As the lone Islamic NATO member and a keen aspirant to the European Union, Turkey was long seen as the bridge dividing the East from the West. The metaphor was not lost on President Obama, who chose it as the site to launch his administration’s outreach to the Muslim world, but mere months later, the infatuation has begun to wear thin.
Vocal Turkish fury at Israel’s ill-fated assault on the Turkish-led Gaza flotilla has reignited the decade-old question of whether Turkey is shifting its axis eastwards. Yet today, with Turko-Israeli relations at their lowest ebb in history, with Turkish popularity and presence in the Middle East at an all-time high and with Turkey confident enough to formally oppose American-led sanctions on Iran, the question has deservedly resurfaced and merits keen attention.
Much of the worry has centered on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the powerful leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamist party that has dominated the Turkish political landscape for the past 8 years. Its perceived overturn of the cherished secularist ideals of post-Ottoman Turkey have led to dire predictions of an Islamicized Turkey that bears little resemblance to the Pentagon’s frontline gendarme during the Cold War. Truth be told, despite Western hysteria and Erdogan’s decidedly Islamist leanings, Turkey has not made a calibrated decision to turn from the West. The AKP has, however, demonstrated ambition unparalleled amongst its predecessors and has implemented an extremely aggressive multi-dimensional foreign policy designed to turn Turkey into a “central power,” radiating influence in all directions.
Currently a Western partnership with Turkey continues to hold significant dividends for both sides. Turkey’s unique position affords it growing credibility in the Middle East, even as it sits astride a major energy crossroad for Caspian and Middle Eastern exports to Europe. Furthermore, its overarching foreign policy goal of ‘zero problems’ is predicated on a peaceful Middle East. The difference, however, as is being made abundantly clear, will be in a Turkish approach that is willing to pander to anti-Western sentiment. Primarily, this stems from the acknowledgment of a new post-Cold War security environment in which the majority of threats to Turkey lie on its southern periphery. Consequently, the utility in the Turkish perception as a NATO lackey or Israeli ally is fast fading.
In the end, the onus on the long-term direction of Turkey may lie on the United States and Europe, which retain enormous levers of influence. It remains an open question as to whether Western strategic planners will remain willing to demonstrate the same level of engagement as they have done in the past, despite Turkey’s strategic sync diverging on some key interests. However, contrary to popular belief, Turkey’s newfound independence is not nearly as omnipotent as is often presumed. In actual fact, today more than ever, Turkey is being forced between poles with the difficult task of balancing multiple different factions, many with diametrically opposed viewpoints.
A prominent accusation is that frustration at the lengthy EU accession process Turkey has been put through is driving its drift. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has voiced his concurrence, stating recently that Turkey is looking eastwards because “some in Europe (are) refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.” There is some merit to this assessment. In a March 2010 interview, Erdogan noted that Turkey first applied for membership in the European Economic Community in 1959. “That was 51 years ago. No other country was subjected to such a procedure, and yet we have remained patient.” He also equated the recent proposals put forward by Germany and France to offer Turkey a ‘strategic partnership’ instead of full membership as “strange as someone changing the penalty rule in the middle of a football match.”
Changing domestic prerogatives in Turkey and Europe have also begun to sour the accession dream. Contrary to common perception, the AKP came to power with EU accession as its primary objective and did more than all its predecessors to reform Turkey to EU standards. They continue to insist that their commitment to accession has never wavered with Erdogan dismissing such claims as “dirty propaganda.” However the E.U. fixation on Cyprus in late 2005 became a sticky issue with many Turks equating it as a demand for unilateral withdrawal. The upshot was a drastic decline in support for the EU falling from 73% in 2004 to 40% in 2007. Public opinion in the EU too was unenthusiastic for Turkish integration, holding at a measly 21% across the E.U. in 2007.
It is unfortunate for Turkey that its accession has raised serious questions about the E.U.’s identity and future direction. On the security front, it is feared that Turkish accession will shift European borders from the more defensible Bosphorus to one straddling the Middle Eastern arc of instability and force the import of Middle Eastern security including thorny issues such as the Kurdish problem. It is also worried that Turkish accession will provide momentum for Georgia and Ukraine to renew their accession pleas, exacerbating tensions with Russia. But mostly worries have centered around social and cultural differences between Turkey and mainstream Europe including the Turkish penchant for military coups and issues of gender inequalities, minority rights and union organization. Immigration concerns have also mobilized European xenophobia as has the Islamic nature of Turkey, made starker with Erdogan’s decidedly Islamist leanings.
