April 27, 2012 § 3 Comments
Ahmet Davutoğlu gave a remarkable speech before the Turkish parliament yesterday in which he completely smashed any remaining vestiges of his own zero problems with neighbors policy and embraced his full neo-Ottoman side. Davutoğlu declared that Turkey will be the “owner, pioneer, and servant” of the new Middle East which he says Turkey has led the way in creating, and that Turkey will continue to lead and “guide the winds of change” in the region. On Syria specifically, Davutoğlu claimed that Turkey had been urging Assad to reform well before the Arab Spring and said that he could not understand those who embrace autocratic leaders at the expense of the people, and stated that the AKP’s motto is “cry out against oppression.” Most remarkably and in what must be seen as an enormous policy shift, Davutoğlu said that Turkey will no longer wait to let the big powers set the agenda in Syria before acting and that Turkey will not follow any policies that do not originate with its own government. In making it apparent that Turkey is a force to be reckoned with, Davutoğlu said, “Even your dreams can’t and won’t reach the place where our power has come to.” Whew! Anyone else think that Ahmet Bey has been reading too many glowing testaments to his own brilliance in Time and Foreign Policy?
Despite the snark, I actually think this is a good thing because it means that Turkey’s rhetoric is starting to catch up to current realities. In instituting zero problems with neighbors, Davutoğlu’s aim was to rebuild Turkish power by cutting out unnecessary foreign policy distractions and using Turkey’s growing economic clout to expand its influence. By any measure, the policy has been enormously successful as Turkey has transformed itself into a regional power with ambitions of becoming a top geopolitical actor. While this has occurred, Turkey has insisted throughout that it can still maintain positive relationships with all countries in the region and work out any problems through dialogue and mutual understanding. As I have pointed out previously, this is silly naivete. Last week I wrote the following:
Becoming a regional power means less neutrality and more forcefulness. Turkey is now demonstrating that with regard to Syria, as it has over the past months moved away from trying to gently influence Assad to organizing efforts with an eye toward forcing him to leave. It might mean a loss of credibility as an arbiter or mediator, but the flip side is a more muscular role for Turkish power in the region.
The fiction that Turkey could somehow remain neutral on all issues and be friends with everybody has been exposed by the Arab Spring, the chaos in Syria, and now by Iran. It’s time for Ankara to drop the charade, acknowledge that it is not going to be able to rewrite the rules of international politics all by itself, and come up with a new grand strategy and slogan that recognizes that being a regional power means having to act like a bully sometimes.
Turkey, and Davutoğlu particularly, has continued to spout the zero problems with neighbors line, but it does not fit with what Turkey is trying to do. Davutoğlu has finally come out and said what everyone knows, which is that Turkey views itself not as a first among equals but as a regional leader, and that it expects to be out front in setting policy for the region in a bid for hegemony. It took the opposition parties accusing the government of interfering in Syria at the expense of ignoring domestic problems for Davutoğlu to reveal his true thoughts and ambitions, but now that they are out in the open, there is no point in trying to cram them back into the box. Turkey should embrace its new role and its newfound power rather than trying to hide the ball, and the empty slogans about zero problems and humility in foreign policy now need to stop for good.
P.S. By the way, if you want to do a fun little exercise, compare the news stories on Davutoğlu’s speech in Hürriyet and in Zaman. Before you do so, try to guess which paper frames the speech as dealing with Syria and which frames the speech as outlining Turkey’s ambitions to lead the Middle East, and if both report Davutoğlu’s declarations about policies that originate in Ankara and Turkey’s epic power.
April 23, 2012 § 1 Comment
In its eternal Sisyphean quest to extract an Israeli apology for the Mavi Marmara, Turkey has decided that involving other countries against their will in its battle is a good strategy. Hürriyet reports that Turkey has blocked Israel from attending the NATO summit in Chicago next month despite entreaties not to do so from the U.S., France, and NATO’s secretary-general. Furthermore, Turkey has now been threatened with retaliation by other NATO members who are promising to block other partner countries that are close to Turkey from participating in the Mediterranean Dialogue group. Not content to let the matter lie, Davutoğlu criticized other countries for criticizing Turkey and lectured them for considering Israel to be a partner.
