A new Turkey is redefining itself

Trudy Rubin, The Philadelphia Inquirer


ISTANBUL All during the Cold War, Turkey was the NATO country the United
States took for granted, a secular Muslim state that straddled Europe
and Asia and defended a long border with the Soviet Union.

Then communism collapsed, and Washington thought it had a new role for
Turkey: With the election of an Islamic-oriented government in 2002, it
could become the model of moderate Muslim democracy. But after several
days in Ankara and Istanbul, I saw that this country is no longer ready
to play a role designed by others.

Welcome to the new Turkey, which is changing so rapidly that smart
people here tell me they don know where their country is headed abroad
or at home.

When it comes to Turkey foreign policy, the debate over whether Turkey
has shifted its axis from West to East misses the point, says veteran
journalist Sami Kohen. He says the message from Ankara is: the staunch
supporter of NATO, the loyal ally, we no longer in the Cold War. Turkey
is getting strong and can build its own axis. Don take Turkey for
granted anymore.

Indeed, Ibrahim Kalin, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan, told me that no longer feels it necessary to define
itself in oppositional way, linked to one country at the expense of
another. People see no contradiction between membership in the European
Union and increasing trade with Russia, the Middle East and Central

economic interests compel us to have better relations with all our
neighbors, he said.

No question Turkey efforts to expand its foreign trade and attract new
sources of foreign investment are part of what drives its new interest
in its Arab neighbors and Iran. Turkey is a country that is booming
economically while Western Europe sags; its once-backward heartland
boasts 15 so-called Anatolian , or growing industrial cities. The
middle-class businessmen of Anatolia, a region of Turkey, are more
comfortable, and better placed, to export to the Middle East and North
Africa than to Europe.

Turkey dynamic construction sector which has rebuilt northern Iraq and
is a force all over the region had high hopes of getting huge contracts
in Iran, and Erdogan has called for increasing trade with Tehran
fivefold. That has proved far more difficult than expected, and Iran has
so far been skittish about letting the Turks in.

But Turkey aspirations for developing its own foreign policy axis go far
beyond economic expansion. How far is a matter of debate inside Turkey
and the West.

Does Erdogan, who has traveled extensively to Muslim countries in the
Middle East and Asia, and receives adulation from Arab publics, harbor
dreams of becoming the pre-eminent Sunni Muslim political leader? He
vehemently denied that to me in an interview, saying, have an identity
as the prime minister of the Republic of Turkey.

Kalin describes Erdogan role as most powerful leader in Turkey in a long
time who has become a regional leader by virtue of geography, not to
score points with the Arab street. Every major issue in the region
affects stability of the region, and therefore we pay attention.

The unspoken premise is that the one-time guarantor of Mideast regional
stability the United States is fading from the picture. is still popular
here, Kalin said, most Turks think he can deliver. What he didn say, but
I heard everywhere, was that Turks think Obama has used up his political
capital and his Mideast peace policy is a failure. Turks of every
political persuasion are also scornful of the mess made in Iraq by the
Bush administration.

So given the American fade, Turkey foreign minister, Ahmet Davotoglu,
has concluded that the United States is but one pole of many, and Ankara
will pursue better relations with China, Russia, Iran and its Arab
neighbors. Perhaps the most startling indication so far of this shift
was the recent joint air exercise that Turkey held with China, which
raised questions about Ankara commitment to NATO, and whether NATO
security was being breached.

And Davotoglu has famously scripted a foreign policy aimed at having
zero enemies on Turkey borders, while undertaking ambitious efforts at
peacemaking in the region. So far most though not all of these efforts
have come to naught.

Ankara has vastly improved its relations with Iraqi Kurds, and its ties
with Syria, with whom it nearly went to war a decade ago. But the
Erdogan government efforts to reconcile with Armenia tanked, as did
efforts to broker talks between Israel and Syria, which came apart when
Israel invaded Gaza in 2009.

After a week in this fascinating country, the question that lingers is
whether the Erdogan government can juggle its multiple ambitions,
maintaining links with the West and NATO while showing its independence
of both and occasionally spitting in their eyes. And whether Erdogan can
woo the Iranians without alienating the Arabs, or promote regional
stability without rapprochement with Israel.

No one can be certain where Ankara foreign policy is headed, perhaps not
even the Erdogan government, just as it hard to predict the outcome of
the deepening secular-religious split in the country. All one can say
with certainty is that this is a country to be watched.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The
Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by
e-mail at [email protected]

From: A. Papazian