When Ahmet Davutoğlu became foreign minister, one of the first things he did was visit the parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, of which I was a member. Davutoğlu listened attentively, took notes and answered the questions of the members patiently. When my turn came, I asked him whether values such as democracy and human rights would be part of Turkish foreign policy under his watch. After more than three years in office, I think he has proven to be one of the most outstanding foreign ministers the republic has ever seen.
There is no doubt that he inherited the benefits of astute and delicate diplomacy from the years of thorough work by previous Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, and the advantages of the well-intentioned and studious performance of Ali Babacan in the same role. Foreign policy has been the result of teamwork during the successive Justice and Development Party (AK Party) governments, and Gül’s has always been a principal voice. But Davutoğlu has built on these years effectively, and has re-conceptualized Turkey’s foreign policy principles in a way that now seems difficult to reverse. The mental repositioning of this country is most evident in the visits of foreign officials. Turkey has become a key nation on many regional and global issues.
The Arab Awakening has precipitated unprecedented criticism of the government’s foreign policy, and of Davutoğlu individually. Certainly there are matters that I think could have been handled differently. However, we often forget that Davutoğlu and his small team are making decisions based on information most of us are not privy to. Cables, intelligence assessments and direct information coming from dozens of embassies and from our National Intelligence Organization (MİT) flow into his office.
The Arab Awakening is incontrovertibly a historic process. It was not started by Davutoğlu, and given the turn of events I am sure he would have preferred a more gradual transformation in these countries. However, with the exceptionally successful evacuation of 25,000 Turkish citizens from Libya, and the timely call for Hosni Mubarak to leave in Egypt, Turkey has handled its response to the Arab Awakening rather well. We have been on the right side of things by supporting the peoples’ legitimate aspirations for democracy.
Syria is altogether a different animal, and there are a number of complications that have put Davutoğlu in a position where he has had to make extremely difficult choices. The downing of our plane by the Syrians was a crisis that required calm and professional handling. Overall, he handled it relatively well. After all, it was not his responsibility to take the lead on this. In any other country, it would have been the defense minister in the spotlight. Yet Davutoğlu assumed leadership in that difficult situation. I have seen many people disappear during political crises; Davutoğlu is not one of them.
Needless to say, there were moments in the Syrian situation that I thought could have been handled differently. Our tone and language toward Assad early on could have been better calibrated, leaving us more room to maneuver. Understanding the domestic constraints on the Obama administration took us some time. All of us were buoyed by a belief in the inevitable rapid fall of Bashar al-Assad, in light of the events in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
Turkey is a democracy, and it is healthy that we all take part in public debate. However, in this heavily media-filtered information age, a fluid and volatile situation such as Syria must be examined with care. Davutoğlu is handling our foreign policy portfolio as best as a Turkish patriot can. Given the enormous challenges we are facing, I think he deserves more credit than he is offered these days.