Turkey’s much vaunted rejuvenated role in the Middle East is in danger of unraveling before it gets started as the prime minister cannot make up his mind whether the popular uprisings throughout the region are a good thing or a bad thing. During the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square Prime Minister Erdogan lost no opportunity to show his support for the demonstrators and to lecture Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about listening to the people.
It is a pity that the brave demonstrators in Iran and Libya did not receive any such support from the usually outspoken Turkish prime minister. They were left to suffer at the hands of thugs and mercenaries as the Turkish leadership sat silently in the stands watching the blood flow in Teheran and Tripoli. Erdogan even went so far as to denounce the recent unanimous vote by the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on what is left of the Gaddafi regime. Erdogan once again isolated Turkey by completely misreading the facts of the situation and ranting that the sanctions would only hurt the Libyan people. In reality the sanctions amount to an arms embargo and freeze of the Gaddafi family assets – nothing that would hurt the long suffering people of Libya. One wonders how he explains the fact that even Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, thanked the Security Council for the vote.
This selective support of oppressive Middle Eastern regimes should come as no surprise because last year Turkey, when it was a non-permanent member of the Security Council, voted against Iranian sanctions. The combative Turkish prime minister even finds it difficult to say anything mildly critical of Sudan’s despot Omar al-Bashir, the subject of an international arrest warrant for his genocidal policies in Darfur. One supposes Erdogan could be excused in the case of Libya, however, because just last November he received the highly valued Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights from the great man himself.
This and the fact that Turkish businessmen, many of whom are strong supporters of Erdogan’s party (AKP), have about $15 billion in contracts in Libyan projects may go a long way to explain Turkish selective concern for human rights. There is some concern that if Gaddafi scuttles away to some welcoming regime like Zimbabwe these contracts will become worthless overnight leaving the 10,000 Turkish workers there unemployed.
As he ventures out on these wild solo foreign policy initiatives there is some suspicion that the Turkish prime minister is bypassing the country’s experienced and professional Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The fact that Erdogan, who comes from a gritty Istanbul neighborhood and speaks no foreign language, disdains the cultured and multi-lingual Turkish diplomatic corps is well known. He likes to denigrate them by referring to the diplomats sarcastically as ‘mon chers’, a term he believes labels them as passive and effete whereas he, Erdogan, represents the real Turkey. When he was criticized for his attack on Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos he angrily retorted, “I come from politics; I don’t know about the ways the mon chers behave. And I don’t want to know.” I wonder if the prime minister realizes just how much he sounds like the 'I Know Nothing And Am Proud Of It' Turkish version of Sarah Palin.
As Damla Aras notes in an article in the Middle East Quarterly, this split culminated in a written statement by 72 retired Turkish ambassadors and consul-generals sharply criticizing the government’s foreign policy and the prime minister’s lack of respect. As one of the retired ambassadors, Faruk Logoglu, points out the characterization of diplomats as a closed, elite caste detached from the rest of Turkish society is ‘neither true nor justified.’ He notes that they come from all levels of Turkish society and are selected on the basis of rigorous examinations. But there is no escaping the fact, as Logoglu continues, that their education, their career and experiences make them different from the average politician. I have often seen Turkish diplomats in various European cities groan quietly but put on a brave face as a plane load of Anatolian politicians would descend on their city with empty suitcases that they spent the next few days filling with goods from designer shops.
Up to now Turkish diplomats have prided themselves on their relative independence from whatever political party was ruling Turkey. They often told me with some exasperation that they were representing the country and not any political party. But this is about to change. Aras notes that a new law passed last summer stipulates that the diplomats will represent not only the Turkish Republic and its president but also the government that happens to be in power at any particular time.
The retired ambassadors are particularly concerned about the current shift in Turkish policy away from the traditional Euro-Atlantic orientation toward new directions, mostly the Moslem world. “Should the current political dynamics and trends persist Turkey will be a very different country in both domestic and external terms . . . Turkey will probably abandon its EU accession drive altogether …Its ties to NATO may come under increasing questioning. In short, Turkey’s place may no longer be in the Euro-Atlantic community, but elsewhere. . . it is certain that Turkey will no longer be the secular democracy it has been since its foundation, a society with a commitment to progressive civilization,” Logoglu added.
It is doubtful that Erdogan will pay any attention to these words. He has grown more confident in his own policies with each election victory and dislikes criticism from any quarter, least of all from people he considers effete snobs. What is clear is that Turkey’s diplomatic corps is going to get a lot of practice putting out fires created as the prime minister forges his own idiosyncratic foreign policy.