With his column in yesterday’s Times (“Letter from Istanbul”), Tom Friedman predictably joins the growing chorus of critics of Turkey, led by Walter Russell Mead. Not coincidentally, this is the same chorus that preached the gospel of invasion of Iraq and expressed frustration when America’s only NATO ally in the Middle East declined to support the invasion. Now they are alarmed by the growing rift between Turkey and Israel—though they never explore the underpinnings of that rift, and they instantly call it a rift between Turkey and the United States. Still, this column is vintage Friedman:
it is quite shocking to come back today and find Turkey’s Islamist government seemingly focused not on joining the European Union but the Arab League — no, scratch that, on joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel.
This is absurd hyperbole. In his signature verbal-drip style, Friedman even admits to that. His sin is not so much his exaggeration (which is bad enough) as his simplification of complex facts—a simplification that leads to bad analysis and false conclusions.
As I noted before, there are emerging difficulties in U.S.–Turkish relations, and they require urgent attention. That needs to start with some self-criticism on the part of the American foreign-policy establishment about its abuse of the Turkish relationship, and it needs to build with a deeper understanding of the forces at work in Turkey today. These forces are indeed troubling. They are eroding the historical self-understanding of Turkish secularism. But it’s not yet entirely clear where these forces are going.
I would recommend two Turkish voices to better understand these dynamics. The first is Turkey’s great novelist Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk is a sharp critic of the forces that have brought Erdo?an and his AK Party to the fore, and he has portrayed them brilliantly in works like Snow, which may be the single most compelling portrait of the modern Turkish political landscape.
But for conventional political analysis, I’d turn in a heartbeat to Ömer Ta?p?nar, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. He says that Turkish foreign policy is evolving into something that bears a strong resemblance to that of France under DeGaulle:
it helps to think of this new Turkish sense of self-confidence, nationalism, grandeur and frustration with traditional partners such as America, Europe and Israel as “Turkish Gaullism.” One should not underestimate the emergence of such a new Turkey that transcends the Islamic-secular divide because both the Kemalist neo-nationalist (ulusalc?) foreign policy and the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) neo-Ottomanism–the ideal of regional influence–share the traits of Turkish Gaullism.
If you scratch the surface of what seems to be a secular versus Islamist divide in Turkish attitudes toward the West, you will quickly see that both the so-called Islamist and secular camps embrace the same narrative vis-à-vis Europe and America: nationalist frustration. New obstacles to EU accession, perceived injustice in Cyprus, growing global recognition of the Armenian genocide and Western sympathy for Kurdish national aspirations are all major factors forcing Turks to question the value of their long-standing pro-Western geostrategic commitments. Until a couple of years ago, I used to argue that Western-oriented Kemalist elites had traded places with the once eastward-leaning Islamists on the grounds that it was the AK Party that seemed more interested in maintaining close ties with Europe and the United States. The AK Party, in my eyes, needed the West more than Turkey’s Kemalist establishment for a simple reason: It needed to prove to the Turkish military, to secularist segment of society at home and to Western partners in the international community that it was not an Islamist party.
Now, however, I increasingly believe that the AK Party, too, has decided to jump on the bandwagon of nationalist frustration with the West. After all, this is the most powerful societal undercurrent in Turkey, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an needs to win elections. As the events of the last couple of weeks have shown, America and Europe should pay attention to Turkey’s Gaullist inclinations. In the past, Americans and Europeans would often ask whether Turkey had any realistic geopolitical alternatives and complacently reassure themselves that it did not. But today such alternatives are starting to look more realistic to many Turks. The rise of Turkish Gaullism need not come fully at the expense of America and Europe. But Turks are already looking for economic and strategic opportunities in Russia, India, China and, of course, the Middle East and Africa. It is high time for American analysts to stop overplaying the Islamic-secular divide in Turkish foreign policy and pay more attention to what unites both camps: Turkish nationalism.
Ta?p?nar has it just right, I think. Erdo?an and his AK Party needed the West, and particularly the EU, as a vehicle to consolidate their own hold on power in Ankara. They had to address one of the most powerful legacies of Kemalism, namely, the army’s role as guarantor of the Kemalist secular ideal. They cleverly used the notion of EU affiliation and the entire Copenhagen process to wear down the fundamentally anti-democratic Kemalist power base of the military, with the aggressive support of Europeans who seem only vaguely to have understood the broader domestic ramifications of this process for Turkey. Now that the risk that the military will displace the AK Party—either through a hard or soft coup (the latter being a decision to ban the party and its leading figures from participation in the political arena)—has passed, the more direct AK foreign-policy agenda emerges. This is conservative, nationalist, and filled with distinctive echoes of the Ottoman golden era. AK Party leaders want Turkey to assert itself as a regional power, especially within the territory of the old Ottoman Empire. They do not propose to do this militarily, but as a sort of moral leader (from their perspective). The details of this policy are not yet clearly charted, but the potential for conflict with American policy objectives–particularly those of the neoconservatives–is obvious. Smart diplomacy may yet make a difference, and there is plenty of mutual good will among Turks and Americans to drive it.