Turning to the East

10 minute read
Pelin Turgut/Istanbul

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” wrote Hakan Albayrak, a Turkish journalist on board the Mavi Marmara, hours before a disastrous Israeli commando raid on the Turkish ship heading an international flotilla carrying aid for Gaza. “But I feel deep in my bones … that a new world is taking shape.”

His words now sound prescient. In the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident, the traditional friendship between Israel and Turkey, sponsored for decades by Washington, appeared to have been wrecked. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormily proclaimed (in Turkish, English and Hebrew), “The sixth commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Did you not understand?” and did little to tamp down the mood of anger as Turks took to the streets.

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There was more to come. Within days, Turkey voted against a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the U.N. Security Council imposing sanctions on Iran (it had earlier, with Brazil, suggested its own scheme to ameliorate the Iran crisis) and the next day announced an economic pact with Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to create a free-trade zone. Turkey, says Erdogan, who leads the Islamic-rooted party AKP, “can no longer be taken for granted,” a statement that has diplomats in Western capitals wringing their hands. Has a traditional ally been lost? Is Turkey — an age-old friend of the U.S. and the second most populous member of NATO — turning east?

No, it’s not, says the man widely credited with masterminding Turkey’s new foreign policy. Soft-spoken, bespectacled and fluent in English and Arabic, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, brings an academic’s zeal for precision to the murkier realm of realpolitik. “Turkey’s increased proactive role abroad overlaps with U.S. foreign policy goals on many key issues like Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East and the Caucasus,” Davutoglu told TIME earlier this year. “We don’t want a region where security is based on mutual threat.” Allies, he says, “can have differences of opinion. That’s what makes the relationship complementary.” A senior Administration official in Washington, while admitting to disappointment at the U.N. vote, insists, “We have no problem at all with a more active and engaged Turkey.”

But there’s little doubt that something is afoot. In his 2001 book, Strategic Depth, Davutoglu argued that Turkey’s location between East and West and its historical legacy as heir to the Ottoman Empire — which once stretched from the gates of Vienna to the Persian Gulf — give it a claim to a unique global role. Turkey, Davutoglu believes, can court multiple alliances and become not just a bridge but a powerhouse in its own right, like Brazil or India. Over the past year, he has jetted across the Middle East and the Balkans, signing trade deals and lifting visa requirements, negotiated between Sunni and Shi’ite leaders in Iraq and opened 30 new embassies in Africa and Latin America. Though others have used the term neo-Ottomanism to describe Davutoglu’s policy, he avoids it. He’d be more likely to endorse a recent report by the Rand Corp. “Turkey’s greater engagement in the Middle East is part of the broader process of the country’s gradual diversification of its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War,” it concluded. “In effect, Turkey is rediscovering a region to which it has had strong political and cultural ties.” But how did that process of rediscovery come about? And what does it mean for the U.S. and its allies?

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Out of Ataturk’s Shadow
To understand what is happening in Turkey now, a little history is vital. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I, the modern state of Turkey was forged by a charismatic general, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who committed the new nation to Western ways and introduced state secularism to purge what he saw as backwardness. His reforms redesigned the most intimate moments of a poor, largely illiterate, Muslim population. Ataturk banned religious garb and schools, changed from the Arabic alphabet to Latin and introduced women’s rights. “Turkey,” he declared, “will join the ranks of civilized nations.”

Seventy-two years after his death, Ataturk continues to cast a shadow over Turkey. For many years, generals, backed by judges, enshrined his secular legacy in an ideology known as Kemalism and used it to attack anything deemed to violate state interests. They toppled three elected governments and staged countless interventions in political life — all with at least tacit support from the U.S., for which Turkey was a crucial military ally during the Cold War. “The system was based on the idea that you couldn’t trust the people to govern themselves,” says Oral Calislar, a respected journalist who after a 1980 coup was jailed for eight years for publishing a left-wing newspaper. “The military and by extension the judges knew what was best for society and did whatever needed to be done.”

But the old Kemalist structure of Turkey has been fraying for 20 years. Erdogan’s party represents an increasingly affluent, pious middle class — the so-called Islamic Calvinists — rooted not in Istanbul, with one foot in Europe, but in once economically backward regions of Anatolia. Europe is still Turkey’s largest trading partner, but the European Union is mired in recession, while business with the Middle East and Africa is booming.

