Erdogan hitches Turkey’s wagon to NATO, as he assumes role of Muslim East prelate

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The Fall season is here, and Ankara is somnolent with the dreams of Rome. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan recently completed his Arab Spring tour over North Africa, including the recently despoiled Libya, delivering his trademark no-holds barred rhetoric that has won the hearts of the Arab street. But while he continues to verbally joust with Israel, raising his profile in the streets of the Muslim world, he has signed on the dotted line for the NATO-led counter-revolution in the Muslim East. The fate of the Turkish model is by now, a twice-told tale, a suspense novel unraveling into a familiar potboiler after the spoilers have been revealed. But since the Turkish model is still widely touted as the blueprint par excellence for the new Muslim East, a retrospective is useful here.

Since beginnings are important, let us not neglect our “once upon a time.” One of the most stirring events in recent political history is the rise of the AKP, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which appeared to advocate a unique blend of Islamic politics. The formula included a domestic return to Muslim cultural identity (headscarves in public are now permissible), and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s famous “zero problems” policy, which has tilted toward building strong economic and political links with the Middle Eastern countries rather than the long-desired Europe. Nervous political observers in the US and Europe began ringing alarm bells on Turkey’s “Islamicization” and “neo-Ottomanization.” If it were true, it would certainly be a perilous development on the hinge of the Bosphorus, the apex of the world’s military, economic, and energy traffic.

Disenfranchised Muslim populations watched in awe as Erdogan and his aides appeared to helm a burgeoning first-world state rooted in memories of the Muslims’ past civilizational greatness. In one of his media interviews, Davutoglu related a story illustrating this trademark: how he shamed warring Iraqi factions into an accord by reciting to them the past glories of Baghdad. Seemingly, such intervention can only be performed by an urbane, cosmopolitan Turkish-Muslim politician endowed with the knowledge and confidence of past Muslim civilizations. How could the street in Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Indonesia find this anything but irresistible?

However, notwithstanding Baghdad, Andalusia, and Mughal India, the AKP in particular harks back to memories of the Ottoman Empire. This is the continuity through which Turkey sees itself, in Davutoglu’s words, as imparting a “sense of justice and a sense of vision to the region.” Since 2007, Turkey actively presented itself as the Muslim East’s peacemaker, the strategic shuttle between US and European alliances and the Iranian, Syrian, and Hizbullah nexus. Turkey views its influence as a variety of soft-power stemming from deep cultural links with the Muslim East, uniquely bestowed by its Ottoman history in the region.

The Turkish experiment, for all the brouhaha about the US’s unease about Turkey’s covert Islamists, has been made possible by a particularly fantastic pitch: that the senescent US power agree to teamwork with a vibrant Turkey possessing the keys to the Muslim East (the people, not just to the dictators’ clubs). In Davutoglu’s vision, outlined in interviews and his academic writings, the US has been disadvantaged in that it possesses no “strategic depth” –” that is, historical-geographic and cultural connections –” to the Muslim East. It was more or less, an alien power. Turkey, possessing all of the above, was presented as an ideal collaborator in its quest for greater penetration. The role of go-between “was not assigned to Turkey by any outside actor,” wrote Davutoglu in Foreign Policy, “[t]his is what it means to be part of “we.”

“A global power like this [referring the US], a regional power like that [referring to Turkey] have an excellent partnership,” Davutoglu continued in an interview with the New York Times. In one of his articles for the journal Foreign Policy, Davutoglu characterized the AKP’s politics as “proactive and pre-emptive peace diplomacy” that honored NATO alliances but also maintained Turkey’s organic cultural and religious ties with the Muslim world. As a self-conscious Muslim power, it could deliver in a way Mubarak and Co. could not, since it could tap into the cultural and psychic panorama of the Muslim East. While US diplomats privately railed about Erdogan and co. as “pashas,” “beys,” and “radical Islamists,” it was an offer they couldn’t refuse. It is like lionizing a disreputable insider to get into the best club in town.