Let’s go through the reasons why this is incredibly foolish and short-sighted. First, Turkey has taken what is a purely bilateral dispute between it and another state and tried to use its position in NATO to internationalize it, despite the fact that it does not concern other NATO members who have no desire to be used as pawns in Turkey’s game. This harms Turkey’s standing in NATO and damages its credibility and reputation for seriousness, and it also damages the alliance in general since now none of the Mediterranean Dialogue countries will be participating following Turkey’s veto of Israel and the resulting counter-vetoes. This does not help anyone, least of all Turkey. No other NATO country is going to look kindly upon Turkey’s efforts to hijack the group for its own selfish ends, and it is guaranteed to come back and hurt Turkey down the road. Like it or not, NATO states value Israel’s military and intelligence capabilities, and excluding Israel from a NATO summit where its presence is wanted by other countries is nothing short of petty and misguided. Turkey has every right to cancel bilateral military exercises, downgrade diplomatic relations, and do anything else that it wishes to do so long as it involves its own sovereign activities, but bringing NATO into it against the will of other NATO countries is going to have consequences next time Turkey turns to the U.S. or France for a favor (see next paragraph).
The move is even more puzzling given the timing. Turkey has been making noise about invoking NATO Article 5 over violations of its border by Syrian forces, and so it decides in its infinite wisdom to pick the upcoming NATO summit as an appropriate time and venue to annoy its NATO allies and open itself up to criticism that it does not respect the alliance’s purposes or values? I fail to see how this in any way advances Turkish interests or marshals NATO to back up Turkey without reservations should the situation with Syria escalate. It’s as if Ankara is so blinded by its fury that it is willing to sacrifice anyone and anything in order to cause even minor amounts of damage toward Israel, irrespective of any other consequences. Turkey needs to figure out its priorities and act accordingly. I would think that unvarnished NATO support to contain Syrian mischief would be Turkey’s chief concern right now rather than scoring points against Israel, but I suppose in thinking that I must be out of my strategic depth (and yes, pun very much intended).
The final reason why this is a silly move unbefitting Davutoğlu’s reputation for canny diplomacy is that it will not bring Israel any closer to the apology that Turkey is seeking. Israel is extremely reluctant to comply with Turkey’s terms for normalized relations given its view that Turkey tacitly blessed the Mavi Marmara’s journey, and reports such as this one that describe firsthand accounts of what was waiting for the paintgun-wielding Israeli soldiers as they dropped onto the ship’s deck only magnify Israel’s reluctance. If Turkey actually thought that excluding Israel from a NATO meeting would prompt an apology, and knowing how big a priority this is for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, then perhaps I would understand it, and it might even be logical for Turkey to do from a cost-benefit perspective. But there is literally zero chance that doing so will bring about Ankara’s desired result, and it will instead only convince Israel that the Turkish government is determined to damage it in any and every forum, making the possibility of an apology further and further remote. What’s more, the Turkish government knows this full well, and this is not a gambit designed to do anything more than poke Israel in the eye. When you take this into consideration, and then factor in the fact that Turkey is genuinely pissing off its NATO allies, this move makes no sense at all. One can only conclude that the architects of Turkish foreign policy are either not thinking particularly clearly at the moment, or that their rage toward Israel is indeed impeding other more important goals from being realized. Either way, it does not put Turkey in a very good light.
April 17, 2012 § 1 Comment
Laura Rozen has a fun behind the scenes recap of the P5+1 Istanbul talks, but the best nugget is the reporting that Davutoğlu tried to set up a number of bilateral meetings between Iran and other states, and that Iran rebuffed him because it does not want to give Davutoğlu and Turkey a diplomatic victory in light of the newfound tension between Turkey and Iran. If this is indeed the reason why Iran would not agree to any bilateral meetings aside from one with China, then it suggests a high degree of Iranian naivete and miscalculation. Recall that as of only a couple of weeks ago, Erdoğan was describing Iran’s nuclear program as peaceful and as a purely civilian project, and criticizing reporters for focusing on Iranian nuclear efforts but not calling out Israel on its nuclear arsenal. Since then, Iran has angered Turkey by waffling on holding the talks in Istanbul which prompted Erdoğan to question Iran’s sincerity and truthfulness, and then after seemingly smoothing things over, has now decided to put playing childish games ahead of securing Turkish support. For a country that is increasingly isolated and facing devastating oil sanctions from the EU in a few months, this is a puzzling move in the extreme. It either means that Iran is very confident that it has managed to avoid a strike on its nuclear facilities, or that Iran is the little boy in a room full of grown men. There is no good reason to annoy the Turks, who will be critical in convincing the U.S. to sit tight and give negotiations a chance, or who will be valuable from a logistics and supply chain perspective should the U.S. decide to attack. Making Davutoğlu look impotent in front of a powerful international audience is only going to backfire, and it is a strange move for a state with few powerful friends left to purposely offend an influential potential supporter.