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Erdogan, a devout Muslim, brash former football player and fiery orator, swept to power in 2002, promising change after years of weak coalition governments. Though schooled in hard-core political Islam, he and his friends learned from numerous Islamist predecessors who had been banned from politics for antisecularism. They broke with the Islamist old guard, billed themselves as center-right and founded the AKP on a media-friendly, pro-business platform. They spoke no longer of Islamic unity but of links with Washington — Erdogan met George W. Bush at the White House before even taking office — and recruited former leftists to gain credibility.

They did not have things all their own way. For eight years, the AKP has been locked in an epic power struggle with the secularist establishment led by the military. The AKP refused to bow to a Chief of Staff warning against electing a President whose wife wears a headscarf, and it survived an attempt by the top court to ban it for antisecularism. Breaking with Israel would have been inconceivable even a few years ago, when the country’s powerful generals still had a say in foreign policy. But “times have changed,” says Armagan Kuloglu, a retired major general. “The government might ask the military for an opinion, but it doesn’t necessarily act in accordance with that.” Turkish media reported that the generals had opposed sending the Gaza flotilla.

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Most important, nearly 50 years after Turkey first applied to join the European Union, in 2005 the AKP finally won the right to start membership talks. Armed with a mandate to prepare for E.U. accession, it passed a series of democratic reforms, got the economy clocking up an impressive 6% average growth over five years and began to chip away at the military’s many powers. Elements within the top military brass started plotting to get rid of the AKP, which they suspected of harboring a secret Islamicizing agenda. A landmark trial now under way has unveiled a sinister network of military men, lawyers and businessmen obsessed with overthrowing the AKP by staging assassinations and bomb attacks to destabilize society and usher in military rule.

Rebuffed by Europe
Elsewhere in the world, Erdogan’s reforms might be hailed as a victory for democracy and the rule of law. But though a majority of the population supports efforts to rein in the military, the AKP’s authoritarian streak worries many Turks. Erdogan famously brooks little dissent; he has sued dozens of journalists and cartoonists who lampoon him. “For decades the military was Turkey’s backbone, and it produced a corresponding ideology that permeated all other institutions like education and the courts,” says Soli Ozel, a political-science professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “Now the military has collapsed, and that backbone is gone. But what will be built in its place?”

For many liberal Turks who supported Erdogan’s reforms, the answer to that question was Europe. Eventual membership in the E.U., they believed, would guarantee Turkey’s democratic progression. But the E.U. — led by skeptics on Turkish membership such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — has increasingly turned its back on Ankara. Sarkozy and Merkel have suggested that Turkey become merely a “privileged partner” of the E.U., an idea that deeply offends Turks. A Transatlantic Trends survey last year found 48% of Turks in favor of joining the E.U., down from 80% in 2004. And 65% believe membership is unlikely to ever happen.

This sense that Europe has let down Turkey resonates in Washington. “If there is anything to the notion that Turkey is moving eastward,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in London recently, “it is in no small part because it was pushed and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.”

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Without that link, Erdogan has turned populist — and in rhetoric at least, openly Islamist. His nationalist outbursts after the attack on the Mavi Marmara threaten to further polarize an already divided population and risk undermining the delicate East-West balancing act that Turkey is attempting in its foreign policy. “Ankara must take great care to moderate its rhetoric and actions to preserve key elements that make the Turkish example so attractive in the Middle East,” says Hugh Pope, Turkey director for the International Crisis Group. “Namely, its ability until recently to talk on neutral terms to all players in the region.”

The Obama Administration has publicly downplayed concern over Turkish policy, instead stepping up behind-the-scenes diplomacy in the aftermath of Mavi Marmara. A senior Turkish foreign-affairs delegation traveled to Washington shortly after the flotilla debacle even as Ankara rejected an Israeli-led inquiry into the deaths. Publicly, with an eye on elections next year, Erdogan continues to stoke anti-Israel sentiment to ward off a resurgent far right and the Kemalist opposition, which finally has a new, more appealing leader in Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 62, a former civil servant. In Washington, the senior Administration official recognizes that some of Erdogan’s behavior is determined by the moment. “There’s an electoral atmosphere in Turkey,” he notes. But at the same time, Washington is mindful that things might go badly wrong. “I don’t think you can take anything for granted,” says the official. “Turkey’s always had multiple identities. You can’t just assume that it’s a pillar of Western stability. It has other options, and that’s why we have to invest in the relationship. We want to demonstrate that a Muslim country can be part of the West.”

He’s not alone in that, but wishing for it won’t make it so.

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