For Turkey’s part, its organic link with the Muslim East maps a little too uneasily on the borders of the Ottoman Empire at its zenith. It is an open question for Davutoglu whether Turkey’s organic connection with the Muslim East falls under the rubric of imperial domination in an Ottoman-esque manifest destiny or leadership that emerges from advocating for and promoting the rights of the disenfranchised? Erdogan’s speech after his 2011 election victory is instructive on that point. “Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir,” he declared, sketching the former borders of the Ottoman Empire.

Not that this should come as a surprise. After all, nationalism and imperialism are a natural fit, like hot-dogs and relish. The modern age of colonialism began when European populations gelled together as nation-states. What is ironic is that for all the AKP’s Islamic rhetoric, it shows itself to be deeply tutored by Ataturk’s legacy of European-style nationalism. “Justice and Development” has become rather an oxymoron for Erdogan and his aides, because “justice” means globally representing Muslims in Erdogan’s inimitable street-fighter style, while “development” is code for furthering Turkish national interests. Which has taken precedence? A hint: Turkish web writer Mustafa Akyok is rather on point when he says, “[t]he “Muslimness” of Turkish foreign policy should be seen as a bit like the “Judeo-Christianness” of American foreign policy”. That is, “Render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s and to God what is God’s.”

Nevertheless, the role of go-between has allowed Turkey to advocate for Iran within the halls of NATO, the military body that has reconfigured itself following the end of the Cold War for the long war in Eurasia and the Muslim East. At the end of 2010, NATO planned to unveil a new “Strategic Concept” that would openly define Iran as the new threat to Europe justifying NATO’s crusading and war-trafficking. Turkey raised a ruckus, preventing NATO from openly naming Iran and Syria as threats on official documents about a lavishly expensive missile shield and other projects. “Defending against the threat of a possible ballistic missile attack from Iran has given birth to what has become, for NATO, an essential military mission,” declared the original report, written by former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Turkish President Abdullah Gul declared that Turkey “would definitely not accept” pointing fingers at Iran, as it would harm relations between the two countries.

Perhaps zero-problems’ most significant achievement has been to forge a zone of economic cooperation between Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, enabling the free flow of business and tourists across the regions. Iranian tourists flooded into Turkey to the tune of millions, causing some slight recriminations in the US and Europe about blocking Turkey’s membership to the EU over the years. Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said as much: “if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving Eastward,” it was the result of being “pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the sort of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.”

Banked by impressive legislative victories against the military and a robust Turkish economy dubbed by observers as the rising Eurasian tiger, Erdogan even had the leverage to talk tough with Israel, an achievement that can be claimed by few Muslim politicians. In the 2009 Davos World Economic Forum, during Israel’s Gaza massacre, Erdogan burst out at Shimon Peres before storming off the stage: “You know how to kill people very well!” The Mavi Marmara incident then proceeded to lift Erdogan to stardom in the Muslim street, as Pepe Escobar put it, “a cross between U2’s Bono and Barcelona’s superstar Argentine footballer Lionel Messi.” A political rockstar, a messiah from the Black Sea rather than a Bethlehem manger.

The US, long used to driving Faustian bargains with its allies, now found itself in the hot seat. A nightmare was driving the frenzied diplomatic cables, political counsels and newspaper articles –” would AKP dare to convert their cultural Islamic capital, tentatively placed into NATO’s service so far, into political Islam? Newspaper print on this issue materialized into black ink the sweat that trickled down numerous Savoy Row and Hugo Boss suits over this issue.

This fear factor has helped Turkey in its trajectory on the world stage. “Zero problems” has yielded fabulous windfalls –” greater penetration into the Muslim East, which paradoxically rendered it an even more desirable tango-partner for the United States. Turkish businesses blossomed in the wake of this precarious balancing act between Europe and the Muslim East, gaining access to both the distribution of resources in energy-rich, hard-luck countries and diplomatic cachet with Superman and friends. Turkey has blossomed into an object of study, anxiety, and fascination across the US’s political, economic, and academic strata – all thanks to the AKP.

Turkish influence in Iraq is a particularly successful example of “zero problems”. “This is the trick – we are very much welcome here,” noted Ali Riza Ozcoskun, the head of Turkey’s consulate in al-Basrah, referring to Turkish presence in Iraq. By mediating between Iraqi and US power factions (and eschewing Gothic installations of horror like Abu Ghraib), Turkey “has positioned itself as the country’s gateway to Europe, while helping to satisfy its own growing energy needs,” as the New York Times put it. Trade between Turkey and Iraq has already grown to $6 billion, doubling from 2008, and Iraq is projected to be Turkey’s largest export market in a few years.

