Turkey’s New Place in the Middle East

In a referendum held last Sunday, a majority of Turks voted to enact a series of constitutional amendments that will reform the country’s judiciary and limit the influence of the military in the legal sphere. The vote is being hailed as a victory for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling AKP which claim to champion modernization and liberalization along Western lines.

Members of the opposition — and many Westerners with them — fret about the country’s supposed Islamification meanwhile, alleging that Erdoğan is attempting to turn Turkey into a full fledged Islamic state. Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Robert Pollock forcefully characterizes recent developments in Turkey as nothing short of “a national decline into madness.” The AKP, he believes, has “traded on America and Israel hatred” while Turkey’s foreign policy is now aimed as loosening ties with the West and seeking its “own sphere of influence to the east.”

In Turkey, which has witnessed three separate intervals of military dictatorship since 1960, democracy may be relatively untested but it’s hardly precarious. For decades, the country has been enacting reform after reform in order to quality for European Union membership only to realize today that it will probably never be admitted into this continental club of wealthy nations.

Turkey’s secular establishment, still gazing across the Bosporus with high hopes, is terrified at the prospect of a conservative Muslim majority, supportive of Prime Minister Erdoğan, becoming more assertive. The AKP government may have only partly succeeded in repealing a ban on women wearing headscarfs in public spaces but its intentions are clear. The ruling party pretends to uphold religious freedoms; the opposition sees signs of orthodox Islamism. Whatever Erdoğan’s agenda, he has profoundly shifted Turkey’s outlook.

Ankara is turning eastward, intensifying trade relations with neighboring Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; enacting partnerships across the region with Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council states; negotiating a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran and cozying up with Russia. Turkey is, in short, awakening as a regional power.

The country’s rhetoric has changed simultaneously. Erdoğan and his government pretended to be outraged when Israel attacked a small fleet of blockade runners headed for Gaza this summer. After decades of maintaining stable relations with the Jewish state, it appeared as though Turkey were suddenly in the Islamic camp, lambasting the country for its suppression of Palestinians in their own territories. Pictures of Erdoğan embracing Iranian Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran and describing him as a “good friend” have only added to mounting concern in Europe and the United States about Turkey’s newfound allegiances.

To the ignorant observer, it may seem as though Turkey is moving down the path of radical Islamism, hijacked by a party of conservative Muslims dedicated to shaping a formerly moderate and secular society in their own image. Reality, as is so often the case, is rather more complicated.

Turkey is frustrated that after years of dancing to Europe’s tunes, even the Union’s two most powerful national leaders — German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy — now take issue with the notion of Turkish membership. Turkey is finding a place for itself in a region that embraces it instead. But no matter its policy of “zero problems” with neighbors, Turkey’s active diplomacy is redefining the Middle East.

Critics may point to Ankara’s bellicosity toward Israel but as Thomas Barnett explains in his World Politics Review column, there is good reason for the Turks to suddenly appear to stand up to Israel and the United States. After all, if it simply “fell in line” with American foreign policy, the country would lack credibility among Muslim nations. The ideal Western ally in the region should be “just Islamist enough to be seen as preserving the nation’s religious and cultural identity, even as it aggressively modernized its society and connected its economy to the larger world.”

It would have an activist foreign policy that emphasized diplomacy, multilateralism and regional stability, while also maintaining sufficient independence from America to demonstrate that it was not Washington’s proxy, but rather a confident great power navigating the currents of history. In sum, it would serve as an example to its coreligionists of how a Muslim state can progressively improve itself amid globalization’s deepening embrace — while remaining a Muslim state.

According to Barnett, with every step it has taken in recent years toward enhancing its engagement with the Middle East — which was made possible by the demise of Egyptian and Iraqi influence and prestige — Turkey has improved its ability to serve as a gateway between East and West. Many Arabs see Turkey as both a moderate counterweight to Iran and as a window to the West while it has proven itself quite capable of operating as intermediary between Western interests and those of regional power brokers in negotiations with Tehran.

Sadly, Barnett notes, “officials and experts on both sides of this longtime military alliance describe America’s current relationship with Turkey as suffering serious decline and even suppressed hostility.” Washington was outraged when Turkey voted against renewed United Nations sanctions on Iran after its own negotiation efforts had been dismissed by the Americans.

Now, the White House is threatening to punish Ankara for the infamous “Gaza peace flotilla” dust-up with Israel — and its lingering aftermath — by downsizing our historically strong bilateral military cooperation, in particular by torpedoing promised arms sales and boycotting Turkey’s biggest annual military exercise. Stunningly enough, while perennially double-dealing Pakistan is rewarded with blank checks by the Pentagon, Turkey is taken to the woodshed.

The Obama Administration shouldn’t maintain such an incomprehensible double standard nor fret too much about Turkey’s choices. Its strategic redefining is an opportunity to reshape the Middle East altogether into a safer, more coherent region.

For one thing, while America is about to abandon Iraq, neighbors, Turkey included, are left to live with the consequences. In anticipation, it is gradually increasing defense spending, planning to acquire, among other things, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, attack helicopters, tanks and four submarines. That is, unless Washington makes a fuss and forgets that Turkey is still a committed member of NATO with the third-largest air force in the alliance.

On another front, Turkey is expecting Iran to eventually acquire the bomb. Unless that prompts an immediate war with Israel, what will follow, Barnett predicts, is a new security architecture for the entire Middle East. “The advent of nuclear rivalries in the region — first Israel-Iran, then Iran-Turkey, and possibly Iran-Saudi Arabia — will incentivize the world’s energy dependent great powers to force just such a diplomatic accommodation on the region’s capitals.”

“When those negotiations,” he writes, “tense as they will be, are finally called to order, America will be glad to see Turkey sitting at the table, balancing both Iran’s fantasies and Israel’s fears” — and possibly, Iraq’s pretensions. To get to that point where it is able to act as regional arbitrator, Ankara will have to distance itself from old friends and allies a bit. Though painful, in the end, it will all be worthwhile.