Guest Post: Zero Problems But Few Common Interests

November 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today’s post comes to you courtesy of O&Z favorite and veteran guest poster Dov Friedman, and examines the reasons behind Turkey’s apparent shift back to its Zero Problems With Neighbors policy and why the strategy is unlikely to be too successful the second time around.

Turkey’s foreign policy activity appears resurgent of late.  In early November, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu hosted his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for bilateral talks in Ankara.  Zarif, picking up on a cherished Davutoğlu theme, emphasized the countries’ shared ability to promote dialogue in service of regional peace and stability.  Two weeks ago, reciprocating Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s October visit to Ankara, Davutoğlu visited his counterpart in Iraq—where he extolled his own regional policy in vivid, splendid fashion.

Taken together, they at least signal an end to the oppositional forcefulness of Turkey’s Syria policy.  They may also indicate a broader effort by Turkey to reset regional relations.

The problem, Turkey may find, is akin to the one Alvy Singer faces in the lobster scenes in Annie Hall—that of trying to recreate a particular, wildly successful moment from the past.  The efforts to improve relations with Iran and Iraq are transparent and a bit clumsy—a sort of ersatz Zero Problems with Neighbors tactic.

In the years prior to the Arab Uprisings, Zero Problems was at its most effective as an aspect of a wider foreign policy strategy—one that leveraged regional relationships to facilitate, and at times mediate, among powers.  For a brief moment, that foreign policy vision raised the prospect that Turkey might be a vital presence in facilitating international political negotiations—a “central power” of sorts, to borrow Davutoğlu’s own conception.

Whether by fault or circumstance, that moment is gone.  Its evanescence explains Turkey’s efforts to recapture the magic of Zero Problems—and why that effort now appears futile.

Take, to begin, Egypt’s decision over the weekend to send off Turkey’s ambassador and downgrade relations.  The obvious immediate cause—as Steven Cook noted in a strong post yesterday—was Turkey’s ostentatious condemnation of the Egyptian military coup.  Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan foolhardily insisted on continuing to recognize the Mohamed Morsi government as Egypt’s legitimate rulers, and rarely passed up jabs at the military regime.  He did so because he believed vocal support of democratically elected governments bolstered Turkey’s regional influence.  The result is an embarrassing diplomatic fiasco for Turkey.

Yet, the interactions between Turkey and Egypt during Morsi’s year in power should have communicated to AK Party’s leadership the potential limits of Turkey’s regional influence.  After the Freedom and Justice Party’s victory, the AK Party government offered friendly—and wise—advice to its political Islamist brethren on the merits of blending conservative values with a secular constitution.  Morsi’s FJP politely told them to bug off.  Support from Turkey for the Muslim Brotherhood’s cause was one thing; advice on its political program for Egypt was another entirely.

In hindsight, that was the moment for serious Turkish introspection.  Regional actors might welcome Turkey’s support and collaborate to mutual benefit, but they were wholly uninterested in domestic political advice. Turkey’s facilitation- and mediation-focused foreign policy had clear benefits for Turkey’s role in both the international sphere and in relations with the U.S. and Europe, but it purchased little in the way of regional leadership.  At the very least, the FJP’s wakeup should have pushed Turkey to consider its core regional interests and work quietly to implement as many of them as possible.

But Turkey pursued misguided policies in Syria and now faces serious internal problems as a result.  Believing the regional trend would move toward conservative democratic movements—and believing in an opportunity for lasting Turkish influence—Turkey was bullish on the Syrian opposition. To support the protracted fight against Bashar Assad, Turkey tacitly facilitated the Saudi-backed jihadists, enabling free movement through Gaziantep’s airport and on to the Syrian border, while turning a blind eye to Gulf-funded safe houses on the Turkish side of the border—ones it publicly denies exist.

At the same time, Turkey refused for far too long to engage politically with the PYD—the PKK offshoot in northern Syria—, backing Massoud Barzani’s heavy-handed and futile efforts to extend his influence by sending KRG-affiliated peshmerga forces across the border.  This despite the PYD’s demonstrated commitment to fighting both al-Qaeda and Assad regime forces.

The result of these Syria policies?  This terrifying item on jihadi recruitment in Turkey’s southeast from the Guardian‘s excellent Istanbul-based correspondent, Connie Letsch.  It is a problem Turkey may contend with for years to come.

Which returns us to the recent visits with the Iraqi and Iranian foreign ministers.  As the Syrian civil war grinds on, and as Turkey bears the economic and social costs of 600,000 refugees, the government recalls its momentarily exalted international standing and seeks to diminish problems and mend relations with its neighbors to the east.

How deep can these ties possibly run?  On nearly every issue facing the region today, Turkey and Iran—and Iraq, by extension—are at odds.  Their divergence over Syria is well known.  Meanwhile, Turkey continues to foster close relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government, with the recent Erdoğan-Barzani meeting in Diyarbakır only the latest indicator.  Despite fears that the Turkey-PKK peace process was on life support, Erdoğan—to his credit—has renewed the push to move it forward.