European politicians, particularly in France and Germany, have pandered to this public opposition. French President Sarkozy has frequently invited Turkish ire, provocatively stating that he was “always opposed” because “Turkey is not in Europe.” That these aggravations may have added impetus to Turkey’s eastern drift is revealingly illuminated in a closed door meeting where Ahmed Davutoglu, the architect of the AKP foreign policy, stated he was purposely putting Turkish embassies in prominent sites across North Africa so that “wherever Sarkozy goes he’ll see a Turkish flag.” Erdogan himself has not been averse to pandering to domestic opinion choosing a lower gear of engagement with the EU in 2007, when nationalism and anti-US sentiment became electoral issues. Yet AKP supporters have derided Western attention to these issues, stating that it reflects Turkey’s enhanced democratization, where unlike previous military governments they are forced to acknowledge public opinion and diversify their foreign policy.
Economic interdependence has been the central component of the new Turkish foreign policy codified in ‘Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position,’ a book written by Turkey’s highly influential Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In it Davutoglu blends together his ‘zero problems’ policy with his intention to recapture ‘strategic depth’ in the region. This multi-dimensional policy is predicated on the notion of stabilization through integration, the idea that Turkey can leverage its shared religiosity, “multiple regional identities” and substantial economic clout to facilitate political convergence and economic interdependence with its Arab neighbors. The desired outcome is to secure a Turkish zone of economic and cultural influence that overrides historical grievances greatly enhancing Turkish prestige and influence in the region.
With this in mind, it is important to note that at present Turkey remains firmly tethered to Europe. The EU27 accounted for 75% of Turkish FDI inflows in 2008 and held a resounding 41.7% share of Turkish trade, bounds ahead of Turkey’s second largest partnership with Russia and its 11.4%. Similar proportions are seen in Turkey’s export partners with the EU27 accounting for 48.3% of exports while the next largest, the UAE, accounted for a mere 6.1%. A closer look at macroeconomic trends however shows a clear attempt at diversification, with Asian and Middle Eastern countries beginning to nibble at the E.U.’s preponderance. 2008 marked the first year where the E.U.’s export share fell below 50% to 41%, departing starkly from their traditional average of 56-58%. Import shares have also been in steady decline, falling in three years to 37% in 2008 from 42.55%. These figures are particularly surprising given that Turkish trade has been booming from $116.5bn in 2003 to $334bn in 2008. Middle Eastern countries have been the primary beneficiaries of this diversification with their export and import shares reaching record highs of 19.3% and 8.7% respectively.
The outreach to the Middle East has already reaped substantial dividends, allowing for the normalization of relations with historically hostile neighbors, including unprecedented diplomatic initiatives with the Iraqi Kurds, Syrians, and Iran. To Western critics, this outreach predicated on the basis of shared religion has been deeply alarming, amounting to an Islamization of Turkish foreign policy. Their bewilderment has not been assuaged by Erdogan’s frequent touting of controversy as when he grandly declared Sudanese Prime Minister Omar al-Bashir to be innocent of Western charges, arguing, “no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide” or by stating on Ahmadinejad that “there is no doubt that he is our friend.”
Turks themselves have sought to downplay these concerns, denouncing the West’s obsession with “limiting paradigms” and insisting, “one side of Turkey’s face is looking to the West, and the other to the East.” They argue that Turkey is merely seeking to break out of a self-imposed exile from the Arab world, which is to the direct benefit of their Western allies by affording them access to actors they would otherwise be unable to reach. Hugh Pope, a Turkish expert with the International Crisis Group shares this belief arguing that as Turkish links with ‘rogue elements’ in the Middle East increases, so does their utility to the West. “They have open channels of dialogue with everybody. A lot of people underestimate how much Turkey can do behind the scenes.”
Furthermore, while Erdogan has often played the ‘Islam card,’ a brief glance through history shows that this ‘Eastward’ policy began not with the AKP but in the 1980s and intensified in the post-Cold War era. Staunchly secular elites such as Prime Minister Turgut Ozal and Foreign Minister Ismail Cem laid the groundwork for the AKP, brainstorming means to reduce Turkish dependence on their Western allies and beginning engagement with the Palestinians and Syrians. Nonetheless it is indisputable that it has been the eight years of AKP rule that has rapidly catalyzed this process, transforming Turkey regionally from a “tepid observer to influential player.”
