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On June 12, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the most popular Turkish prime minister of the last half century, marked his third straight electoral win by averring his leadership over not only Turkey but the entire region. “Believe me,” he said in a victory speech, “Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul; Beirut won as much as Izmir; Damascus won as much as Ankara; Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.” The speech reaffirmed the foreign policy that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pursued since it came to power in 2002. As the AKP’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, puts it, Turkey’s goal has been to have “zero problems” with its neighbors. And over the past decade, Davutoğlu has dramatically improved Ankara’s relationships with capitals across the region through constant diplomatic engagement, fostering mutual trade, and opening national borders.
Some in the West have seen Turkey’s new foreign policy as a shift Eastward. Indeed, Turkey has drawn closer to authoritarian governments in Iran and Syria. And Erdogan and his team’s Muslim identity have influenced some of their foreign policy rhetoric, such as their strong stance in support of Palestine. Accordingly, some, including the British historian Niall Ferguson, even suggest that Turkey might be heading toward “a revived Ottoman Empire” that would dominate the whole Middle East.
But warnings about Turkey’s neo-Ottomanism are more sensational than factual, and miss a broader point. Like any major power, Turkey bases its foreign policy on calculations of hard national interests, and coats it in value-laden rhetoric that reflects popular sentiments. Moreover, even as the AKP has supported friendly autocrats, it has positioned itself as a model democracy for the rest of the Muslim world. At a May 2003 summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Tehran, Abdullah Gül, who was then Turkey’s foreign minister and is now its president, argued for “a vision of accountability, transparency, fundamental rights and freedoms, and gender equality.” And in 2006, in remarks before a meeting of AKP members in support of President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, he said, “Had there not been freedom and democracy in Turkey, we would not be in power right now.”
The popular protests that swept the Middle East this spring put the dual nature of the AKP’s foreign policy to the test. At times, especially in the case of Libya, Turkey’s reaction to events seemed haphazard. According to Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Erdogan and his team looked like “stumbling politicians afraid of a new regional order.” But a closer look at events reveals that Turkish foreign policy was actually the result of careful balancing between hard policy and values. In fact, as Ibrahim Kalin, the chief policy adviser to Erdogan, argued recently, the Arab Spring might have “vindicate[d] the new strategic thrust of Turkish foreign policy.”
The first two stages of the Arab Spring -- Tunisia and Egypt -- were fairly unproblematic for Turkey’s foreign policy. Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had been dictatorial but fiercely secularist and, like the AKP’s opponents in Turkey, had banned headscarves and suppressed religious movements. AKP party leaders found it easy to publicly sympathize with the protesters who took to Tunisia’s streets in December. Pro-AKP media in Turkey even drew parallels between the protests and the AKP’s own fight against what they see as Turkey’s excessively secularist Kemalist order.
Similarly, the AKP viewed President Hosni Mubarak’s February 11 ouster from Egypt as a welcome development. Mubarak had also been a secular dictator, suppressing Islamic parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, his regime resented Turkey’s rising regional influence, which seemed to have sidelined Egypt’s role in negotiating Israeli-Palestinian peace. No wonder that when thousands gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Erdogan publicly lauded their efforts and called on Mubarak to “listen to the wishes of the people.” In the same speech, Erdogan reminded Mubarak that every Muslim would go to the grave “as neither a president nor a prime minister” but as a humble man or woman who would be measured only by his deeds.
It was not as easy, however, for the AKP to condemn Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi; Libya has been one of Turkey’s major economic partners, and Turkish businesses have invested billions of dollars there in the past few decades. Hence, when the anti-government riots started in Benghazi in February, some 25,000 Turks were living in Libya. The AKP focused on evacuating these people first, and refused to speak out against Qaddafi, since, in the words of one Turkish diplomat, any condemnation of the regime could “put our citizens at risk.” Still, even after most Turkish citizens in Libya had returned home, Ankara remained unwilling to denounce Qaddafi. Davutoğlu explained that he wanted to “be able to speak with both sides of the conflict” so he could find a mutually agreeable settlement. Surely, he also wanted to protect Turkey’s vast economic interests in the region.
