Semitic — Islamofascist Axis of Evil that seeks to destroy the Jewish State as part of a long‐​term strategy of re‐​establishing the Ottoman Empire and a Global Caliphate.

Mirror imaging these nightmare scenarios on the other side” “were predictions about the emergence of Turkey as a Middle Eastern “hegemon” or superpower that was challenging and counterbalancing the power of the pro‐​Israeli and anti‐​Muslim American Empire and helping create the foundations of a New Middle East and the Post‐​American World.

Take it easy, guys. Chill out! Say “No!” to Broad Brushing.

Indeed, there was a time when the ambitious academic or journalist would take his or her time before unleashing a new grand narrative that made sense of the changing global realities. But it seems that that in our 24/7 media environment any pseudo or real event tends to encourage bloggers and pundits to come up with “instant narratives” according to which this surprising electoral outcome or that unexpected violent encounter is a sign that The Stars Are Aligning, the Tectonic Plates Are Shifting and that The World As We Know It Is Coming To An End.

The latest example of this kind of media’s rush into instantaneous narrating has been the constant attempts to put the Gaza Flotilla crisis in some strategic and historical context, either on a micro‐​level (the Israeli blockade of Gaza; the Israeli military operation; the Turkish Islamist charity organization) or the macro one (the Israeli‐​Palestinian conflict; the Turkish‐​Israeli relationship; U.S. ties with Israel and Turkey).

The problem is that some of these analyses have been painted with broad brush strokes, producing on all sides striking narratives — that happen to be wrong.

Hence some American and Israeli commentators have suggested that under the leadership of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) Turkey has been setting aside the secular and pro‐​Western orientation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and is being transformed into a radical Islamist state . Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his aides are supposedly pursuing a Neo‐​Ottomaniststrategy based on establishing close ties with the Arab World and de‐​legitimizing the Jewish State.

The policy implication of such an account is that the U.S. and Israel have therefore no other choice but to regard Turkey — like Iran — as an assertive strategic and ideological power posing a direct threat to Western interests and the survival of Israel, which is quite different from the other narrative we have been exposed to until recently. That old narrative suggested that Turkey was led by a democratic Islamist political party — a Muslim version of Europe’s Christian‐​Democratic parties — and that the AKP and Erdogan were actually committed to the political and economic liberalization of Turkey (according to this story line the old secular and military elites were the anti‐​democrats) as well as to the winning a membership in the European Union (EU) while continuing to maintain close ties with Washington and Israel. In fact, not so long ago many of the neoconservative pundits who are now portraying Turkey as the New Iran were arguing that the electoral victories of the AKP and its moderate Western oriented policies at home and abroad demonstrated once again that promoting democracy and free elections in the Middle East would end‐​up advancing American values and interests.

But if anything, the outcome of the process of political and economic liberalization in Turkey highlighted once again the fallacy behind the thinking that the American‐​led export of democracy will help bring the “good guys” into power. That neoconservative axiom helped drive the Bush Administration’s Freedom Agenda the Middle East, including the ousting of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the electoral victories of the religious Shiite parties as well as the election of Hamas in Palestine.

In the case of Turkey, the election of the AKP, like that of its predecessor, the (now outlawed) Virtue Party, helped bring to power representatives of the formerly politically marginalized segments of Turkish society — including members of the rural population of Anatolia that have migrated to the large urban centers — that tended to be more traditional in their political‐​cultural orientation while supportive not only of free election but also of some of the free market reforms pursued by the AKP governments that challenged the statist economic policies of the past and empowered a new generation of entrepreneurs while accelerating Turkish economic growth.

To apply terms from the context of American politics, political and economic power in Turkey started shifting to its own variety of America’s “red states” — less secular and statist and wiht a more nationalist and populist electorate, a mixed bag of ideological positions and political agendas that were neither “pro” nor “anti” Western, but reflected the evolving values of a new empowered Turkish majority that include eroding the power of the military; modifying the secular Kemalist policy; and integrating the Kurds into society.