So far these attempts to court Arab support coupled with an unremitting barrage of criticism at Israel has played well to its intended audience. A recent survey sampling various groups across the Arab world demonstrated that 75% held favorable views of Turkey and 61% saw Turkey as a positive role model, despite its secularism. In a dramatic turnaround from the traditional antipathy towards Turkey’s Ottoman past, 78% also saw Turks today as friendly to their countries. This watershed has been facilitated by Turkey’s cultural exports, most notably their wildly popular soap operas that have introduced the Bosphorus to the Middle East. The most notable example of this ‘soft power’ is the show ‘Noor’ that drew over 85 million Arab viewers for its finale. It is credited with securing a significant increase in Gulf Arab tourists to Turkey, as well as introducing Turkish secularism with its unveiled women, alcohol, and premarital sex, apparently tremendously intriguing when placed in an Islamic context.
Turkish engagement has also helped enrich its coffers. Trade with Lebanon leapt from $225 million in 2002 to $900 million today, while in the first year alone, Turkish rapprochement with Syria saw Turkish exports jump from $1.1bn to $1.4bn. With Iraq bilateral trade rose from $3.7bn in 2007 to $9bn in 2009 and excluding oil deals, Turkey is already Iraq’s largest commercial partner and looking to further increase trade volume to $20bn by 2013. Trade with Iran increased six-fold between 2002 and 2007, reaching $7.5bn with agreements inked in May 2009 to attempt to raise the number to $20bn. The Turks have also been proactive in Africa, building mosques, madrassas, and schools. Their deepening links have facilitated a rise in Turkish exports to the continent from $1.5bn in 2001 to $10bn in 2009. Trade with Sudan in particular has tripled from 2006. The AKP government has also lifted visa requirements with many Arab countries including Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Syria, with Erdogan to create a “regional schengen system” to facilitate trade.
In the Iraqi vacuum created by the U.S. invasion, Turkey has made strong advances with its influence rivaled by only Iran. It has forged good terms with all Iraqi factions and urged Sunni groups to participate in the electoral process. Most surprising has been the pragmatic nature with which the Turks have engaged with the Iraqi Kurds. The traditional fear that autonomy for Iraqi Kurds would inspire its own Kurdish minority has driven Turkish strategic doctrine for decades and was a major contributor to its vocal opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion. Today, they have overridden these fears to facilitate stability along its Iraqi border and secure Iraqi energy.
Erdogan ended the demonization of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, allowing him an unprecedented trip to Ankara in 2010 in reciprocation. The Turks have also opened a consulate in the Kurdish capital of Irbil and secured Iraqi inclusion in the Nabucco pipeline exporting oil to Europe and Istanbul-based Cukorava and Dogan Holdings are investing in Iraqi oilfields in Kurdistan. Plans are underway for a $1bn oil pipeline shipping oil from Kirkuk to the port city of Ceyhan where Turkey hopes to create a major energy export hub for Caspian and Middle Eastern oil. This policy has been mutually beneficial with the Iraqi Kurds seeing Turkey as their door to the West and a diplomatic ally in defending their interests should Iraq disintegrate along ethnic lines.
In Syria, traditionally acrimonious relations that almost saw the countries go to war in the late 90s have been normalized to the point where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now calls Turkey “Syria’s best friend.” Admittedly this recalibration has largely been spearheaded by Assad himself in an attempt to break out of his diplomatic isolation, but renewed outreach has allowed Turkey to resolve key lingering issues such as Turkish sovereignty over the disputed Hatay province and securing Syrian support against Iraqi Kurdish rebels in 2007. In addition to burgeoning trade, joint industrial projects have been initiated and joint military exercises conducted, all helping resolve one of Turkey’s thorniest borders.
In Lebanon, the Hariri government and their Hezbollah allies have found a gracious partner in Turkey with Saad Hariri affectionately referring to Erdogan’s Turkey as “big brother” during a trip to Ankara. With Saudi Arabia, Turkey has signed protocols agreeing to military cooperation as well as announced its intention to invest as much as $400bn in Turkey over the next four years while boosting their bilateral trade to $10bn.
It has been in Iran, however, where cooperation has garnered the most attention. Erdogan was one of the first politicians to congratulate Ahmadinejad’s disputed June 2009 electoral victory and has declined to comment on the subsequent crackdown on the opposition Green Movement, arguing it would represent “interference” in Iranian domestic affairs. Much of this placatory outlook may stem from pragmatism. With Turkey importing over 70% of its energy needs, and 17% of it from Iran, efforts to increase that share have been a priority. The policy is, however, fraught with problems. Iran is a technical mess. The South Pars field is not yet fully operational despite constant reassurances and in the winter Iranian oil exports are tenuous at best as outflow is diverted to meet their own domestic shortfall.