Alas, all good things come to an end. As other writers have observed, Turkey was completely caught by surprise by the Arab Spring and found itself hedged by the Muslim world’s vociferous demands for self-determination on the one hand, and the desperate US and EU attempts to bring back the neo-colonies in line on the other. If “zero problems” means to eat your cake and have it too, at some point, you have to pay up when the baker comes calling. That is, at some point, the AKP would have had to face up to the contradiction between globally advocating Muslims’ rights and consolidating membership in the halls of power.

The US does know how to send a message – the postman doesn’t just ring twice, he makes a point of ringing three, four or even a dozen times. As a result of bomb-blasts leading to the 2011 Turkish elections, secret-negotiating in political councils, and some meetings with Saudi envoys, Turkey got the message that NATO expected it to toe a certain line in its campaign to tamp down on the Middle Eastern revolutions. Turkey has since backed away from the Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah nexus, and toward the US, EU, and Saudi alliance.

Perhaps the most obvious example is Erdogan’s recent agreement to house a radar system that is part of NATO’s missile shield against Iran. “Turkey’s hosting of this element will constitute our country’s contribution to the defense system being developed in the framework of NATO’s new strategic concept,” announced the Turkish Foreign Ministry in a statement that completely backpedaled on the AKP’s earlier resistance to NATO’s military rhetoric. “It will strengthen NATO’s defense capacity and our national defense system,” it continued. The Pentagon greeted the move with smug delight: “It was well received here,” reported one senior American military officer in Washington. Certainly, Turkey’s shift from objecting to anti-Iranian language on NATO reports into a shield-maiden for US and EU-crusading is slightly whip-lash inducing.

The Libya chapter has lifted a bloody feather in Erdogan’s career. NATO’s reconquista of Libya has involved genocide, a result of massive bombing campaigns over the city in order to destroy infrastructure, kill pro-Qaddafi population centers, and pave the way for the rag-tag rebel victory. Erdogan initially protested the Libya campaign for a few weeks – Turkey enjoyed considerable investment in Libya under Qaddafi, to the tune of $23 billion. However, he eventually came around, sending naval and logistical support to the Benghazi opposition, many of whom are hired thugs. Recently, Benghazi and a subdued Tripoli have been key stops in Erdogan’s Arab Spring tour.

“Few images of Turkey’s expanding influence are more powerful than of Mr. Erdogan joining hands with Libya’s new leaders for Friday prayers,” noted Alexander Christie-Miller of the Christian Science Monitor. Rebel leaders profusely thanked Erdogan for his help: “Our hands are clasped with those of the Turkish people,” declared Benghazi imam Salem al-Sheikhi, “We will never forget what you did for us.” Erdogan returned the gesture, painting the CIA-propped band of rebels as a bona fide democratic movement. “Turkey will fight with you until you take all your victory,” declared Erdogan, “You proved to all the world that nothing can stand in the way of what the people want.” Turkish companies are poised to win major contracts in the reconstruction phase, when NATO-affiliated corporate interests will move in and take ownership of Libya’s resources in return for rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed by NATO sorties.

Erdogan has also taken the diplomatic lead in championing the US-led counter-revolution against Bashar al-Assad. Mixed in with civilian demonstrations that swelled over the Muslim East, CIA-trained armed groups in Syria have been fighting pitched battles against the state army and accusing the latter of civilian massacre. “Those who repress their own people in Syria will not survive,” declared Erdogan, playing to the crowd with clichés scripted straight from Hillary Clinton’s desk. “The time of autocracies is over. Totalitarian regimes are disappearing. The rule of the people is coming,” he stated. The New York Times suggests that Turkey has been selected as the key interface for igniting civil disorder in Syria to bring the star crashing down like Humpty Dumpty: “In coordination with Turkey, the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among Syria’s Alawite, Druze, Christian and Sunni sects, a conflict that could quickly ignite other tensions in an already volatile region.”

