Thomas Friedman manages to write an entire column on the deterioration of U.S.-Turkish relations and never once mentions the Iraq war, the PKK (which has revived since the start of the Iraq war), the weak U.S. response to the flotilla raid, or the Tehran nuclear deal that he and the administration both dismissed with contempt. If we’re apportioning blame for what has encouraged Turkey on its more independent course, we can assign quite a bit to both the Bush and Obama administrations, but that is not the only thing that interests me here. Friedman passes over U.S. mistakes in silence, because this makes it easier to portray Erdogan as the sole culprit responsible for wrecking U.S.-Turkish relations and it helps the misleading “the Islamists are coming!” narrative take hold.
A useful counterpoint to Friedman is a recent column by Ömer Taspinar, who provides what seems to me to be one of the more persuasive explanations for why the Turkish government has been acting as it has over the last several years. Taspinar starts by questioning the handy, potentially misleading Islamic/secular distinction that practically every Western observer, including myself, has used at one time or another:
I believe one of the major mistakes in analyzing Turkish foreign policy is done when analysts speak of a “secular” versus “Islamic” divide in Ankara’s strategic choices. While the growing importance of religion in Turkey should not be dismissed, the real threat to Turkey’s Western orientation today is not so much Islamization but growing nationalism and frustration with the United States, Europe and Israel.
Of course, for many analysts referring to this divide is not so much intended to describe what is going on as it is aimed at demonizing the direction Turkish foreign policy has taken. The so-called “Islamic” turn is mostly cited by those who want to minimize or deny the role that Western governments have had in sabotaging the Western orientation of Turkey they claim to find so valuable. Most American observers are only too happy to blame the EU for alienating the Turks, as Secretary Gates did just this month, and Friedman is even willing to acknowledge some Israeli responsibility, but most Americans refuse to acknowledge that Washington had any role in weakening ties. Writing shortly after Erdogan’s Davos blow-up, I said:
The episode summed up the growing frustration in Turkey’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) government with Israeli policy and showed the strain that the conflict in Gaza had put on Israel’s only alliance with a Muslim country. More than that, though, it reflected growing Turkish disillusionment with all of its Western allies over the last decade. The greatest danger to Turkey and the West now comes from failing to recognize how Western policies have alienated the Turks and misinterpreting their disillusionment as simple rejection [bold mine-DL].
There is something else that Taspinar said that is very important for Westerners to understand:
Until a couple of years ago, I used to argue that Western-oriented Kemalist elites had traded places with the once eastward-leaning Islamists on the grounds that it was the AK Party that seemed more interested in maintaining close ties with Europe and the United States. The AK Party, in my eyes, needed the West more than Turkey’s Kemalist establishment for a simple reason: It needed to prove to the Turkish military, to secularist segment of society at home and to Western partners in the international community that it was not an Islamist party.
Now, however, I increasingly believe that the AK Party, too, has decided to jump on the bandwagon of nationalist frustration with the West. After all, this is the most powerful societal undercurrent in Turkey, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an needs to win elections. As the events of the last couple of weeks have shown, America and Europe should pay attention to Turkey’s Gaullist inclinations. In the past, Americans and Europeans would often ask whether Turkey had any realistic geopolitical alternatives and complacently reassure themselves that it did not. But today such alternatives are starting to look more realistic to many Turks. The rise of Turkish Gaullism need not come fully at the expense of America and Europe [bold mine-DL]. But Turks are already looking for economic and strategic opportunities in Russia, India, China and, of course, the Middle East and Africa. It is high time for American analysts to stop overplaying the Islamic-secular divide in Turkish foreign policy and pay more attention to what unites both camps: Turkish nationalism.
Taspinar’s concept of Turkish Gaullism is quite helpful in making sense of Turkish foreign policy and the unreasonable hostility it has generated here in the U.S. Turkey today is acting very much as France did in the early 2000s, and it is provoking the same irrational backlash that characterized the response to French opposition to invading Iraq. The U.S. is fortunate to have allies that are not satisfied to serve as nothing more than lackeys, and we are also fortunate to have allies that try to create obstacles when we are heading down a self-destructive or foolish path. In 2002-03, the French government was a better ally to the United States in resisting the Iraq war than the British government was in facilitating it. Today Turkey is a better and more useful ally when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program than any of the governments that voted with the U.S. for the new round of sanctions. In protecting their own national interests, the Turkish government is providing the U.S. with opportunities to avoid a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. So far the administration seems to have learned nothing from the previous experience with difficult, independent-minded allies.
It seems to be easy for a lot of people in the U.S. to forget, but the AKP came to power on an agenda of integration with Europe and economic reform. For its part as far as economic reforms are concerned, the AKP has mostly delivered, and during Erdogan’s tenure Turkish trade has boomed. If it happened in almost any other country the combination of neoliberal economic policies and a relatively conservative, religiously-oriented ruling party would be well-received in the U.S., and for a time the AKP was well-received until it showed that it was going to use its increased economic and political clout to pursue Turkish national interests and regional ambitions. Turkey liberalized and democratized just as Western globalists wanted, and now they are annoyed at the results because it did not weaken their national identity or their nationalism as many of them expected that it would.
As he did over the last two weeks, Friedman has chosen to portray independent Turkish foreign policy decisions as anti-Western and/or anti-democratic moves. Even though he claims to want Turkey to function as a bridge to its eastern neighbors, Friedman was sickened by the Tehran nuclear deal mainly because it was a deal made with the authoritarian government of Turkey’s main eastern neighbor. Friedman very much wants Turkey to mediate between its western and eastern neighbors, but he does not want it to mediate on its own terms and he does not want it to do any of the things that give it the credibility to be seen by its neighboring governments and other nations as an acceptable mediator. This is significant because Friedman’s reactions to recent Turkish government moves are entirely typical of most mainstream pundits and politicians. In fact, they don’t want a “bridge” and they don’t want Turkey to provide a “balancing role.” Quite clearly, they want Turkey to line up, shut up and not cause any disturbances. In other words, they want things to go back to being the way they were fifteen or twenty years ago, but Turkey and the region surrounding it have changed too much for things to be like that ever again.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing in discussing Turkey and its relationships with Western governments is just how oblivious most Western critics of Turkey are to how one-sided and biased the U.S. and Israel are and are perceived as being when it comes to any of the concerns of other nations in the Near East. European governments do not contribute as much to this, but that is because they are less activist and interventionist in the region. If Turkey is supposed to provide a “balancing role,” that will sometimes mean putting its weight behind the concerns and complaints of other nations in the region that the U.S., EU and Israel ignore or reject out of hand. Viewed from anywhere other than the U.S. or Israel, Turkey’s condemnation of Cast Lead, its opposition to the blockade of Gaza, and its fuel-swap agreement with Iran are all fairly reasonable, normal, and even Western positions. If Washington insists on making those positions into reasons to weaken the relationship with Turkey, it will be the U.S. that is pushing the U.S.-Turkish alliance over the cliff. That doesn’t have to happen, but at some point it will if the administration does not start correcting its mishandling of Turkey very soon.