Two recent long stories in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal note Turkey’s increasing diplomatic profile in the Middle East. The country’s peripatetic foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has injected himself deeply into the region’s well known problems trying to make Turkey the facilitator, the catalyst for agreement among parties with seemingly intractable differences.
Both these stories point out that Turkey’s efforts so far have yielded very little in the way of concrete results. The efforts to mediate between Iran and the West have fallen flat with considerable collateral damage to Turkey’s image as a solid Western ally. Efforts to arbitrate the Palestinian/Israeli/Syrian quagmire blew up with Turkey’s bombastic response to Israel’s bloody Gaza incursion and the ill-fated alleged Gaza aid ship fiasco. And recently Davutoglu had to admit defeat in the Qatari/Turkish efforts to find a solution to the pending Lebanese crisis.
But what these stories missed is that Turkey’s biggest contribution to development in the region may well be in its very structure rather than in any direct action it might take. Turkey, as a functioning secular democracy with a Moslem society, is in an excellent position to serve as an example to other countries in the region that the choice of governance is not limited to dictators or Al Qaeda. There is another option, and Turkey shows just how successful it can be. The economy is growing, there are functioning political parties with sharply different visions of the country’s future, there are real elections, and there is a vibrant social life that is projected throughout much of the Arab world in extremely popular and controversial soap operas. Even in Greece one of the most of the most popular TV shows is a trashy Turkish soap opera.
But Davutoglu wants to be much more pro-active. Building on Turkey’s current economic success and his own vision put forth in his 600-page tome ‘Strategic Depth’ he strides boldly into issues that previous Turkish diplomats have steered gently around: Iran/West, Palestine/Israel, Hezbollah/Sunni/Christians in Lebanon. Whether you agree or disagree with Davutoglu you have to appreciate his intellectual dexterity and curiosity that is missing in so many other Turkish officials. A fluent English speaker and voracious bibliophile he is a frequent visitor to book fairs in Great Britain.
He believes that Turkey, as the former imperial power in the Balkans and Middle East, is ideally positioned to project its ‘soft power’ to solve the region’s problems. In this vision, Turkish products like refrigerators, processed food, and televisions will replace the elite Janissary troops that brought the Balkans and Middle East under Ottoman Turkish control centuries ago. According to this theory, few outside powers -- read the United States – have Turkey’s knowledge and historical/religious ties that allow them to project ‘soft power’ throughout this troubled region. He has even gone so far as to suggest that it might be worthwhile to create a commonwealth of former Ottoman Empire entities, naturally with Istanbul as the centre.
The trouble with this vision is that it overlooks some important historical realities, one being that the alleged unity of the Ottoman Empire is overstated. The Ottoman attitude toward the Arabs is best described in an Ottoman proverb quoted by Philip Mansel in his book Levant. The linguistic pun is missed in translation, but the proverb says that Turks would forgo all the sweets of Damascus if they could avoid seeing the face of an Arab. This attitude is slowly changing as the preferred partner European Union makes it clear it doesn’t want Turkey, but even now I encounter considerable residual distrust on both sides. The Arabs complain that they have always lost money when investing in Turkey, and the Turks complain that they can’t trust the Arabs either. About two years ago the investment banking team of our company was trying to mediate the acquisition of a Turkish company by a group of Arab investors. Given the invective about liars, cheats, thieves, procrastinators, etc. it was a very good thing they were in separate rooms with us shuttling between. It was no surprise that the deal did not happen. Another issue is that, as large Turkey's economy may be, the financial power of the region has shifted to the Gulf. Turkey's economic contribution is nice, but not really necessary.
A third problem is that some Arab countries, particularly Egypt, have made it quite clear that they do not appreciate Turkish interference in Arab affairs. They resent the growing prominence of this non-Arab country into their affairs, and pointedly remind the Turks that the days of the Ottoman Empire are over.
But perhaps the biggest problem that Davutoglu faces in convincing people that Turkey wants ‘zero problems’ with its neighbours near and far is that his boss, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, constantly launches verbal hand grenades that can shatter months of quiet diplomatic work. According to Erdogan all talk of Iran’s plans to build nuclear weapons is mere ‘gossip.’ Oops. Down goes all the credibility you’re trying to build as a serious arbitrator. All talk of genocide in Darfur is nonsense, according to Erdogan, because ‘Moslems don’t commit genocide.’ Erdogan has also loudly proclaimed that the Palestinian group Hamas is not a terrorist organization and that Israel should fire its equally combative foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. One wonders how he would react for calls to replace certain Turkish ministers. The tendency of the prime minister to cross the street to get into a fight can only over shadow the tireless efforts of Turkey’s foreign minister.
Perhaps Turkey’s, and the region’s, interests would be better served if it could help others achieve that most difficult of tasks – building a functioning democracy from the rubble of dictatorship. As the brilliant French Arabist Olivier Roy points out in an essay in The International Herald Tribune the protestors in Tunisia are not Islamists. They are calling for democracy and elections. It is difficult to blend Islam and democracy, but this is something that Turkey has achieved. If it really wants to make a difference in the Middle East it will help others move toward this goal.