Recently, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates decided to blame Europe for the actions of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan including a flurry of anti-Israeli statements and obvious moves to engage with Iran and the Arab street. According to Gates, Turkey’s behavior as represented by Erdogan is due primarily to resentment over not being included in the EU. This past weekend, Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times wrote a news analysis article defending Turkey’s “embrace” of Iran as merely “a matter of building bridges.”
Interestingly, the European left, which has typically been out of sync with U.S. policy over the last decade, has no illusions about Turkey’s new role in the Middle East. In fact, in one of the most articulate publications of the European left, Le Monde Diplomatique, in an article entitled “Neither East or West: Turkey’s Audacious Choices,” Wendy Kristianasen goes beyond speculation to list a number of decisive moments even before Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza that demonstrate a certain recklessness in Turkey’s path to gain influence in the region.
In contrast to apologetic U.S. policy-makers, Ms. Kristianasen roots her analysis in the past developments of Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She notes, for example, that Turkey’s newfound love, Syria, is not a match made in heaven, but more likely, a spell cast by the demi-gods. Though Turkish academics have been visiting Damascus and describing with nostalgia the Arab land of yesteryear, Ankara’s new warmth for Damascus is based on a willful amnesia of recent tension, such as the way Syria supported Kurdish separatists in the 1980s.
Turkey has also reached out to Iraq and Iran despite the enormous threat that these two countries have posed to Turkey over the past three decades. And Turkey is not simply content with pushing forward a friendly hand to its Middle Eastern neighbors. Rather, it is also interested in increasing its ties with Russia, Central Asian countries and even Armenia (without mentioning the g-word, of course).
All of this indicates a new turn towards soft power and multilateralism, instead of a reliance on its strong, secular military, and U.S. and NATO support for regime security. Indeed, the new Turkish foreign policy chooses to forget, not just past tension with its neighbors, but also the secular foundation of the Turkish republic, and Turkey’s traditionally pro-Western stance that lasted throughout the Cold War. In fact, until 2008 Turkey was so far in the Western camp that its military could carry out joint air force exercises with the Israeli Air Force and not receive too much flack from the Arab street.
The main obstacle to entering the EU, according to French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is Turkey’s poor economic shape. And with the Southern European debt crisis, Turkey can safely kiss its chances of entering the EU goodbye for a long time. This is indeed a vicious cycle, since poor economic performance has opened up an underclass of overly politicized young people. Kristianasen explains that with 15% unemployment, and around 30% among the youth, idle talk of Gaza and Israel has reached new heights.
Turning the attention away from domestic issues such as the economy and focusing on getting Israel to change its Gaza policy partially explains Erdogan’s statements over the last couple of years. Now, culminating in the recent remark that the world now perceives the swastika and the Star of David together, we see a new kind of inflammatory speech, which indicates that Turkey’s rise to a central role in the Middle East is perceived by Erdogan as a matter of burning bridges with Israel–not simply influencing Gaza policy.
With fresh leaks to the Times of London that Saudi Arabia may be willing to look the other way in the event of an Israeli fly-over to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, it looks like Turkey’s policy of making friends with everyone may backfire severely. The Saudi government typically favors keeping the status quo, but Erdogan’s recklessness may open the way for Israeli risk-taking to prevent a worse scenario. Meanwhile, American officials seem oblivious to the dangers posed by ongoing appeasement and apologetic attitudes towards Turkey, Iran, Syria, and by association, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Joel D. Parker is a JPC contributor and a Doctoral Candidate at Tel Aviv University, School of History, Department of Middle Eastern and North African Studies.