This incident also underscores the changing environment that Ankara will have to navigate going forward as it rethinks its global role and adjusts accordingly. Turkey has made a big deal under its current government of being a valuable bridge between the West and its own neighbors farther east. Part of the zero problems with neighbors strategy was to establish Turkish credibility in the region so that it could serve as a go-between and become more influential with the U.S. and Europe. That Davutoğlu would be running around trying to set up bilateral meetings is completely in character with this strategy, and the fact that he was not able to deliver is not a knock on him but an indicator of how Turkey needs to shift course. Becoming a regional power means less neutrality and more forcefulness. Turkey is now demonstrating that with regard to Syria, as it has over the past months moved away from trying to gently influence Assad to organizing efforts with an eye toward forcing him to leave. It might mean a loss of credibility as an arbiter or mediator, but the flip side is a more muscular role for Turkish power in the region. The same thing is true with Iran. Turkey may now find it more difficult to act as the middle man that brings Iran and the West together, but having a stronger independent voice and taking sides will bring with it a different array of benefits. Just as Turkey shifted course with Syria, I expect the same thing to eventually happen with Iran, since Davutoğlu is too smart to stick with an outdated policy that no longer matches Turkey’s reach or its geopolitical circumstances. The fiction that Turkey could somehow remain neutral on all issues and be friends with everybody has been exposed by the Arab Spring, the chaos in Syria, and now by Iran. It’s time for Ankara to drop the charade, acknowledge that it is not going to be able to rewrite the rules of international politics all by itself, and come up with a new grand strategy and slogan that recognizes that being a regional power means having to act like a bully sometimes.
April 12, 2012 § 1 Comment
Turkey did two things today to box Syria in that are extremely clever, and Erdoğan and Davutoğlu deserve a lot of credit for it. First, the army issued an order to its troops on the Syrian border not to engage with Syrian forces unless they are certain that they are being specifically targeted. This comes in response to the shots fired into a refugee camp in Turkey two days ago, which could have precipitated a real escalation but did not thanks to Turkish restraint. Turkey absolutely does not want to be drawn into open conflict with Syria for a variety of reasons, while at the same time it is in Assad’s interests to provoke Turkey in order to muddy the waters and change the conversation away from civilian massacres and also to gauge just how far Turkey is willing to go. The order not to get drawn into a conflict unless targeted – and to thus ignore more boundary-testing on Syria’s part – is a smart move, and lets Turkey play things out on its own terms rather than on Assad’s.
Second, Erdoğan has concluded that the U.N. is of only limited effectiveness and has turned to a more credible actor in using Turkey’s status as a member of NATO in order to pressure Assad. Following Erdoğan’s threat to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter – which obligates all NATO members to respond to an attack on one of its own – should Syria continue to violate Turkey’s border, NATO announced that it is officially monitoring the situation on the border. This is also a great strategic move on Turkey’s part, since while Assad may want to test Turkey, he certainly does not want to deal with NATO, and unlike the P5 veto in the Security Council that relegates the U.N. to little more than a debate club, NATO does not have such hoops to jump through before acting. The combination of the NATO threat and the order for Turkish restraint gives Assad very little room to maneuver, since a real violation of Turkish sovereignty risks widespread and sustained NATO action but little pincer moves along the border will not trick Turkey into a pointless retaliation. All in all, a good turn of events for Turkey and a bad turn of events for Assad.
Furthermore, do not underestimate the effect of the NATO threat on Syrian compliance with the Annan ceasefire deal. It is not a coincidence that Assad violated the earlier deadline this week but is so far holding up its end of the deal right after Turkey’s NATO threat. Now that it is more than the U.N. that is potentially involved, Assad may wise up to the fact that continued fighting puts him in real danger. Give Erdoğan and Davutoğlu credit for this as well. Their principled position on Syria is beginning to pay dividends.
