Friday, November 20, 2009

Is Turkey drifting or navigating? (II)

In my previous column, I discussed Turkey’s change of direction from the West to the East. I argued that the openings made by the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to the East appear to be more pragmatic than ideological.

However, I also argued that when this pragmatist approach is combined with the recently rising self-confidence – or, as some see it, overconfidence – it carries some enormous risks if the existing real resources of the country, such as economic power, diplomatic tools, even the number of the diplomats at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, are overlooked.

In the upcoming third part of the series, I will not stop only at analyzing what is happening, but also prescribe a recipe for the Western world to gain Turkey’s self-willed support, if, as it seems, they are sincerely concerned by the recent developments taking place in Turkey.

Turkey’s relations with its two immediate neighbors, Syria and Iran, have raised many eyebrows in recent years. In these two instances, Turkey has received and still receives heavy flak from many policymakers and commentators, both in the West and in Turkey. Regarding Syria, I believe that the Turkish foreign policy team read the international conjuncture quite well a few years ago and foresaw that the United States, badly damaged and weakened in the region, would have to compromise its hard stance and policies against Syria, to say the least, and try to make a distinction between Syria and Iran. One of the most pressing reasons for this softened approach was, undoubtedly, to make sure that once American troops start pulling out of Iraq, Syria would play a constructive role in that country’s stability.

Recently, in Washington, D.C., I was present during the interviews that were conducted with the three former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz, Marc Grossman and Ross Wilson, on the daily news program “Stüdyo Washington,” in which I also took part. All three praised Turkey’s warm relations with Syria, and implied that these improved relations could be used for peace in the region. Contrary to just a couple of years ago, many in the U.S. capital and other Western countries have also come to view Turkey’s better relations with Syria as a way to help achieve a normalization process in Syria and soften its rogue regime slowly amid various bilateral openings and economic incentives. Finally, this relationship is also being viewed as a possible tool to further break Syria’s ties with Iran to stop causing various conflicts in the region. Turkey, as a next-door neighbor of both countries, got into the game early and employed its presence well, both for its own sake as well as for peace in the region.

On the other hand, Turkey has been trying to apply the same “zero problems” approach in its relations with another problematic neighbor, namely Iran. Turkey and Iran are the two countries that have been competing for regional influence for centuries, even before the United States of America was born. The recent history with Iran, especially since the Islamic regime took the helm about 30 years ago, has caused more of a strained relation, compared to the relatively better relations between the secular Turkish Republic and the Shah regime since the 1920s.

The Turkish foreign team predicts that the same warm international climate that occurred with Syria will at some point crop up with respect to Iran as well. In light of this assumption, Turkey has been heavily investing in Iran in terms of both political and economic capital. According to a Turkish expert who has close ties with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Turkish diplomats genuinely believe that they can also engineer a crack in the ice between Iran and the West, and finally play a problem-solver role.

For the sake of a much better relationship with Iran, Turkey went as far as congratulating Ahmadinejad’s rigged victory as early as possible in the post-election period, along with various other country leaders who do not have a very good reputation in the international arena. This seemingly unalloyed extension of the Turkish congratulations to Iran’s Islamic regime not only gave a terrible message to the Iranian people and the international community, it also created questions over the understanding of democracy that Turkish leaders believe in, especially in light of many statements that were made by Turkish officials during this episode.

Did this early-bird celebration of Ahmadinejad create a climate for Turkey to get more economic contracts? Possibly, yes. China also uses its good relationship with Iran to take a big chunk of the Iranian pie and thanks the Western world for staying away. However, does not Turkey like to emphasize its distinction in terms of democratic credentials from the company of such countries as China, Russia and Venezuela?

I wrote right after Turkey’s official approach to the street protests in Iran that Turkey’s calculations to preserve its self-interest must be respected in the international arena; however, values and notions exist that reflect a country’s stand within the international community. In other words, once the human factor is weighed, modern states tend to restrain themselves in many ways. Turkey did not bother to do so. And I am not sure if Turkey has any moral credibility while endorsing the Goldstone Report in the U.N. Human Rights Council to condemn Israel for what it did during the Gaza War, then turning around and opposing the international reports that claim that similar crimes against humanity indeed did happen in Sudan.

All in all, in light of this pragmatist approach, Turkey’s relations with Iran and its ever-increasing economic ties, while the Western companies are being eliminated, underscore once more Turkey’s practical stance, especially when one considers the current global economic downturn is felt heavily in the Turkish economy. How reliable the Iranians are when it comes to keeping their promises for economic contracts in light of breaching many of them in the recent past is another question, however.

Still, as a political force, the AKP wants to make sure that Turkey gains as much economic leverage in the region. And according to the news reports, lifting the visa requirements with Syria has already proven very profitable, especially for the populations of the Turkish cities near the Syrian border, which are traditionally not well-to-do.

What does this picture tell us? Does the AKP have a pure fetishistic-pragmatic foreign-affairs team that targets nothing but “what works”? No. I do not believe that the AKP is a purely pragmatic administration (can any administration be?), nor does it have a purely ideological identity. As a matter of fact, ideology is, I believe, an unavoidable factor that plays an important role when one views some of the foreign policies of the AKP. Presumably, one can see how this ideological identity plays an important role when one views the recent strained relations with Israel.

In the next installment: what the West has to do to make sure Turkey is not lost.

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