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Turkey’s Role

This article was in the New York Times yesterday, but it’s worth coming back for.  The article discusses the ambitions of Turkey in the Middle East, which in my opinion are no less than to settle all conflict in the region and become its key player.  Turkey, shunned by the EU, may now be turning east, seeking to stabilize political and social upheaval in order to encourage new economic growth.  Can it work?

 The Arab world’s long-held suspicion toward Turkey has faded, helped by the soft power of popular Turkish television serials and Mr. Erdogan’s appeal. Yet senior officials acknowledge the potential for an Arab backlash in a region long allergic to any hint of foreign intervention. Somewhat reflexively, Egyptian Islamists, piqued last week by Mr. Erdogan’s comments about a secular state, warned him against interfering in their affairs.

Turkey still has its own internal problems.  Solving the issues revolving around its Kurdish population is paramount.  Striking the right balance between Islam and secularism is also key.  Then there is still the challenge of figuring out Turkey’s relationship with the EU and the US.  But Turkey has the greatest GDP in the region, a popular leader, a visionary foreign minister, and a good run of policy stances over the past two or three years.  My tendency is to expect Turkey to be successful in its foreign policy goals, even though I’m still not completely sure what exactly they are.  One more quote from the article that I will leave alone to marinate:

Some Turkish officials […] believe that Turkey is bent on supplanting Israel as the junior partner of the United States in the Middle East.

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4 Responses

  1. Besides the brilliant political opportunism and acumen Erdogan and Davutoglu have displayed by staying ahead of the curve in regional politics, we might see Turkey’s realignment as a rebuff of the EU. I imagine the AKP thought it much better to direct the conversation in the Middle East than sit at the little kids table in Europe, and who can blame them? Not since the days of the Ottoman Empire has Turkey had such an opportunity to project its power in the region. On that point, here’s a question: would Turkey be in a similar position of regional influence today if the AKP did not have strong Islamist leanings?

  2. Replacing Israel as the new junior US partner in the ME? So unlikely in so many ways that I had to laugh. Having lived in Turkey and knowing the deep, deep nationalism that resides there (almost to the point of fascism in some cases), I seriously doubt Turkey wants to be anybody’s junior partner. Despite AKP denials, Turkey is in a neo-Ottoman phase, and why would a burgeoning “empire” aim for second place to a declining hegemon? In the long and maybe even the shorter run, Turkey will settle for nothing less than an equitable partnership, on many of its own terms. Unlike with Israel, Turkey is not trussed up to, and nor would the US be beholden to, potent American domestic political forces. It is also willing, as it has already shown, and capable of going its own way in foreign policy. Able because it was one of the few economies to emerge from 2008 relatively unscathed and currently enjoying a booming economy. And because it maintains a formidable military, which has the distinction of being one of the few to ever defeat the Russians. It, unlike Israel, does not need the US defense dollar nor US defense capabilities to ensure its continued existence. No comparison.

    As for the AKP party influence and religion:

    1) Contrary to western notions and Turkish secularist fears, the AKP is viewed overwhelming by Arabs and muslims as moderate – NOT strongly Islamist – if one takes Islamist to mean fundamentalist, Salafi, or radical. To Arabs and most muslims the world over, they are just your basic muslims, reassuringly folksy, yet comfortably modern. They represent what most Arabs and people in the region want and identify with: development and progress with respect for tradition and moderation in religion.

    2) The AKP provides a fourth way, non-Western, non-Russian, non-Islamic fanatical. In contrast to failed socialist Pan-Arabism, toppled western styled and backed “democratic republics”, destructive and discredited terrorists and dubious “Islamic” states, Turkey has trod a path of success. Unlike imported ideologies, the AKP is grounded in shared history, culture, and religion. And unlike Islamic extremism, the AKP brings life and growth, not death.