Erdogan has, however, sought to go significantly beyond these concerns in utilizing Iran as the centerpiece of a Turkish diplomatic revival. He recently persuaded Iran to accept a uranium exchange deal that would take place in Turkey. The deal would see Iran send out low enriched uranium in exchange for higher-enriched fuel rods needed for Iran’s aging medical reactor. To Western — namely American and Israeli — critics, this deal is a non-starter today, being that the amount negotiated is believed to be insufficient, still leaving Iran with a nuclear breakout capability. They have lamented perceived Turkish naivety in their seemingly genuine interpretation of Iranian goodwill, seeing it instead as a hijack offering the Iranians a face-saving opportunity to circumvent Western sanctions pressure.
The subsequent decision to vote against American-led sanctions has exacerbated American frustration with Turkey, compounded by Erdogan’s rhetoric that continually asserts that Iran’s nuclear program is “peaceful and humanitarian.” Yet here too, Turkish policy may be led by a degree of pragmatism; namely their belief that regardless of the choice of coercive tools, neither the U.S. nor Israel will be able to permanently stop the Iranian nuclear program. Engagement then becomes a necessity to avoid a nuclear-armed enemy along the Southern periphery. This quiet appreciation of Iranian intentions has been voiced by Turkish President Abdullah Gul who privately stated, “I do believe their final intention is to have a nuclear weapon, because it is related to their national pride.”
Despite controversy over the exact intention of Turkey’s Middle Eastern policy, what is abundantly clear is that Israel will be the sacrificial lamb to help in its realization. Turkey was once one of the first countries to recognize Israel and saw it as a strategic ally critical for ambitious defense modernization aims and a source of solidarity against troublesome neighbors. The winds have shifted substantially since then, with many of those same neighbors becoming the benefactors of Turkish courtship. As a result the utility of the Israeli alliance has diminished considerably, leading the Israelis to correctly lament that Turkey is “seeking to integrate with the Muslim world at Israel’s expense.”
With the primacy of economic interdependence foremost in the AKP’s foreign policy mindset, Turkish-Israeli bilateral trade has declined 30% from the record high of $3.5bn in 2008 to stand at a relatively measly $2.5bn in 2009, two thirds of which constitute Israeli defense exports. Here, too, strains have emerged, as Turkey grows increasingly dissatisfied with Israeli military tenders, leading a former Israeli Ambassador to profess concern that “military ties will fade away.”  Technical issues, delayed deliveries, and failed commitments have all been problems, seen most recently in the failure of Israel’s IAI-Elbit to deliver the Heron system in line with the Turkish Air Force’s specifications. Even without this lingering discontent, quite simply put, the economic costs of severing ties with Israel are vastly outweighed by the benefits of rapprochement with its enemies. The specialized nature of Israeli defense technology is an issue, but the United States remains Turkey’s largest arms supplier, and Erdogan has dismissed any ideas that its tensions with Israel affect its U.S. relations, stating, “America’s policy in the region is not dictated by Israel.”
On broader strategic issues too, Israel and Turkey have diverged. Scarcely a decade ago, common hostility towards Syria helped glue an alliance together. In 1998, as Turkey threatened Syrians with military intervention for their intervention of PKK rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, Turkish editorials conveyed their sense of solidarity with Israel, famously stating, “We will say shalom to the Israelis on the Golan Heights.” Today, with normalized relations and growing trade between Turkey and Syria, the divergence in Israeli-Turkish strategic sync is palpable, and Erdogan has not shied away from declaring Israel “the principal threat to peace” in the Middle East. In an indication of the times, it was from the Syrian city of Aleppo that Davutoglu launched a blistering criticism of Israeli policies in October 2009. Turkish overtures towards Israeli arch-nemesis Iran have not helped matters either. Tel Aviv has frostily met Erdogan’s linking of Iranian nuclear ambitions with Israeli nuclear capability and Gazan policies, while staunchly opposing any action besides diplomacy in tackling the Iranian nuclear issue.