When Ankara proved reluctant to back the ongoing NATO operation to support the Libyan rebels, many were quick to criticize the AKP for backing away from its values -- including Libya’s provisional government in Benghazi, protestors across the Middle East, and politicians in the West. The opprobrium changed the AKP’s calculations. “Zero problems” foreign policy has always required the AKP to be in good standing among Middle Eastern leaders. But the empowerment of the region’s people meant that the AKP could no longer rely on its standing among government officials alone. So in May, Erdogan, who had shifted gradually from criticizing the NATO operation to backing it, finally called on Qaddafi to step down, and welcomed the head of the Libyan opposition, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, to Ankara later that month. During the meeting, Abdul-Jalil noted that Turkey’s support for the rebels proved that NATO’s military “action is not a (medieval) crusade, as alleged by Moammar Qaddafi.” And when Davutoğlu visited Benghazi in early July, he was welcomed by anti-Qaddafi masses, who cheered, “Thank you, Turkey.”
The AKP applied what it learned in Libya to Syria, as that country, too, was engulfed in protests. Before the AKP came to power, the relationship between Syria and Turkey had been cold. Syria was a longtime supporter of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group and one of Turkey’s biggest headaches; Syria had hoped to use the PKK as a bargain chip in order to win access to more resources and water. But once Davutoğlu was in power his zero-problems policy paid off: one by one, the two countries resolved many of the biggest problems between them, including their border disputes and Syria’s support for PKK terrorism. In 2008, Ankara even came close to brokering a peace agreement between Syria and Israel, which was halted by Israel’s December 2008 operation in Gaza.
When the Syrian regime began cracking down on popular protests, Ankara tried to use its leverage in Damascus to convince the regime to reform. But Erdogan’s rhetoric grew harsher as it became clearer that Assad would not reform. Still, in early June, when Turkey criticized Assad for his “barbarism” against the protesters, Assad, and his backers in Tehran, felt betrayed. Meanwhile, Turkey welcomed the thousands of Syrian refugees who fled Assad’s violence, housing them in camps on the Turkish side of the Syria-Turkey border.
All this underlines an increasingly people-focused tone in Ankara’s policy toward the Middle East. As Ersat Hurmuzlu, an adviser to President Gül, put it in a June interview with Turkey’s Star, a daily newspaper, “Turkey is with the people, not the regimes.” In a conference of Turkey’s regional and Western ambassadors, Davutoğlu called the Arab Spring “a late normalization process,” citing Turkey as “a source of inspiration” for the region.
Davutoğlu’s characterization might not be too far-fetched. Indeed, the AKP’s Turkey is not just an economic success. It also shows a third way between the two extremes that have haunted the modern Middle East -- secular authoritarianism and Islamist authoritarianism. Having thrown off secular authoritarianism, Turkey’s new system, which incorporates both secular democracy and Islamic values, offers an attractive model. It was not an accident, for example, that both of the mainstream Islamic parties in Tunisia and Egypt -- the NAHDA and the Muslim Brotherhood -- announced that they would use the AKP as their example and run in elections, rather than striving for complete control.
To be a truly admirable model, of course, Erdogan still has some work to do. The AKP’s success story is incomplete because of Turkey’s own conflict with Kurdish nationalists and the AKP’s waning incentive for political reform after nearly a decade firmly in power. In the coming years, the AKP will have to heed popular calls to draft a new liberal constitution and build the political consensus to ratify it, which will necessitate reconciliation between Turkey’s conservatives and secularists, and Turks and Kurds. If Erdogan can accomplish that grand consensus, he might really turn Turkey into a beacon of democracy for all other Muslim nations.
Meanwhile, the Arab Spring seems to have been a learning experience for Ankara. It also showed that the United State's foreign policy conundrum -- how to maintain the tricky balance between national interests and idealism -- is not unique. Other countries looking to lead on the world stage will have to find that balance, too. It isn’t far fetched to believe that, soon, Turkey’s policymakers and think tanks will be discussing some of the same questions as the American ones, namely how to support democracy in the Middle East, where autocrats have been so politically, and economically, useful.