These and other domestic political changes created in turn the foundations for a more independent foreign policy that was neither “pro” or “anti” American (or “anti” Israeli) but displayed both the new sources of Turkish power, symbolized by its membership in the G-20, as well the constraints operating on it: continuing the drive to join the EU, Turkey’s largest market (a process that also provided incentives for domestic reforms); maintaining the membership in the U.S.-led NATO, including taking part in the mission in Afghanistan (a clear reflection of the commitment to strong ties with the Americans); strengthening economic and diplomatic ties with the Arab neighbors (as well as with Iran and the Caucus) as part of a strategy aimed at stressing the Turkish regional leadership role while pursuing military cooperation with Israel.

From that perspective, Turkish policies were very pragmatic, recognizing the limits — pressure from the military and the secular middle class and concerns over national interests — on the ability of the AKP to advance a more Islamist agenda at home and abroad. In fact, much of the government’s foreign policy seem to be based less on Islamist ideology and more on Realpolitik considerations and economic interests. Ankara refused to permit the U.S to use its territory to deploy troops into Iraq but has worked closely with the current government in Baghdad and improved relations with Iran and Syria as part of a strategy to deny Kurdish guerrillas safe havens in these countries. Moreover, Turkish effort to exert more influence in the Middle East was in itself a response to the mess created by American policy in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel/​Palestine and the rest of the Middle East.

And contrary to spin in Washington that portrayed Turkey (and Brazil, another close U.S. ally) as trying to sabotage attempts by the U.S. and its allies to end Iran’s nuclear military program, the accord reached with Tehran — under which the Iranians agreed to deposit 1200 kg of low grade uranium in Turkey to be exchanged for 120 kg of higher grade uranium in nuclear fuel rods — was very much in line with earlier UN proposals and seemed to complement American diplomacy.

Nor was the general direction of the Turkish policy towards Israel a demonstration of a new anti‐​Israeli approach. The serious diplomacy on the part of Erdogan that centered on the idea that Turkey could serve as a mediator between Syria and Israelmade a lot of strategic sense, especially at a time when Washington’s power in the region has been eroding in the aftermath of the Iraq War, and offered long‐​term benefits to all those involved in the process, including the Israelis. At the same time, the 2008 Israeli military operation in Gaza, which led to the collapse of the Israeli‐​Syrian talks under Turkish auspices, ran contrary to the interests of Turkey which was trying to co‐​opt the Islamist movement of Hamas and persuade it to moderate its positions. The television images of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza helped ignite anti‐​Israeli sentiments on the government to condemn the Israeli operation that gained more traction following infantile Israeli responses. In a way, the current tensions over the Israeli raid on the Gaza “Peace Flotilla” are a continuation of the disagreements between Ankara and Jerusalem over the policy towards Hamas.

But the current crisis also demonstrated the need on the part of the Israelis and the Turks to refrain from turning these policy disagreements into a wide‐​ranging “civilizational” conflict. Israel needs to recognize and support Turkey’s determination to play a more activist diplomatic role and take advantage of it and refrain from trying to demonize Turkey as an Islamofascist entity. At the end of the day, Israel has more at stake than Turkey in repairing the bilateral relations between Ankara and Jerusalem.

At the same time, Erdogan and the AKP should understand that that Turkey does not have the capability to serve as an all powerful regional hegemon, and that any attempt to move in that direction will ignite anti‐​Turkey backlash from regional and global players. In any case, trying to serve as a mediator between the Israelis and the Arabs could prove to be a difficult and thankless job — if not a mission impossible — as the Americans and other powers have already discovered, and that trying to compensate for their diplomatic weakness by displaying Islamist bravado could backfire against the Turks and will certainly not accelerate the establishment of a New Middle East anytime soon. In short, Turkey is not as threatening as its detractors warn nor as powerful as many Turks and their new fans believe.

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