Erdogan’s ideological slant has also resulted in a re-assessed understanding of the Palestinian plight, as has the colder recognition of the issue’s resonance across the Muslim world. Viewing Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza as a betrayal of his attempt to broker mediation between Israel and Syria, Erdogan has since shown little regard for Israeli sensibilities. He termed the Gaza incursion as “genocide” and publicly lambasted Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling him a “liar” and declaring “when it comes to killing, you know well how to kill.” Days later, in an unprecedented development, Turkey abruptly disinvited Israel from Anatolian Eagle, a joint air-force exercise. Adding insult to injury, the Turks then promptly invited Syria for joint military exercises and urged the creation of a joint Strategic Coordination Council.
Erdogan has shown a penchant for solidarity with Hamas, comparing it to the AKP and its own history of being banned and sidelined from mainstream politics. Turkey was a prominent supporter of Hamas after its electoral victory in 2006 and has hosted Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Ankara, granting him an audience with then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Furthermore, the AKP has called Western-backed Mahmoud Abbas, the “head of an illegitimate government.” Erdogan has defended this outreach, stating Turkish beliefs that Hamas is a political reality whose sidelining is counterproductive.
Thin skins on both sides have not allowed the tension to ebb. The new Netanyahu government has often reacting to Turkish provocations, such as Erdogan’s description of the city of Jerusalem as the “apple of the eye of each and every Muslim” with undiplomatic and unnecessary snubs of their own. They include the public humiliation of Turkish Ambassador Oguz Celikkol by Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who seated the Ambassador in a much lower chair in full view of news cameras. The Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla has further widened the Gulf between the two countries. The Turks have termed Israeli actions “state terrorism” and “banditry”, while a recent opinion poll in Israel demonstrated 78% regarding Turkey as an “enemy state.”
Another source of Western concern has centered around the Turkish embrace of Russia, ignoring that it is driven less by ideology than whole-scale Turkish dependence on Russian energy exports. As Turkey’s single largest trading partner, constituting 11.4% of the Turkish trade balance, Russo-Turkish economic links are on the upswing with protocols signed to bring the trade volume to $100bn over the next 5 years. Currently, however, the Turkish export share is a small $3bn slice of the aggregate $22bn trade volume, with the vast majority centering around the 64% strangehold that Russia exerts on Turkish energy imports. The Russians have also agreed to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu. Consequently, Turkey has found itself in a tough bargaining position, with its energy needs forecasted to double over the next decade and price renegotiations due in 2011 with a supplier not averse to manipulating prices for political reasons. The point was hammered home in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia. Pushed hard to act by the West, Turkey found itself on the receiving end of Russian anger, with Russian-imposed customs checks and export restrictions as well as the closure of the BTC pipeline imposing significant economic costs upon the Turks.
Resultantly, when it comes to the Russians, Turkish overtures are less an attempt to re-balance eastward than an attempt to mitigate their dependence. But historical mistrust lingering from Turkey’s NATO allegiance and its frontline anti-Soviet role during the Cold War is an obstacle. Moreover, Russia has rarely hidden its intention to thwart Turkish ambitions in reinventing themselves as a major energy transit corridor for Caspian and Middle Eastern energy exports to Europe. Turkish-sponsored pipelines such as Nabucco would ease the Russian monopoly on European energy enhancing price competitiveness in an arena that upends much of the Russian budget. In past years the Russians have gone as far as making attractive offers to Azeri energy suppliers in an attempt to tweak them off Nabucco.
Despite this hierarchy in relations, Turkey and Russia do have a level of strategic sync in their relations that they have attempted to leverage. They shared an interest against the Bush Administration’s promotion of democracy in Central Asia, worrying on it being potentially destabilizing. They also share an interest in retaining the Black Sea as a ‘Turkish lake’ without NATO intrusion. And both see in each other sizeable markets ripe for exploitation. With these interests in mind, Erdogan has made several trips to Moscow and in 2004 hosted President Putin, the first visit by a Russian head of state in 32 years. Subsequent visits have resulted in the mutual lifting of short-term visas to facilitate tourism and trade. Any recent concessions, however, are driven primarily by Russian strategic concerns; namely their newfound interest in transit routes that traverse Turkey. The South Stream pipeline is intended as both a counterweight to Nabucco as well to circumvent Ukraine and Belarus, whose long-term reliability is a concern for Russia. In this vein the Russians have also found it in their interest to collaborate on other pipelines such as the Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline as well as Blue Stream 2 that would ship Russian oil to countries such as Lebanon. Certainly Turkey stands to gain sizeable transit fees from all these investments, but the idea that they reflect a complete revamp of the Russo-Turkish relationship is entirely misplaced. This is noted in Turkey’s explicit attempts to wean themselves off Russian oil, codified in their 2010-2014 strategic energy plan which seeks to increase domestic reserves and diversify supply so a to ensure no single supplier contributes more than 50% of Turkish needs.