April 9, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu arrived in China today for the first visit by a Turkish PM in nearly three decades, with the aim of increasing trade and business ties including sealing the deal with China for it to build Turkey’s second nuclear power plant (the first is being built by Russia). A stronger relationship with China is undoubtedly good for Turkey’s economy and Chinese investment in Turkey will help to maintain Turkish growth, particularly given the fears of a hard landing raised by Turkish economic performance in the last quarter of 2011, which dropped off considerably from the first three quarters. Closer ties with China will, however, present a different sort of problem related to Turkey’s growing influence in global politics.
Sunday’s article in Zaman about Erdoğan’s visit to Xinjiang noted Turkey’s hard line against Muslim Uyghur separatists and Turkish support for Chinese territorial integrity. This in some sense a difficult position for Turkey to take given the large contingent of Turkish Uyghurs, but in another sense it is reminiscent of Turkey’s position on its Kurdish population, as Turkey too wants to avoid a separate Kurdistan at all costs and thus is sympathetic to Beijing’s position. On other high profile issues involving the global community, however, China and Turkey are moving in separate directions. China has been following Russia’s lead in blocking a stronger international response led by the U.N. to the fighting in Syria, which puts it directly at odds with Erdoğan’s call for Assad to leave and his condemnation of the U.N. for not doing more to protect civilians from Assad’s brutality. There is virtually no chance of China coming along to Turkey’s position given China’s championing of the principle of absolute sovereignty and opposing all interventions on humanitarian grounds, which is one of the bedrocks of Chinese foreign policy. On Iran, Turkey seems to be slowly moving closer to the West’s position of suspecting that Iran’s nuclear program is not solely a civilian one, and this too puts it at odds with China.
For the Turkey of ten years ago, these differences with China would not matter. Turkey would have been happy to discuss little but increased trade and economic opportunities and left it at that. The Turkey of 2012 though has ambitions to be a global power, and has inserted itself quite starkly into the forefront of both the Syrian and Iranian issues. In addition, President Gül last week announced a new Turkish defense doctrine of being a “virtuous power,” and subsuming humanitarian issues in Syria or possible nuclear intransigence in Iran to new opportunities for Turkish business presents a conflict with this idea of incorporating justice and human values into foreign policy. This is a tough balancing act for Turkey to pull off, and it is one instantly familiar to anyone who has studied American foreign policy in the post-WWII era. The U.S. often finds its values and its interests at odds, and the trick is finding a way to reconcile the two and emerge with a foreign policy that advances the latter without entirely selling out the former. As Turkey becomes a larger and more responsible geopolitical player, it will find itself running into this problem with increasing regularity, and it will be interesting to see if Davutoğlu and Gül, who both often speak in the language of justice and virtue with regards to foreign policy, continue pushing these ideas over the next decade as Turkey faces an array of contradictions that it has largely avoided in the past. These next few days in China will particularly bear watching to see how Erdoğan and Davutoğlu reconcile their desire to gain Chinese cooperation on Syria with their push for Chinese investment in Turkey and a larger market for Turkish manufacturing.
April 6, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Turkey’s patience with Iran appears to be running out. Erdoğan finally voiced the conclusion yesterday that the rest of the world has suspected for some time, namely that Iran is being less than forthright about its nuclear program. Erdoğan accused Tehran of not being being honest and of trying to sabotage the P5+1 nuclear talks before they begin by purposely suggesting venues that it knows will not be acceptable to the countries on the other side of the negotiating table. It seems that the PM received personal assurances from Khameini and Ahmadinejad while meeting with them last week that the Iranian nuclear program is benign and intended only for civilian purposes, and is now infuriated that after talking to Iranian leaders face to face they are refusing to hold talks in Istanbul and trying to delay negotiations. Erdoğan’s anger is reminiscent of what first led to the downgrade in Turkey’s relations with Israel, when Erdoğan felt personally insulted that Israel launched Operation Cast Lead without warning immediately after Erdoğan had met with Olmert to broker a peace deal with Syria. Turkish officials still routinely mention how betrayed and humiliated Erdoğan felt, and this residual anger is contributing as much as anything to the continuing feud between Israel and Turkey.
