The most interesting man in the middle east


DFI Technocrat
Oct 10, 2009
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Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan is in Washington, D.C. for meetings with American officials and a number of public and private appearances along the DC circuit. Unfortunately I'm too snowed under with work to actually go to any of them -- but I wish I could, because there's probably no more interesting figure in Middle East diplomacy these days. Erdogan has been charting a new course for Turkish foreign policy which has sparked noisy popular acclaim with Arab publics, wary observation from Arab leaders, and jittery anxiety among many Israelis. Turkey's shifting Middle Eastern role is one of those factors which really could shake up long-standing patterns in a number of ways.

Erdogan, of course, heads the government of the mildly Islamist AKP. The electoral success and governing style of the AKP has proven absolutely fascinating to many in the Arab world. I've had many conversations with, and read hundreds of papers and op-eds by, Muslim Brotherhood members keen to figure out the lessons of the AKP's success. As a model of workable political Islam, the AKP offers an important model -- if a dual-edged one. Many Turkish secularists continue to sound the alarm bells of creeping Islamism, complaining that even if the AKP is committed to democracy it is using its governing power to radically reshape Turkish political culture and governing principles. These strike me as healthy debates and normal politics, though, not the stuff of political apocalypse.

Erdogan burst into a new level of Arab popularity with his much publicized outburst at Davos, when he stormed off a panel with Shimon Peres in protest over Gaza as Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa sat by bemusedly. This demonstration captivated Arab audiences and become the talk of Arab politics for weeks. Turkish diplomacy has built effectively on Erdogan's sudden personal popularity by seeking a more active and independent diplomatic role. Its diplomacy in many ways resembles that of Qatar, also an important American ally which has found considerable popularity with Arab public opinion. Like Qatar, Turkey explicitly and determinedly talks to both sides of the great Arab political divide, maintaining relations with Israel and the United States while also engaging regularly with Syria and Iran. It isn't for nothing that Turkey was well-positioned to mediate the secret Syrian-Israeli talks last year.

If this reorientation has earned Erdogan and Turkey applause in the Arab world, it has naturally provoked some serious criticism among Israelis and those committed to the Israeli-Turkish alliance (especially after its cancelation of a scheduled war game with Israel in October). I've seen an endless deluge of opeds filled with ominous warnings of Turkey's dangerous new path, rising anti-Americanism, the AKP's creeping Islamism, its alleged turn to a radical Islamist foreign policy. And don't think that Arab regimes, suspicious and fearful of their own Islamist movements, aren't fearful of the AKP's example and worried about the intrusion of a new, unpredictable diplomatic player into their turf.

I find this all overblown. Turkey's turn to a more active Middle East role was driven, I'd guess, as much by the effective closing of the door to European Union membership as it was by Erdogan's Islamism (the AKP was a strong advocate of EU membership when that was a viable option, hardly the marker of a radical Islamist agenda). It has played a more constructive role in Iraq, after tensions spiked over Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq because of alleged PKK safe havens there. Its distancing from Israel is, from what I can tell from a distance, broadly popular with Turkish public opinion -- especially after the Gaza war. And it appears that Turkey and Israel have rebuilt their working relationship over the last few weeks.

Turkey's cultivation of good relations across the spectrum makes perfect sense for a player on the periphery without a direct stake in old battle lines which wants to maximize its diplomatic clout. And it is potentially extremely useful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Turkey is exactly the sort of player which the Obama foreign policy needs: one able to talk to both sides of deeply rooted conflicts, while maintaining its credibility and protecting its own interests. Turkey can mediate Syrian-Israeli talks in a way which no Arab country could (I heard a rumor a few weeks back, which I couldn't confirm, that Syria was actually urging Turkey to rebuild its ties with Israel so that it could resume an effective mediation role). Turkey can bridge the gap with Iran in ways which few Arab states could -- and without the vulnerabilities of, say, a Qatar.

So I regret not having time to see Erdogan while he's in town. Turkish foreign policy is one of those wild cards which really could shake things up, bridge old divides, and introduce new possibilities. Obama's diplomacy should be creative and subtle enough to take advantage of those opportunities, and to maintain a strong alliance in new conditions.