Beyond the Russians, the Turks are also straddling a fine line in their relations with the Arabs. The oft-touted advantage that Turkish secularism and its economic and technological advances can be exported to the Arab world can cut both ways. The Kemalist mistrust that erected that firewalled Turkey from the Middle East was predicated on the exact worry that influence can run the other way. Without sufficient care, over time authoritarianism and the ‘cultural swamp’ of Middle Eastern politics and security dynamics can be imported instead, ruining Turkey’s most cherished values.
This aggressive adoption of the Palestinian cause while politically advantageous at home and further afield in the Muslim world is not a riskless strategy either.
Turkey is essentially stealing Iran’s mantle as the primary champion of the Palestinian cause and while the Iranians may presently benefit from a vocal supporter like Turkey, in time the usurping of their influence in Palestine and Iraq is bound to irritate. Simultaneously, Turkish efforts have exposed the impotence of many Arab regimes in delivering on their rhetorical support for Palestinians. Erdogan’s celebrity and the steady advance of progressive Turkish culture into the Arab mainstream threatens to expose the authoritarian unpopularity of many Arab regimes and their legitimacy deficits, all unlikely to have endeared Turkey to ruling Arab elites.
The Turkish swing has also begun to cost its credibility in its cherished role as an unbiased regional interlocutor. Its embrace of Hamas has earned it the mistrust of Fatah factions and Egypt, making its role in Hamas-Fatah talks significantly more challenging. Its previous ability to bring together Syria and Israel for talks are unlikely to be replicated in the near future, given the prevailing Israeli belief that Turkey has swung decisively against its favor. The U.S., too, is viewing Turkey with alarm in the aftermath of its unilateral uranium exchange deal with Iran and public opposition to sanctions and coercive pressure.
Similarly, many Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia have found themselves being forced to inadvertently compete with Turkey for regional influence. They remain suspicious of Turkish intentions viewing its ‘neo-Ottoman’ rhetoric and growing friendliness with their Shia rivals, Iran and Syria, with considerable trepidation. All this has led critics to charge that Turkey, contrary to popular belief, is not a diplomatic heavyweight in the region, but rather one with too many balls in the air spreading itself thin and heading for a significant loss of credibility. As one Egyptian official put it, “Turkey is a large and clumsy player… They haven’t been well versed in Middle Eastern affairs for a long time… They would like to prove to the West they are an effective player. But I have my doubts about concrete impact”
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute is undoubtedly correct when he succinctly notes “Turkey in 2010 is not the same Turkey as a decade ago.” It has made vast strides in extending its economic and political weight far beyond its traditional sphere of influence. Yet Turks themselves would do well to remember they remain vulnerable, caught between poles and not yet unbound of their Western shackles. Eastern outreach has real tangible benefits for the United States and Europe with Turkish potential to serve as a European energy corridor erode the Russian monopoly as well as a real bridge in promoting a democratic and technically advanced Islamic model that the Middle East has continually failed to provide. It can also use its economic clout to make inroads into tackling the economic backwardness in the region, while simultaneously enriching itself and becoming an increasingly attractive partner for accession.
Turkey would do well, however, to remember that its attractiveness in the Middle East stems largely from its political and social modernity that owe much to its European partners. It remains a regional military force few will tangle with precisely because of its NATO security blanket and its close American partnership. The U.S. retains strong levers of influence it can utilize with relative ease, given that the US-Turkish relationship is predominantly a “state-to-state relationship,” with relatively small volumes of trade and cultural exchange. These include cutting back on arms sales, ratcheting down support in Brussels, cutting Turkey out of Western-led Middle Eastern peace initiatives and reassessing support for Turkey on contentious positions such as Cyprus and Armenia, all enormously damaging for Turkish ambitions.
In international politics perceptions often guide reality. While Turkey may not seek to alienate the West, its demagoguery of Israel raises concerns. If it truly aspires to regional leadership, it must dispense of the hypocrisy that allows it to criticize Israel but not Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist outfits. It may be its prerogative to criticize the U.S. operation in Fallujah as “genocide,” but then it must too recognize the atrocities so nakedly apparent in the Sudan, Iran, and its own heavy-handedness against its homegrown Kurdish insurgency. Playing to domestic or regional xenophobia in the East is little more than an act of brinksmanship for the West. Balancing is never an easy task, but Turkey would do well to look back occasionally as it marches forward.
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