If Syria and Iran (and their networks of influence) are out, what happens to Turkey’s cultural access to the Muslim East? It is telling that Davutoglu announced that Turkey’s future partnership will now be with Egypt (and not with the “disreputable” Iran and Syria, as he made clear). Ever given to hyperbole, Davutoglu described the Turkish-Egyptian partnership as a new axis of power in the Muslim East, positioned to alter the region’s geo-politics. “This will be an axis of democracy, real democracy,” he told the New York Times, “an axis of democracy of the two biggest nations in our region, from the north to the south, from the Black Sea down to the Nile Valley in Sudan.” Erdogan’s policy of publicly criticizing Israel while privately acquiescing to NATO seems intended to position Turkey as the heir of the Muslim East revolutions –” to place Turkey “at the center of everything,” as he described it.

Of course, Egypt’s military junta has been paid off to the tune of $4 billion by Saudi Arabia acting on behalf of the cash-strapped US and EU, in order to put the brakes on the Egyptian revolution and keep North Africa’s most important asset firmly tethered to the US orbit. After the popular uprising against Cairo’s Israeli embassy on September 9, the “aid” promised to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has jumped to $80 billion in order to keep things quiet. Turkey’s talk of developing an alliance with the military-governed Egypt is rather an outlandish piece of theater –” Davutoglu seems to be working from NATO’s “divide and rule” script to paint a bona fide “Sunni” outpost of power to counterbalance the Iranian-Syrian-Lebanese “Shi’i” one –” not to mention hypocritical, considering the AKP’s own struggle with military authoritarianism in Turkey.

It seems that “zero problems with neighbors” is running into all sorts of problems. The Arab Spring has given way to a winter of discontent for Turkey, which fabulously believes that it can achieve domestic political agendas, regional influence, and international clout through real-politiking. As the AKP frays ties with key demographics in the Muslim East, reversing their political move “Eastward,” Erdogan has intensified his rhetorical bashing of Israel. Apparently, he sees no contradiction in signing on to NATO crusades against Libya and Syria while verbally flaying the most important outpost of US and European empire in the Muslim East. There is a tactic at work here, but clearly no strategy –” Turkey seems to believe it can continue to justify its claims to leadership in the Muslim East by milking the symbolic capital offered by the Palestinian issue across the Muslim world. In this calculus, rhetoric can apparently substitute for real commitment to the people that one is invoking.

Of course, it is understandable that politicians must address multiple audiences and population groups – but it does not hold that Erdogan and Davutoglu see those various groups as equal. The biggest problem with “zero problem,” whether Turkey acknowledges it or not, is that there is a massive schism emerging between the two main audience groups that Erdogan and company have committed themselves to catering: US and European power groups (bankers, lobbies, politicians, war juntas) with their local representations in Turkey (military officers, secular nationalists) on the one hand, and disenfranchised populations struggling for bread and breath in the Muslim world on the other. Not to mention the split between the global Muslim street and Turkish capital interests, represented by the 200 or so businessmen who followed him on his trip to Tripoli and Benghazi.

Perhaps the greatest contradiction is that Turkey still desires Europe. As late as November 2010, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the Reuters news agency that “We have been kept waiting at the gates of the EU for 50 years. We are still waiting and waiting and still in the negotiating process.” Like their secular predecessors, Erdogan and Davutoglu desire the economic benefits that flow from consortium membership, political influence from sitting at tables with France and Germany, and the prestigious cultural recognition that yes, Turkey is part of Europe, not just its neglected gate-keeper. In a perfect future, the AKP would reconstitute the Ottoman zone of influence – empire has since become a dirty word – and force Britain, France and Germany to acknowledge it as an equal and a partner. The stain from history’s remembrance of the “the Sick Man of Europe” would finally wash away.

In imaging a divine right to history, AKP’s Turkey is betraying the present. In assuming Turkey’s role at “the center of everything,” Turkey is robbing the millions who strove to assume their God-ordained right to public action this past Spring. Dreams of Ottoman glory and grandeur – the seigneurial right to rule – has no place in the “we” that Davutoglu invoked in gently telling the New York Times that US power is alien to the Middle Eastern territory. However, the failure of Erdogan’s cabinet to imagine a future of inter-regional fraternity risks turning Turkey into an alien to this moment in time.

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