U.S. Department of State


Senior Member
Aug 13, 2009
A foreign policy for our times
M. K. Bhadrakumar December 18, 2009

Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan. File photo: AP

Analogies are never one hundred per cent applicable to politics, but Turkey offers an example for policymakers, especially India, caught up in the imperative of adjusting to the phenomenal volatility in the international system.

All the uncertainties and imponderables of our times are gnawing at Turkey’s consciousness. Like India or Pakistan, Turkey has a strategic location that offers commanding heights over surrounding regions. Its policies leave footprints on a broad regional landscape. In social formation, Turkey outstripped India but developmental issues are not dissimilar. It has long been where Indian elites aspire to reach — a close partnership with the United States. What Turkey is doing about the U.S. decline is of special interest.

Nurtured in the cradle of the Cold War, Turkey was of pivotal importance to the U.S. regional policies. Suffice to say that the backchannel deal struck between Anatoly Dobrynin, redoubtable Soviet ambassador in Washington in 1962, and the U.S. President’s brother and trusted aide Robert Kennedy, which defused the Cuban Missile Crisis, devolved upon the U.S removing its Jupiter missiles from Turkey “within a short time after this crisis was over” as a quid pro quo for the Soviets dismantling their missiles in Cuba. The U.S. took down its last missiles by April 1963 and flew them out of Turkey.

Few Cold War alliances of the U.S. could be suffused with so much memory mixing with desire. That is why Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan’s recent visit to Washington at the invitation of President Barack Obama aroused great curiosity among students of contemporary world politics. This was Mr. Obama’s second “bilateral” with Mr. Erdogan. The American angst was palpable. On a host of issues, Washington is anxious to know where Ankara stands. The situation around Iran, the Afghan war, the Middle East and the Palestinian problem, the developments in Iraq, Russia and the Caucasus, the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and, of course, the geopolitics of oil and pipelines — the list seems never-ending.

In October, Turkey barred Israel from a NATO exercise and the U.S. called it off in a huff. Ankara ignored the U.S. slight and Mr. Erdogan proceeded on a high-profile visit to Iran to seal the growing Turkish-Iranian understanding on regional security. Iran, unsurprisingly, came uppermost on Mr. Obama’s agenda. Washington needs Ankara’s cooperation on Iran, especially since Turkey happens to be a member of the United Nations Security Council. Coming out of the meeting with Mr. Obama, Mr. Erdogan said Ankara disagreed with the recent Washington move in the International Atomic Energy Agency. “I believe that was a very rushed process, because certain steps could be taken in a more consultative fashion,” Mr. Erdogan observed. He underscored that Turkey would not support any sanctions against Iran and would insist on a diplomatic solution. In good measure, he offered to mediate between Washington and Tehran.

Mr. Erdogan showed that to be a good ally or model partner of the U.S, Turkey did not have to behave like a vassal state. Arguably, Ankara knows that the Americans show latitude towards allies who are entitled to a mind of their own. Thus he never hesitates from condemning Israel’s atrocities against Palestinians although there could be a powerful Israeli lobby operating in Washington or because Turkey buys weapons from Israel. Turkey, which is the second biggest military power within NATO, turned down the U.S. request to send more troops to Afghanistan. Ankara invited Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, Iraqi Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sudanese leader Omar Hasan al-Bashir — all of whom the U.S. boycotts — to visit Turkey.

Is Turkey under Mr. Erdogan moving away from the West? He recently quoted the 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi: “In my religion one end of the compass needle is fixed, but with the other end of the needle, I roam the 72 nations.” He elaborated: “Turkey is exactly in this position. Our doors are wide open. Turkey cannot lose the West while looking towards the East; cannot lose the East while looking towards the West; cannot lose the South while looking towards the North; cannot lose the North while looking towards the South. Turkey has the power to take a 360-degree look at the entire world.” Mr. Erodgan’s “Nehruvism” comes alive with startling freshness.