On the one hand, it is a positive thing that the Iranian leadership has shown its true colors and cost itself Turkey’s support. Turkey stood out as a NATO member and staunch Western ally insisting that Iran’s intentions were peaceful and that it should be given the benefit of the doubt, and if Turkey moves away from a trust-but-verify position regarding Iran, it will put more pressure on the Iranian government and hopefully avert a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. It is not, however, a generally good idea to conduct foreign policy based on Erdoğan’s personal relationship with world leaders. Certainly it is not good for either Israel or Turkey to have downgraded their relationship so rapidly and intensely, and while there are of course many other contributing factors, Erdoğan’s bruised feelings drove the initial tension between the two countries. On Syria, Turkey lagged behind at the beginning and felt that Assad could eventually be brought around, which was due to the friendship between the countries’ leaders. The Turkish 180, culminating in the call for Assad to step down, was again partially the result of Erdoğan feeling betrayed by Assad’s lies to him about his intentions and repeated broken promises to stop killing civilians. Much like with Iran, the end result is a good one, but the delay in getting there resulted from a personal relationship between the PM and another world leader, and only once the personal relationship deteriorated did the policy shift. As Mehmet Ali Birand points out in Hurriyet, Turkey takes Iran’s words at face value, and Davutoğlu returned from Iran convinced that the Iranian leadership was being truthful and forthright. It is thus unsurprising that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu would now feel stabbed in the back, but it shouldn’t have taken a personal betrayal for them to wake up to the fact that Iran is not exactly a blameless actor. As Turkey takes on a greater geopolitical role and unveils its new “virtuous power” defense doctrine, it should take greater care to let objective analysis be the controlling factor at all times rather than passion and personalities.
April 2, 2012 § 1 Comment
Hugh Pope has a long and excellent roundup in the Cairo Review of Erdoğan’s first decade at Turkey’s helm, and it is a useful summary of the important trends that have taken place, particular in the foreign policy realm. Something that jumped out at me is Pope’s analysis of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, to which he does not devote an entire section but which pops up in a few places. He describes Erdoğan’s rushing to placate the U.S. following his embarrassment at the parliamentary vote denying help with the Iraq War, and that Turkish granting of overflight rights and supply routes and the subsequent deal for U.S. intelligence on the PKK helped usher in what Ankara has described at a golden age in relations with Washington. Pope also points to the return of a Cold War dynamic in which the U.S. looks the other way in ignoring Turkish authoritarian behavior at home in return for a reliable ally that secures American interests.
Certainly, Turkish government officials like to play up the relationship with Washington and what they see as a vital partnership, and they like to point out similarities in the two countries’ political development. I heard Davutoğlu speak at Georgetown in 2010 in a talk titled ”Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkish-U.S. Partnership in the 21st Century” in which he embraced Obama’s term of a”model partnership” and then talked about Turkey’s four “political restorations” (the Tanzimat reforms, establishment of the republic, multiparty democracy, and what is going on now with AKP constitutional reforms) and cleverly made a comparison to the U.S. by asserting that it too went through four political restorations. Especially as Turkey has drifted farther away from Europe, first as European countries openly snubbed its EU membership bid and then as Turkey determined that it did not need Europe as much as it had originally thought, it has moved even closer to the U.S. Even though this should not be a point that ever bears repeating, casual observers tend to forget that Turkey is a member of NATO and that it is a valuable strategic ally in numerous ways.
The upshot of this is that in thinking about Erdoğan’s comments over the past week regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and how no state has the right to threaten Iran over what he deems to be an entirely peaceful pursuit of nuclear power, and how the NATO X-Band radar is not directed at thwarting or containing Iran, ultimately it’s not going to make a lick of difference. The growing chasm between Turkey and Europe along with its loss of Syria as its primary Arab ally mean that the relationship with the U.S. is even more inviolate than ever. Erdoğan did everything he could to repair ties with Washington following the Iraq War, and despite the perception of a Turkish turn to the east, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are too savvy to go back to the dark days of spring 2003 when it comes to the U.S., even if it eventually means tossing Iran overboard and not looking back. The announcement on Friday that Turkey would be cutting back its imports of Iranian oil is the most recent datapoint in this regard, and no doubt if the U.S. decides to go even further and eventually take military action, Turkey will quietly follow along. I still stand by my musings from last week about Erdoğan’s perplexing move of jetting straight to Tehran from Seoul, and it makes sense in this context since Turkey has perhaps the most to lose from a U.S.-Iranian confrontation and will do anything it can to prevent it from happening. Turkey benefits from its relationship with Iran and does not want to lose it, but now that it has lost Syria and Europe, it simply cannot lose the U.S. as well.
