Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Turkish Foreign Policy: Sahin Alpay and Me

by Steven A. Cook
May 17, 2011

Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi greets Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tripoli in 2009 (STR New/Courtesy Reuters)

Anyone who has read my recent work on Turkey will not be surprised to learn that it has raised some eyebrows in Ankara. I can take the heat, though I am outraged to learn that some have wondered whether my criticism of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has something to do with my personal background. Needless to say, this only discredits those Turks broaching this issue. A few days ago, Sahin Alpay of the daily newspaper, Zaman, offered a far more serious critique of my work in his regular column. It is worth quoting the central arguments of the piece at length:

Steven A. Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations makes the argument in strong words: “It was easy to be influential when the Arab world was politically dead and devoid of authentic leadership. Like it or not, Ankara’s interests are wrapped up in the old regional order. As a result, at a moment of unprecedented regional change, when people power and democracy is sweeping the Middle East, the Turks look timorous, maladroit, and diminished — not at all the regional leader to which Ankara has aspired.” (Foreign Policy, May 5, 2011.)

I believe that those who share the above argument need to be reminded of the following: First, if we are today talking about an Arab Spring, the fact that Turkey’s policy of establishing close diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with Arab countries, as with all the countries in neighboring regions, has played a role in bringing it about cannot be underestimated. Turkey, by initiating visa free travel, by increasing trade relations and through television series that have flooded the small screen, has shown the Arab peoples that a Muslim-majority nation can be increasingly modern, democratic and affluent, that even if it is an ally of the West, it can say “no” to Israel’s wrongs. Anyone who has contact with, has set foot in the Arab world, can see that Turkey is, if not a “model,” an important source of inspiration for the Arab Spring. If the Arab Spring is for the global good, and it surely is, the world owes this partly to Turkey’s “Arab opening.”

Secondly, Ankara seems to have learned the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq much better than most of its Western allies. That is why it has expended much effort to try to help regime changes triggered by the Arab Spring to come about with as little bloodshed as possible and without the need for outside intervention that may very well unite the people around the old regime. Turkey’s efforts towards protecting the lives and property of its citizens working in the countries concerned and preventing those countries from succumbing into chaos likely to also hurt Turkey surely makes sense.

Finally, it would not be prophetic to say that Turkey is most likely to contribute to the not so easy to achieve but eventual democratic stability in the Arab world, just as it contributed to the Arab Spring. This is mainly because Turkey’s lasting ties with the Arab world are not founded on relations with its authoritarian regimes but with the people of the region who aspire to freedom and democracy.

Alpay’s essay is illuminating on a number of fronts, highlighting as he does the odd logic, inaccuracies, and wishful thinking among the AKP and its fellow-travelers. Alpay would like his readers to believe that through a variety of policies in the Arab world over the last decade, Turkey played a decisive role in the Arab uprisings. I have it on pretty good authority that many Arabs desired to live in more open and democratic societies well before the Justice and Development Party established visa-free travel with some Arab countries (not Egypt), increased trade relations with the Middle East, and Turkish soap operas appeared on Arab satellite channels. Arabs may believe that they have some lessons to learn from Turkey in this season of uprisings, but they are responding to the internal problems and contradictions of their own societies. Admittedly, I was only in Tahrir Square for the first few days of the uprising, but I never heard anyone invoking Turkey as a reason they had come out into the streets to demand political change.

Alpay also reminds his readers that Turkey’s influence was important in the recent wave of unrest in the Middle East because Ankara could say no to Israel. It is true that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won plaudits in the Arab world for his stand on the Palestinian issue, but this was hardly a cause of the Arab uprisings. As an aside, the central component to Ankara’s saying no to Israel was saying “yes” to Hamas. There is, of course, a way of saying no to Israel without advocating for the Islamic Resistance Movement. Regardless, Alpay seems to miss the broader point that as Arab foreign policies change and come more into line with public sentiment, Middle Easterners will likely turn not to Ankara, but rather Cairo for leadership on the Palestinian issue. Contrary to Alpay’s claims, successful transitions in the Arab world are more likely to lead to the diminution of Turkey’s influence in the region, not enhance it.

As for Alpay’s second point, I am not sure that Libyans or Syrians would agree that Turkey has worked to minimize bloodshed. Instead, Ankara has worked to ensure its interests in Libya and Syria, which happen to be intertwined with the Qaddafi and Assad regimes. This would not make Turkey the only country ever to forfeit the moral high ground when it comes to helping those in the face of cruel repression, but Alpay’s up-is-down, down-is-up logic on this issue does not serve him or the AKP well. It also makes a mockery of his last assertion that Turkey is well-positioned to help Arabs achieve new, more democratic and decent regimes because Ankara’s relations with the Arab world were not based on ties with dictators.

When I began this blog last October, I pledged that I would not use it to score points. I remain committed to this principle. My intention in highlighting Alpay’s column is to demonstrate why—given that his claims track closely with that of the government—the Arab spring will likely result in Turkey’s fall.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Omer Karasapan

    I wonder if it really is a zero-sum game? It seems to me that Egypt taking its rightful role in the region will also benefit Turkey while Turkey’s economic clout and soft-power can help strenthen economic reforms and the budding democracy in Egypt. A stronger regional role for Egypt will allow Turkey to focus on its areas of strength and not squander political capital in areas where the largest Arab power should be leading, with Turkey playing a supporting role, as needed. It will also help Turkey in avoiding unnecessary strains in its ties with the West and maintaining its critical role as an intermediary. This new era should lead to stable relations based on the real choices of the people of the region – a focus on economic growth and greatar voice and dignity for all. It could indeed be a win win for all concerned.

  • Posted by dazp

    If you felt confident in your first article you would feel no need for a response. Is this forum really the place to try and settle personal disputes. You need to apply a greater amount of maturity.

  • Posted by sara

    The kind of reasons Alpay applied to justify his country’s ambitions in bringing Arab springs about could be signs of what Ajami described in “Arab Dream Palace” about Arabs’ characteristics which I belive could be applicable to all Middle-eastern countries.

  • Posted by Richard Falk

    I believe that showing such a picture is rather irresponsible. All Western leaders shows similar inclinations to befriend Qaddafi after he renounced Libya’s nuclear weapons program and compensated families of the victims of the Lockerbie terrorist incident. Let’s be critical as deserved, but fair in all instances. Turkey’s regional presence is overall constructive, and provides guidelines for both economic and foreign policy that could help to realize the potential of the Arab Spring.

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