    3) Turkey and the AKP have given the Arabs and the muslim world at large a reason to feel pride in their heritage and identity instead of constantly being on the defensive, ashamed and frustrated with the dominant western view of muslims as violent and backward. Dignity and honor are much talked about amongst westerns when plotting policy and strategy in the Middle East, but Turkey is the country that has actually achieved it.

    4) The AKP actually does represent the majority of the Turkish people in their relationship with religion. Westerners tend to become enamored with western style elites in foreign lands and Ataturk’s long and lasting influence made it easy to perceive the Turks as somehow not as devotional as their Arab and Iranian neighbors. But in fact, as we saw in Iran, it isn’t wise to use wishful thinking as eyeglasses.

    Basically, Turkey is the most feasible, and more importantly, the most desirable role-model for the Arabs because it simply looks more like them than any other successful brand out there.

    However, religion is not the real reason for the AKP’s success and Turkey’s growing influence in the region.

    “It’s the economy, st..p..d.”

    While AKP’s religiosity undoubtedly has been a key factor in its influence and ability to connect and cultivate admiration and good-will in the region, were it not for the fact that they presided over a period of astounding economic success, to my mind, they would have remained little more than a small minority party in Turkey. The AKP party owes most of its in-country success to the financial backing and support of the Anatolian Tigers. Or rather the AKP is the political manifestation of these inland conservative Turkish business men, who didn’t think religion and being muslim should exclude pragmatism and economic growth- no matter what many in the region and the world had come to believe.

    It’s the economy, and they understood that, by first bringing jobs and prosperity to central Turkey, a region neglected for the more developed Western areas. Then winning Istanbul and cleaning it up from corruption and Byzantine bureaucracy that stymied entrepreneurship and business. Next they took on the whole country and through early and tough austerity measures and a culling of failing banks in the early 2000’s, they were poised to come out of the 2008 economic crash relatively unscathed and today are enjoying a booming economy while its neighbor Greece and other European economies and the US’s flounder. Turkey now has a solid and sizable middle-class. All the while, the people of the region looked on as their various forms of government failed utterly to deliver growth and prosperity.

    Can Turkey help others in the region to do the same and help to provide regional stability? After the US fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, who wouldn’t be looking for a more viable regional leader?

    PS and anecdotally: Last Christmas on a cruise around the Med from Spain to Turkey and Egypt and back, I discovered many if not most of the ship’s crew reside in Izmir, Turkey. When I asked why Turkey over Spain, Italy, Greece, or Malta (they could choose any port they docked at), they concurred that the standards of living were simply better. Things were cheaper but quality was comparable to anything in those southern European states. I myself was blown away by the growth and very apparent rise in prosperity in Istanbul and Izmir (3rd city and major port) in the decade I had been away.

  3. Well put!

    We heard about the Turkey-Egypt alliance in stabilizing the region, which I think works because neither can rely on resource wealth and fall into the oil curse, but it makes me wonder how Saudi Arabia and Iran now view Turkey. I’d imagine that in the Saudi case it is with skepticism and anxiety. In the Iranian case, I’d guess that there is also wariness, but also an opportunism that looks to find areas of mutual gain between the Iran and Turkey, for example in pressuring Israel on Palestine.

  4. About resources: Things hotting up in east Med with Cyprus working to exploit new found gas fields. Turkey announced today, I think, they will began doing the same and will send military ships or something there. Israel too has recently discovered a large gas field and heard something about cooperating with Cyprus. I’m vague on the specifics.

    Iran and Turkey have been rivals throughout the ME and in former Soviet Central Asia and Caucuses. Turkey is clearly the stronger player with its economic success and its role on the world stage. But considering the strong historical ties, and the many turkic dynasties that ruled Persia, and large number of azeri-iranians, it’s a complicated rivalry/friendship.

    Saudi Arabia I would think prefers Turkish strength to Iranian, probably also thinks they provide a good counterweight to Kurdish and Shia power in Iraq. But at the same time reserves some reservations about a non-Arab power.

    Good question. Need to read up more on that.

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