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November 25, 2012, Sunday

Spinning the wheel

Is Turkey's foreign policy astray? Or is it turning fragile as the days go by?

Tension is now spilling over into Iraq. With the decision of the Nouri al-Maliki-led central government to deploy troops in Kirkuk and Tuzhurmatu -- the last in the midst of a disputed area -- Arabs and Kurds seem to be preparing to dig trenches for a confrontation.

With its vital dimensions such as energy and trade, it threatens to add up to the strains on Turkey's foreign policy. Given the nature of the power-holders in Baghdad and the active role of Iran, the break-up of diplomatic relations with another (fourth) neighbor is not at all a remote possibility; it is at the doorstep.

In the aftermath of the Gaza conflict, Turkey's “weight” in the region was inevitably brought to the fore again. The global vote for the “winner” went to Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's ever unpredictable president, and not to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey, declared by many, has been sidelined, forced to take the backseat, as a regional broker; its tools as a soft power are already worn out.

Turkey's foreign policy needs a powerful revision. It has to do with its identity, priorities, execution, delegation and style. All of these features show strains, limitations, blurs, arrhythmia and contradictions. Because of the flaws, Turkey, once full of promises as a leading regional power, no longer leads; it only follows. It started to send signals as an old style state whose voice is a blend of anger, threat, resentment and disappointment. This must be addressed.

Of course, identity has to do with priorities. What are those and how do they match with Ankara's compass? Not an easy question. If it has to with the fading EU dreams, is anything seriously being done here to revitalize it? Or is the government only showing reflexes to hide behind the current turmoil in the EU, creating pretexts for its loss of appetite for reforms? Impressions matter, and they are very negative.

There are three elements that stir up the content of the foreign policy. The first has to do with the strict verticality of its management: More than ever, its conduct is strictly ruled by the foreign minister himself, and, more decisively, with the “final adjustment” from the prime minister. The ministry itself -- with a vast institutional memory, qualified staff and network -- seems to have lost its appeal.

The second has to with style, now seen as the natural part of the persona of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In almost every event, pushing the necessary diplomatic language aside, he managed to irk and even alienate friends and foes. This was more audible than ever during the Gaza crisis, when he lashed out at three permanent members of the UN, “strongly disagreed” with Obama, and showed no sign of softening on a dialogue with Israel. His supporters in the media do him a disfavor while applauding every such move.

Righteousness being another feature of his, Erdoğan may, with a strong sense of morale, have had all the reasons to be angry with Ehud Olmert, Shimon Peres, Bashar al-Assad, Benjamin Netanyahu, Maliki and others, but those outbursts only served to limit his room to maneuver, and helped display the capacity limitations of his country's foreign policy drive.

The third point is perhaps the critical one. If the balance sheet of the “zero problems with neighbors” policy under Ahmet Davutoğlu does not at all impress, it has if anything showed only how weak -- maybe unprepared as well -- Ankara was in conflict resolution. In the cases of Greece, Cyprus and Armenia it has applied the methods of “Old Turkey,” resorting to severe conditional methods. The finesse necessary for ending conflicts has been lost, overtaken by “hard power” discourse, causing unnecessary suspicion among friends as well.

It will get worse in the Middle East before it gets better. With Russia and Iran lurking behind Assad and Maliki, Turkey will have to reconsider a longer-term path, mainly because it is energy-dependent. Will it clearly side with the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds? Will it reopen dialogue with Israel? Will it deepen its ties with non-Sunni elements in Lebanon and Syria? These are only a few questions that Ankara faces as the regional plot thickens.

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