Perhaps we have more in common with our neighbors than we do with the United States,” a labor-union leader told me as we smoked a water pipe in a Kasyeri café. Across Turkey, many intellectuals and journalists express the same sentiment.
There has been a profound shift in Turkish foreign policy. The ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi [AKP] has sought to reorient Turkish policy away from the United States, toward both Europe and the Islamic world. Turkey’s press, much of which makes the BBC look levelheaded and unbiased, happily cooperated. The first victim of Turkey’s shifting diplomacy has been Israel. The late President Turgat Özal forged a strategic partnership with Israel. The Turkish-Israeli relationship was based on both the common threat posed by Iranian and Syrian-sponsored terrorism, as well as shared democratic ideals.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to diminish the Turkish-Israeli partnership. Following the targeted killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, Erdogan condemned Israel’s “state terrorism.” He has since repeated the charge on a number of occasions. During a May 2004 meeting with Israel’s infrastructure minister, for example, Erdogan, compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Spanish Inquisition. As the Israeli army moved to seal Palestinian weapons-smuggling tunnels, Erdogan declared Israel a “terrorist” state. On June 8, 2004, he briefly recalled Turkey’s ambassador to Israel. Last month, Erdogan snubbed Israel when he could find no time to meet Israel’s visiting deputy prime minister, but found time to see Syria’s prime minister the same day.
On July 14, Erdogan and Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Utri agreed to double Turkish-Syrian trade to $2 billion annually. Two weeks later, Erdogan visited Iran. He and Iranian President Muhammad Khatami agreed to boost bilateral trade to $5 billion. Today, traffic in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri is snarled as workers dig up the main road in order to lay a natural gas pipeline from Iran. Merchants in central Turkey say there has been a rise in tourists from Syria, Iran, and even Iraq. Turkish foreign-affairs and national-security correspondents privately discuss linkages between increased Saudi subsidies and Turkey’s abrupt shift in foreign policy. On June 15, after significant AKP lobbying and deal making, the Organization of Islamic Conference selected the Turkish professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as its new secretary general. AKP officials point to the Ihsanoglu appointment as a sign of Turkey’s increased prestige among Islamic countries.
Several Turkish politicians and analysts suggest that behind rhetoric of bridging East and West, the AKP is enacting a policy of “neo-Ottomanism.” The idea that Turkey should bolster ties with its neighbors is not new. The influential Turkish journalist Çengiz Candar coined the term in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. In 1993, he told the Washington Post, “I think Kemalism makes Turkey turn in on itself. The time has come to reconsider the policy.” A decade later, Ali Bayramoglu, in the Islamist daily Yeni Safak, wrote that the partisans of “neo-Ottomanism…are increasing every day.”
The danger is that while Turks consider the concept benign, Turkey’s regional neighbors have a far different perception of Turkey than Turks have of themselves. On July 11, the Bulgarian independent daily Trud lambasted Erdogan’s demands that Bulgaria do more to preserve its Ottoman heritage. “Erdogan’s arrogant behavior in Sofia left no illusions about the development of Turkish policy toward Bulgaria…. The direction is neo-Ottomanism,” columnist Ognyan Minchev wrote. On September 5, 2003, Khurshid Dalli warned in the United Arab Emirates’ daily al-Bayan that Turkey’s support for “neo-Ottomanism” was extremely sensitive, especially when “historical nationalist sentiments are mixed with oil-related aspiration.” Arab nationalists retain a deep anti-Turkish bias, which they display whenever Turks leave the room. Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi relished his role as spoiler when, in 1996, Turkey’s last Islamist premier visited Turkey only to have Gadhafi call for a Kurdish state live on Turkish television. Iraq’s Kurds, may welcome expanded business ties with Turkish companies, but they have made their views toward their northern neighbor clear.
Erdogan may adopt the rhetoric of Islamic brotherhood but, even if he is sincere, his partners are not. Dictators across the Middle East cloak rhetoric in pan-Islamic ideals, even as they work to undermine their neighbors. Neither Syria nor Iran has honored pledges to stop support for terrorism. Despite the warmth of the Iranian people, the Islamic republic at its heart remains an ideological construct. The Iranian leadership is uncomfortable with the juxtaposition provided by the more successful–and secular–Turkish republic. Iran may have temporarily decreased its support for the PKK, but the Iranian security apparatus continues to sponsor Ansar al-Sunna and the Kaplanists, both of which have planned to conduct terror in Turkey.
Some AKP deputies say they have no choice but to reorient their foreign policy. “Our constituency demands it,” one explained. But, their constituency does no such thing. Turks, like Americans, vote with their pocketbooks. Even in Turkey’s most religiously conservative cities–Konya and Kayseri–and in conservative Istanbul districts like Sultanbeili and Bayrampasha, residents talk not about foreign policy, but rather about economic issues like unemployment and the planned January 2005 transfer to a new currency.
The damage done by Erdogan’s positions extends far beyond hurt diplomatic feelings. His grandstanding has done lasting damage to Turkey’s security. Speaking at a June 12, 2004, American Academy of Achievement panel in Chicago, Erdogan dismissed the existence of “Islamic terrorism.” With one flippant answer, he undermined Turkey’s response to the very real threat which self-described Islamic terrorists pose to the Turkish state. The AKP’s positions have also set precedents which harm Turkish security in other ways. By labeling Israel’s antiterrorism actions “state terrorism,” Erdogan has opened the door for European governments to do the same when the Turkish military confronts the PKK. Erdogan’s decision to condemn Israel’s construction of the West Bank barrier at the July 21 U.N. General Assembly played well in Damascus for more than one reason. As Ben Thein points out in a forthcoming Middle East Quarterly article, Syria still disputes Turkey’s sovereignty of the Hatay province. The fence and minefields which mark the border are therefore constructed on disputed land. No serious scholar supports Syria’s territorial claims–the population of Hatay voted overwhelmingly to join Turkey–but Erdogan has given Syrian nationalists ammunition with which they can harass their traditional adversaries to the north.
Turkey and the United States have for a half-century maintained a special relationship. But, the relationship is now strained. Both Washington and Ankara have made mistakes. The U.S. needs to deal much more seriously with the PKK. It is simply unacceptable to speak about a war on terrorism, and then turn a blind eye to a group that attacks a democracy and murders civilians. On the other hand, the Turkish parliament’s March 1, 2003, decision to not support the liberation of Iraq in retrospect appears more a symptom than a cause of the downturn in relations. Regardless, far greater damage potentially looms on the horizon. It is easier to ruin relations than to build partnerships. The AKP need not tear down the trilateral relationship with democracies like the United States and Israel to build ties to countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria. After all, the United States maintains good relations with both Israel and Saudi Arabia, despite the hatred that the two have for each other. Turkey should not submit to blackmail, whether from the Middle East or Europe. Trumpeting Tehran trades short-term gain for long-term ill. Parroting Paris will not win European Union membership; France is interested in other things. If the AKP gambles established friendships for the ephemeral promises of Iran, the Arab world, and Europe, it may find itself uncomfortably alone. That is a risk Erdogan should not take.