Some Western perceptions of Turkey (2) by MORTON ABRAMOWİTZ*

Some Western perceptions of Turkey (2)  by  MORTON ABRAMOWİTZ*

March 17, 2010, Wednesday/ 15:42:00
Note: In the first part of this three-piece series, the author discussed post-Cold War developments in Turkey, including the flux in military-civilian relations and the potential for policy change on topics such as the Armenian and Kurdish issues.

Summarizing major points that led to the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the author then discussed the impacts of what he termed a “diplomatic revolution” led by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, including converging American and Turkish interests in maintaining the unity of Iraq. He was careful to note, however, that Turkey’s involvement in the rest of the Middle East has discomfited some American policymakers.

Turkey has especially deepened economic and political relations with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, including a free visa regime, and tried but failed to carry on indirect peace negotiations between Syria and Israel. The US, it might be noted, in a far smaller but similar vein, recently sent an ambassador back to Syria after five years and eliminated some trade sanctions against Syria. Throughout the Arab world, Turkish leaders have showed the flag and encouraged Arab investment in Turkey. They appear to be having some success in reversing the Arabs’ historical animosity to the Turks.

The most troublesome issue, as American skeptics point out, is Iran, a state rarely trusted by Turks. One former Turkish president always told me never believe an Iranian official. Living next to a powerful neighbor and historical antagonist but interested in trade and investment, Turkey has developed a different perspective than the US, and the Obama administration so far has not discouraged Ankara from pursuing it. Turkey certainly does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, which would raise major security concerns. However, in pursuing better relations, the Turkish government has apparently accepted Iran’s denial that it seeks a nuclear weapons capability, and even sort of out loud allowed for Iran to have such a weapon since Israel has one. Recently, top Turkish leaders have pursued a mediating role between Iran and the West, and they assert that Iran wants to resolve the nuclear issue through negotiations. Turkey is presently a Security Council member and will have to vote on any sanctions measure. It is quite possible, depending on the resolution’s nature, that Turkey will abstain on any UN resolution for sanctions on Iran. In short, trouble looms ahead between us. Iran is clearly a case of conflicting interests and different perceptions. I tend to believe, hopefully wrongly, that Iran is using Turkey to muddy the waters and perpetuate nuclear negotiations.

The issue that has inflamed many conservatives and Turkey’s strong supporters in the American Jewish community has been its handling of Israel. While Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, relations were not close, and there has been little public support of Israel in Turkey. In the ‘90s, Turkish-Israeli relations expanded in all fields -- defense and intelligence, economics, tourism and others -- led in great part by the military, who then saw Syria and Iran as the threats to Turkey, but that did not change much popular perspectives. The relationship has been diminishing with Turkish activism in the Middle East. Acrimony took over last year with the prime minister’s rage over Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s continuing public denunciations were popular in Turkey, fanned anti-Israel sentiments and generated considerable expressions of anti-Semitism. Israel was dismayed by the loss of support of its main Muslim friend, and there were some harsh reactions. However, Israel quickly recognized the importance of its relations with Turkey and sought to limit damage. Turkish tempers also appeared to have cooled. We are not likely to see relations return to the level of the ‘90s, but both countries pragmatically want to sustain the present level of economic and diplomatic relations. Unhappiness with Israel over Gaza, however, could explode again.

One aspect of Turkish behavior on these issues raises questions of hypocrisy and could hurt Turkey’s standing in the West. While characterizing Israeli behavior in Gaza as genocide, Mr. Erdoğan has publicly embraced Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal, and denied mass atrocities in Darfur, stating Muslims don’t commit genocide. Nor has his quick embrace of the Iranian elections and his silence over the subsequent crackdown on the Iranian opposition won him admiration in the West. Erdoğan has been no proponent of democracy and human rights in his diplomacy, and that is duly noted. On the other hand, he seeks to be an intermediary between Iran and the West and does not want to endanger that effort.

Lastly and briefly is Russia, where eyebrows have also been raised here. Turkey’s relations with Russia are, of course, different than during the Cold War. Turkey has no love for Vladimir Putin’s Russia and remains a dedicated NATO member. But today economics rules: The major development in Turkish-Russian relations has been the enormous dependence on Russia for energy. That has made Russia Turkey’s major trading partner, far exceeding Turkey’s trade with the US. In its efforts to become an energy hub, Turkey tries to satisfy both Russia and its Western partners by seeking pipelines that use Russian energy but also helping develop ones not involving Russian participation. Turkey has also been circumspect in its political relations with Russia. It was no champion of Georgia and was cautious about Ukrainian membership in NATO, not the only country in NATO to show caution.

The bottom line: Turkey has redefined its interests, and with the exception of Iran, much of it makes sense. Why should Turkey stay the same when their world is changing and not pursue changing interests?

(Remarks Feb. 25, 2010 [subsequently slightly revised for this publication] at a joint meeting of the İstanbul Center of Atlanta and Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Tech)

*A former US ambassador to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.