The implications for U.S. pressure on Turkey to maintain its liberalizing reforms and not roll back any progress that was made between 2002 and 2009 are that no such pressure will be forthcoming any time soon. The U.S.-Turkey relationship has moved firmly into the realm of realpolitik, and anyone expecting Washington to speak out on press intimidation or harassing of political opponents will be waiting a long time. The U.S. needs Turkey more than ever in the wake of the Arab Spring and Turkey equally needs the U.S., and so the golden age/model partnership is going to be maintained no matter the hardships on either side. If it means Ankara sacrificing its relationship with Iran or the U.S. appearing to cynically give an ally a free pass, so be it.
April 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The Israeli and Greek navies along with the U.S. Sixth Fleet are busy conducting large scale exercises in the Mediterranean in what the Greek media is describing as a message to Turkey. While drills meant to simulate protecting offshore gas platforms does not at first glance seem like it should be particularly relevant to Turkey, the exercise is effectively a carbon copy of the annual naval drills that the U.S. and Israel used to conduct with the Turkish navy until canceling them in 2009. Inviting Greece to join in Turkey’s place is a poke in the eye for Ankara, which views Greece as a natural and historic rival, and it surely is making the Turks even more furious that the enemies in the joint exercise deliberately resemble the Turkish air force.
On the Turkish side of things, Erdoğan spent the day loudly drawing a public contrast between the Israeli nuclear arsenal and what he says is the peaceful Iranian nuclear program. He expressed his view that nobody focuses on Israel’s 250-300 warheads, while Iran is being threatened with military action despite their desire to go no further than producing some enriched uranium rods, and that the West’s shielding of Israel is a hypocritical double standard. While in Iran on Friday, he and Davutoğlu also reiterated that the NATO X-Band radar deployed in Turkey is not aimed at containing Iran, and that Turkey would pull out of the agreement to host it within six months if the data collected by the radar system is shared with Israel. Naturally, none of this is going to reassure Israel, or move it any closer to trying to resolve its differences with Turkey, nor will any of this – including the Israeli-Greek naval exercises – provide the impetus for resumed Israeli-Turkish military cooperation, which is seen as the hook that will eventually move the two countries closer together.
March 22, 2012 § 1 Comment
Tony Badran reports that Hillary Clinton shot down Ahmet Davutoğlu’s entreaties last month to get tougher with Syria, including the creation of a buffer zone. According to Badran, Clinton told the FM that the U.S. is “not there” on proactively pushing Assad to go, and that Turkey is seeking to take stronger action against Syria but will not do so without U.S. backing. Badran and I had a Twitter exchange today where I asked him if he thought that Turkey actually wants to establish a buffer zone or whether this is a smart leak on Turkey’s part to create the appearance of wanting to do more on Syria, and Badran said that his focus is not on what Turkey is doing but what his reporting says about the Obama administration.
Unlike Badran, I am keenly interested in the Turkish side of this. To be blunt, I think that this is a textbook example of the Turkish version of hasbara. There is no way that Turkey is contemplating in any serious way creating a buffer zone across the Syrian border. The fighting with the PKK over the past few days and reports of Assad’s embrace of the PKK now that he feels abandoned by Erdoğan drives this point home even further. The Turkish government has gotten lots of favorable press since suggesting that they were considering the possibility in an effort to help Syrian refugees, but they almost immediately walked back the suggestion after floating it so that the calls for doing so would not get out of hand. The leaked information that they asked the U.S. for cover to do so a month ago is part and parcel of the government’s effort to make it look like they desperately want to do more on Syria but are being prevented by the U.S. or the U.N. This way Turkey gets credit for taking a tougher line on Assad without having to actually risk anything. This is not meant to be a criticism of Turkey, as all governments want to look good without having to get into messy entanglements, and kudos to Davutoğlu for deftly managing Turkey’s image while simultaneously safeguarding its interests. Reports like Badran’s, however, are best taken with a grain of salt. With all the recent sniping between Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg over whether Goldberg was used by the Israeli government, I suspect that Badran is unwittingly being used by the Turkish Foreign Ministry to push a narrative that portrays Turkey in a particularly favorable light.
March 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
Ahmet Davutoğlu has a wide-ranging interview in the Cairo Review on a host of topics ranging from Turkey’s strategic interests to its issues with Cyprus and Armenia, and there’s way too much in there to cover comprehensively, but I want to hone in on a few of the more interesting points.