It is difficult to tell today whether Turkey is closer to NATO or Russia. Moscow and Ankara have a shared interest in keeping NATO out of the Black Sea, in ensuring the stability of the Caucasus, and in the routing of the Caspian pipelines. Turkey was an old rival of Russia. They fought three wars. But Ankara knew it was a matter of time before the Russian genius would rise from the ashes of the Soviet Union. And it began tenaciously building content into a multidimensional relationship with Moscow. Whereas India’s trade with Russia stagnates at around $4 billion, Turkey’s is nearing $40 billion and may jump to $100 billion in a four-year period. Three million Russian tourists visit Turkey annually. Russia provides 68 per cent of Turkey’s gas. Turkey has allowed the new Russian energy pipelines (rivalling the U.S-sponsored Nabucco project) to southern Europe to be routed through its territory. Now Russia is looking for a lead role in Turkey’s lucrative downstream sector, business in building nuclear power plants and a breakthrough as arms supplier in a market traditionally dominated by the U.S.

Moscow increasingly tends to view Ankara as an independent player in Eurasia, with which it can team up in a multipolar system. Turkey has redefined “non-alignment” without fuss, which in turn has a multiplier effect on its foreign policy options. Thus, Turkey makes optimal use of its geography, acting as a “bridge” between the West and the East and between the Christian and Muslim worlds and as the “world’s largest energy hub” of the great transportation routes leading to Europe from Russia, the Caspian, Iran, Iraq and Egypt. (An analogy will be a pipeline from Iran heading toward China and the South-East Asian countries via an Indian “hub.”) The expectation in Ankara is that the Europe-Turkey narrative will transform once Ankara has developed the matrix.

Turkey heavily invested its diplomatic energies in strengthening ties with “troublesome” neighbours (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, etc.) to recapture its Middle Eastern identity, and to explore its Islamic heritage. It shows how a good foreign policy needs to be an extension of national policies. Turkey’s “zero-problem policies” towards the neighbours constitute an extraordinary success story worth emulation by India. The vexed issue of Cyprus, like the Kashmir problem, continues to elude solution. Yet Turkey pushed ahead with the normalisation process with Greece. The Kurdish insurgency has been a festering wound. Yet Mr. Erdogan showed extraordinary statesmanship to break stereotyped thinking and embark on a political solution. Meanwhile, Turkey built up strong economic and political ties with northern Iraq, which used to provide sanctuaries to the Kurdish guerrillas. In effect, the policymakers in Ankara were determined to make friends of Turkey’s troublesome neighbours through an admixture of political and economic initiatives aimed at making them “stakeholders” in regional stability.

Clearly, where there is a political will, there is always a way. In comparison, India lost its way in regenerating Soviet ties. India’s neighbourhood policy cries for greater attention. Unlike New Delhi, Ankara saw through the New American Century project as a pipe dream. Like India, Turkey also has its share of Western-philes. Yet Mr. Erdogan insisted that Turkey rapidly diversify its external relations. To quote him, “There is nothing such as a shift of orientation, etc. It’s a process of normalisation.”

Turkey faces no “uniploar predicament” and does not aspire to be a “balancer.” Without hubris, it addressed the regional system (Iran’s rise, Iraq’s anarchy, non-state actors, Islamism, Israel’s diminished standing, etc). Given the complicated Ottoman legacy, this was a formidable challenge. Turkey faces a volatile external environment. But it factored in the fact that the best protection from the “collateral damage” of the U.S. policies in the Greater Middle East (or Eurasia) would be by forging regional partnerships. Mr. Erdogan has an advantage in being an astute “grass-root” politician who knows that the “new regionalism” enjoys what we Indians demand as “national consensus.”

Richard Falk, the well-known commentator on the Middle East, wrote recently: “In this illuminating spirit of inquiry, the role of Turkey was interpreted within a wider cultural and historical context of past, present and future. Such an approach acted as a corrective to a narrowly conceived nationalism that never looked back further than the ideas and guidance of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.”

The capacity to move creatively forward into the future by recapturing an understanding of and pride in the achievements of the past, lies at the core of the Turkish experience. But then, Turkey was a “great power” already in 1529 when Suleiman the Magnificent knocked at the gates of Vienna.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

The Hindu : Opinion / Lead : A foreign policy for our times

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