On each of these issues, Iran’s and Iraq’s interests run counter to Turkey’s.  The KRG-Turkey partnership markedly increases the likelihood of an eventual bid for independence from Iraq.  Turkey is already on record supporting Kurdish oil claims and its constitutional interpretation.  Historically, Iran has fomented the PKK-Turkey conflict, which preoccupied Turkish military forces in the east and diminished the potential for PJAK mischief.  If Turkey truly ends the decades-long conflict with the PKK, Iran may face a more concerted, focused Kurdish opposition.

Despite the glaring reality that Turkey’s and Iran’s interests run at cross-purposes, Turkey petulantly lashed out in its diplomatic feud with Israel by gift-wrapping 10 Mossad agents for the Iranian regime.  At the moment it should have been recalibrating its strategic approach, Turkey simultaneously aided a country with the greatest capacity to upset its regional interests while irrevocably losing the trust of a country whose strengths complement Turkey’s well.

Undoubtedly, Turkey will continue to proclaim, in every way imaginable, a return to normalcy in foreign policy.  But through a mix of well-intentioned miscalculations and ill-advised, rash decisions, Turkey faces some troublingly intractable problems.  If only assuaging conflicts with its eastern neighbors were the solution.  But Erdoğan and Davutoğlu must understand as well as anyone that Zero Problems was effective not as an end in and of itself, but as a platform.  Perhaps they would be better off finding their diplomatic rhythm with those who share even the most basic of common regional interests.

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Turkey and the U.S. – Hearing But Not Listening

November 21, 2013 § 5 Comments

I spent the better part of last week in Istanbul talking U.S. and Turkish foreign policy under the auspices of the Hollings Center, and I came away with a lot to mull over, but if there was one big overarching takeaway, it is that the U.S. and Turkey have a serious and real communication problem. There are structural issues that are complicating the bilateral relationship as well, and I’ll save those for a different post, but much of the recent downturn in relations (and yes, the relationship at the moment is at an ebb, no matter how much spin and damage control came from Ahmet Davutoğlu prior to his Washington visit this week) is resulting from a lack on both sides of understanding the other country’s priorities. The U.S. and Turkey are hearing each other, but not really listening.

This has manifested itself in a few ways, but the easiest way of illustrating the problem is by looking at the contretemps over Turkey’s decision to chose a Chinese firm to partner with in order to build an anti-missile defense system. When Turkey announced the decision, the reaction from the U.S. and other NATO allies was swift and furious. In their eyes, Turkey was turning its back on the NATO alliance and going with a Chinese firm – one that is under sanctions, no less – simply because it was cheaper. Turkey’s reaction to U.S. displeasure was that the U.S. does not understand the “new Turkey” that is stronger and more independent than it has been in the past, and does not feel like it needs to be tied down to whatever U.S. preferences are in every situation.

The Turkish decision, the U.S. reaction, and the Turkish counter-reaction have been acutely felt in both places, but in both instances they are partially predicated on fundamental misunderstandings of decision making and preferences in each country. Starting with Turkey, the decision to go with the Chinese tender was not made on the basis of price alone, nor was it done to stick a thumb in NATO’s eye. As Aaron Stein very accurately pointed out at the time, the Chinese firm offered a complete technology transfer and a favorable co-production agreement, and co-production was the most important factor in the decision on which of the four bids to accept. As multiple of my Turkish colleagues stressed to me last week, the Turkish defense industry has been on a mission for years to become self-sustaining, and the anti-missile defense system is no exception. Prime Minister Erdoğan actually changed the tender process midway through in order to incorporate co-production agreements, which effectively eliminated the U.S. bid since there are export control laws against this sort of thing. The point was not, however, to put the U.S. at a disadvantage, but to benefit the Turkish defense industry to the maximum possible amount. Yes, this had the side effect of making the U.S. bid a surefire loser, but that was not what Turkey was purposely aiming to do. According to the Turks, this was a strategic decision at heart, and while the Chinese bid was the highest rated one on both cost and price, it was the technology transfer and the co-production that were the decisive variables. The U.S. is understandably and justifiably upset at a NATO ally going to China to purchase an anti-missile system that is not able to be integrated into existing NATO defenses, but the U.S. government seems to be misunderstanding how the decision was made and what factors were most important to Turkey.

