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“Turkey’s Rules”: How to make Sense Out of it? Abdullah al-Ahsan

“Turkey’s Rules”: How to make Sense Out of it? 

Abdullah al-Ahsan

I must confess – I have failed to comprehend James Traub’s “Turkey’s Rule” published in The New York Times (January 20, 2011). Should I accept Ahmet Davutoglu, the current Turkish Foreign Minister, as one “self-aggrandizing, always the hero of his own narratives” described by Traub? Or the one who “thinks himself as God” described by one Henry Barkey quoted by Traub?  Or we should believe that, “Davutoglu sees his role as more important than it actually is.” The New York Times Magazine writer quotes WikiLeaks cables as some State Department calling Davutoglu “Turkey’s Kissinger,” and “exceptionally dangerous.”

However Traub also lists many of Davutoglu’s positive qualities: He is brilliant, he is energetic, and he is innovative. In fact he begins his article by describing Davutoglu’s success in averting a serious crisis between Bosnia and Serbia; he also describes Turkey’s positive role in assisting Iraqi factions in resolving their differences. Overall Traub seems to suggest that Davutoglu is a complex conceited character. But what I fail to understand is his motive behind his writing on Turkish Foreign Minister and what would be motive of The New York Times to publish it.

He describes Davutoglu ambition in foreign policy as to be part of global “we.” And for that, according to the article, Turkey has been trying hard. Turkey has not only declared “zero problem with neighbors;” it has also succeeded in creating “a visa-free zone linking Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria,” which was inconceivable a decade ago. This, however, Traub views as reconstituting Turkey’s “old Ottoman space.” In this connection what Traub misses is that Turkey is about complete a similar agreement with traditional Ottoman foe Russia. Is it enough qualification to be part of global “we?” No, in order to achieve that status Turks need to earn Washington’s confidence. Everything was going well, but two events around the middle of 2010 marred the process. According to Traub “The Turks, led by Davutoglu, have embarked on diplomatic ventures with Israel and Iran, America’s foremost ally and its greatest adversary in the region, that have left officials and political leaders in Washington fuming. Obama administration officials are no longer sure whose side Turkey is on.”

Does Turkey need to blend itself with USA in order to be partner in global affairs? Do Traub and US officials want Turkey to forget its history, geography and cultural identity? Relationship between the two countries was going well till mid 2010 when Turkey fell at odds with the US on Iran and Israel. Traub gives an elaborate story of how Turkey, taking Brazil on board, reached a deal with Iran and although Turkey “never took a step without informing the Americans,” the US dumped Turkish effort when “the Obama administration finally induced Russia and China to vote for tough sanctions on Iran in the Security Council.” Turkey did not react angrily; after all, “the Turks mostly hid their hurt feelings.” Still the US was annoyed at Turkey’s no vote on sanctions against Iran at the UNSC and raised questions about whose side Turkey was on.

Should Turkey exercise its sovereign authority to vote the way it did? Well, Turkey has over two hundred miles of border with Iran. Even though in history Turks and Persians have been involved in hot wars, border trade between the two regions never stopped. A total boycott of trade with Iran will definitely affect Turkey’s growing economy. But is that why Turkey voted against the resolution? No. Turkey has categorically declared that Turkey will follow UN resolutions. However it didn’t want to totally shut the scope for diplomacy, Traub quotes Turkish sources saying. But this doesn’t seem to convince Traub and some elements in Washington. He again quotes Henry Barkey saying, “the (Turkish) response is almost as if you pressed a button: the problem is not Iran; the problem is Israel; Israel has weapons; Iran doesn’t have weapons.” Has Turkey cited this in any diplomatic communication? Addition of the word almost in Barkey’s statement indicates that this is not Turkish official position. Yet to be realistic about Turkish public opinion, one has to note that although there might be some truth in this observation, officially Turkish position has been very down-to-earth. In fact as a nation in the region with longest diplomatic ties with Israel, Turkey has tried to assist Israel in normalizing relations with neighboring countries. Referring to an effort in normalizing relations between Israel and Syria, Traub quotes an “Israeli official close to the negotiations that Davutoglu “played a very important role, a very professional role.” He also quoted Olmert calling Erdogan “a fair mediator.”

How and why was the negotiation shattered? It broke down because of Israel’s Gaza venture in December 2008. Traub quotes an Israeli official saying, “Israel had not deceived the Turks, because Israel’s cabinet authorized the invasion days after (the italics is original) the Olmert-Erdogan dinner.” After how many days from a courtesy five-hour long dinner can one deceive a partner? I hope the Israeli official or Traub has an answer.

Traub thinks that the flotilla event of May 2010 was another reason for deteriorating relationship between Turkey and the USA. Reporting the event Traub says, “the day before the flotilla set sail, a senior Turkish official called the Israelis to alert them to the ships’ embarking and to say, ‘please don’t engage in violence.’” According to Turkish sources the authorities discouraged activists from undertaking the venture. But Turkish and international activists insisted because they wanted to express their opposition to Israeli blockade of Gaza which was against international law and they wanted to protest against it within the norms of international law. What else could a civil and democratic government do? But did Israel care about the Turkish counsel on the issue? Israel not only violated international law; it also used extreme violence against unarmed civilians and murdered 9 activists. Did Israel expect another Egypt in Turkey? Apparently both Israel and USA considered Egypt’s Mubarak government a moderate one. Well, following the current turmoil in Egypt they may appreciate the meaning of moderation.

Now returning to the question we raised in the beginning – what does really Traub want to achieve thought this article? Does he want to suggest that even though he already significant impact in international diplomacy which could be compared with that of Henry Kissinger, Davutoglu, who is “always the hero of his own narratives,” and “is always speaking like a Baghdadi and smoking like a Bosnian,” should not be taken seriously? Or although Istanbul’s elegant secular intellectuals consider him “a champion of Turkish greatness,” because “he is religiously observant; his wife, a doctor, wears a head scarf,” Davutoglu doesn’t really belong to international “we.” I am sorry to say, I have failed to make sense out the article in The New York Times Magazine.

Abdullah al-Ahsan
Professor of History
International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC)
International Islamic University Malaysia
24 Persiaran Duta. Taman Duta.
50480 Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia.
Tel: 60-3-6207-3465.
Fax: 60-3-6207-3477.


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