Whatever else one thinks of him, Davutoğlu is an impressive character and his reputation as a thinker is well earned. He speaks on topics with a depth and understanding that is rare for foreign ministers of any stripe. That said, the first thing that jumps out at me is a combination of stubbornness and what I assume is willful naivete. He makes it clear that he believes “zero problems with neighbors” is alive and well despite the numerous assumptions that should have been shattered by the Arab Spring. It is all fine and well to trumpet the desire to have harmonious relationships with everyone and help other states solves their problems, but it is not anything that can be seriously sustained if Turkey is to guard its own interests. This is international relations 101, and Davutoğlu surely knows that its dumping of Assad has guaranteed newly strained relations with Iran, to take one prominent neighbor. Zero problems with neighbors is a nice slogan and might have even worked when the Middle East appeared to be relatively static, but for an ambitious global power like Turkey that is aiming to expand its reach throughout and Middle East and beyond, it is nothing more than hubris to believe that it can revolutionize the way in which states interact. Turkey and Davutoğlu need to publicly and privately come to grips with this fact sooner rather than later.
This might be reading between the lines too much, but it is interesting that in listing Turkey’s interests, Davutoğlu orders them as economic, democratic, and the alliance with Europe and the Atlantic community. I think his prioritization of economic interests is perfectly normal but gives lie to the idea that Turkey is able to dance on the head of a pin when it comes to respecting everyone and forming a set of cooperative and non-confrontational relationships. Some of Turkey’s relations in the region will be characterized as such but others will not, and the foreign minister’s rundown demonstrates that Turkey is actually not so different from everybody else.
Davutoğlu also talks about Turkey consolidating its democracy as its greatest success on the domestic front. Political scientists all know that democratic consolidation is a famously slippery term that can mean all sorts of things from preventing democratic backslide, to moving from electoral to liberal democracy, to improving democratic quality in even highly advanced democracies, but at its heart it implies reaching some sort of democratic threshold that puts a country’s democratic status and liberal qualities beyond reproach. I think that few people outside of Turkey, and certainly no democracy experts, would describe Turkish democracy as consolidated. Turkish democracy has made strides in some places and been abysmal in others, and in fact Turkey appears to be closer to Thomas Carothers’ grey zone than it does to achieving liberal democratic status. Certainly no serious argument can be made that Turkey is a consolidated democracy when it has over one hundred journalists in jail, editors and reporters talk of a climate of fear surrounding criticism of the government, and students who throw eggs at politicians risk being imprisoned for five years. Turkish democracy has improved in many ways, but the consolidation talk is extremely premature.
Davutoğlu also does an interesting about-face that will be apparent only to those who read his doctoral dissertation (which was turned into the book Alternative Paradigms) when he talks about his categorical refutation of the Huntingtonian clash of civilizations thesis. The foreign minister used to sing a different tune, and in fact before Huntington even wrote his seminal 1993 article Davutoğlu argued that the divisions between the Western and Islamic world stem from an irreconcilable chasm between the philosophical and political traditions of the two civilizations, and that both sides can justifiably view the other as being ideologically intransigent. In the Cairo Review interview, he adds the interesting modifier “with the advantage of hindsight,” but I’d be interested to hear a first-hand account of when and why he changed his mind.
Finally, the subject of the Arab Spring makes for some fascinating reading. Davutoğlu claims that Turkey expected the Arab Spring, which is interesting in light of Turkey’s heavy reliance on ties with Syria under Assad and its seemingly being taken by surprise on Tunisia and Libya, and so there seems to be some serious revisionist history taking place. On the question of whether Turkey is an appropriate model for Arab countries, the foreign minister gives a surprising yet cogently insightful answer, which is that Turkey does not want to hold itself forth or be seen as a role model given every state’s unique history and sociopolitical legacy. He says that Turkey is happy to share its democratic experience with other countries, but that anyone looking solely at the evolution of civilian-military relations is missing the big picture and that it took Turkey decades to arrive at where it is now. Anyone who has ever studied democratization and knows just how difficult and rocky the path to democracy is will greatly appreciate that answer, and it is unusual to see Davutoğlu go out of his way not to promote Turkey as a model in that manner (I cannot imagine a similar level of restraint from Erdoğan).
For more thoughts, there is a good roundup of the interview by Steven Cook, Marc Lynch, and others.