On the flip side, the Turks are downplaying U.S. and NATO anger under a mistaken impression that this is about lost money for Raytheon and Lockheed Martin or a desire not to see Turkey pursue an independent defense policy. What Turkey does not understand is that accepting the Chinese bid is an enormous deal because the Chinese system cannot  and will not be integrated into NATO combat management systems – can you imagine giving the Chinese access to such sensitive information? – and Turkey is now cut out of the NATO sensor system. Following the deployment of the X-Band radar on Turkish territory and Patriot missile batteries in Gaziantep, Turkish obtuseness on this issue is puzzling, to say the least. I was told that the defense industry committee that made the decision to accept the Chinese bid did not involve the foreign ministry at all, which makes the picture a bit clearer, as had there been any type of foreign policy aspect to this decision, the Chinese firm would have been eliminated from the start. To reiterate, this is a Chinese firm that is under sanctions for violating the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, and by going with this firm, the Turkish defense industry is opening itself up to its own round of sanctions. U.S. anger on this is genuine, yet the Turks keep on insisting that the Chinese system will be compatible with NATO – which is incorrect – and that the penalties for cooperating with a firm under sanctions won’t apply to Turkey – which is also incorrect. Turkey is convincing itself that U.S. anger is about not wanting to see an independent Turkey, which is a load of utter nonsense, and is missing the point about the message that it sends to the U.S. and NATO, who do not see why a desire for co-production outweighs a defense alliance that is more than half a century old.

The fallout from this decision is going to reverberate, and hopefully going forward each side will do a better job of realizing the core interests of the other. In the meantime though, if Turkey thinks it can smooth things over by referring ad nauseam to the countries’ shared values and pretending in hindsight that it welcomed the Gezi protests, then there is a delusion at the heart of Turkish foreign policymaking these days that is worse than I thought.

News Quiz, Erdoğan Edition

November 7, 2013 § 6 Comments

Particularly following the Turkish government’s response to the Gezi protests this past summer, an increasingly bright spotlight has been trained upon Prime Minister Erdoğan’s managerial inclination to micromanage seemingly small and insignificant details, his blanket rejections of things with which he does not agree, and his efforts at social engineering and shaping Turkish behavior. He is in the news this week for something he did that touches upon this portrayal of the prime minister, so in the style of the Bluff the Listener game on the NPR radio show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, guess which one of the following three stories about Erdoğan is the real one.

Story One: Prime Minister Erdoğan has threatened to sue the makers of Turkish Taffy, a candy which he says is not authentically Turkish and is harming Turkey’s image. Turkish Taffy, invented by a Turkish immigrant in New York after WWII, has been gaining popularity in recent years and came to Erdoğan’s attention when a visiting business delegation from the U.S. inquired where in Ankara they could find some “authentic native” taffy. Erdoğan insists that visitors to Turkey should be interested in lokum and baklava and instead are getting the impression that Turkish confection consists of corn syrup-based candy. In comments to reporters, Erdoğan said, “Taffy is not a Turkish sweet. This American company is using Turkey to further its own economic interests and defaming our proud legacy. We are looking into the appropriate legal steps to make sure that Turkey’s name is not used in connection with this foreign product.” The makers of Turkish Taffy say that they have been using the product name for more than half a century and have no intention of giving it up.

Story Two: On a trip to Finland, Prime Minister Erdoğan paid a visit to Rovio, the Finnish company behind the mobile gaming phenomenon Angry Birds, but let the game developers know that he has a problem with their game’s basic premise. In a meeting with Rovio’s CEO, Erdoğan asked, “Why are these birds angry? Doesn’t it have a negative effect on children?” The CEO explained that the birds are angry because the pigs have been stealing their eggs, and that Rovio has not received any reports of children being adversely impacted by the birds’ emotional state. Erdoğan has repeatedly voiced concerns about negative social cues that may be affecting Turkish youth, and with mobile technology very prevalent in Turkey, there is speculation that Erdoğan’s comments might be foreshadowing a new push to control mobile content. Previous governmental efforts have been launched to censor Internet content such as blocking Youtube and filtering websites that the government deems morally objectionable, and the government’s attacks on the evils of social media – and Twitter in particular – during the Gezi protests may be moving even farther afield to video games.

Story Three: The popular U.S. television program American Idol has spawned copycats in a number of countries, and Turkey is no exception. The producers of Turkstar, which was a singing reality competition that lasted only one season in 2004, are trying again in light of the popularity of American Idol, and their new show Türk Idol is right now in the midst of holding tryouts across Turkey. They have run into a serious obstacle, however, which is that Prime Minister Erdoğan has already declared his opposition to the show’s name. In remarks to AKP deputies in a party meeting this week, Erdoğan noted the notion of an idol offends religious sensibilities, and he hinted that the show’s title and the implication that it will create a figure to be emulated could even be used to prosecute the producers for insulting Islam. “Social entertainment is important,” Erdoğan was reported to have said, “but it must be done in a culturally appropriate way. We reject the idea that anyone who sings well should be venerated or that this person should be called an idol. We have received numerous complaints about this show, and we are not interfering in lifestyles but acting to protect concerned parents.” The show’s producers have indicated in light of the prime minister’s concerns that they are open to changing the show’s name, and stressed that the show’s title is not meant to make any religious claims.

Which one of these stories is the real one? For the answer, click here to read the actual news item describing what has the prime minister upset.

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