Cold Turkey?

By the conventional wisdom of the day, Turkey is hot. While America is caricatured as ‘empire on the decline’, Europe as ‘the shrinking continent’, and Iran as ‘menace in the Middle East’, Turkey has swept the world stage as a posterchild of win-win international politics.
To its credit, this quasi-European, quasi-Middle Eastern regional bridge state has been able to do what no other country has done sustainably: maintain friendship and cooperation with the likes of America, Iran, and every kind of state in between.
In the face of global recession, Turkey’s economy has proven to be robust and ascendant. Despite fears of a traditionalist redefinition of the Turkish system, politics has remained as vibrant and pluralistic an arena as ever.
In what’s perhaps most novel to observers, Turkey’s reputation for global neutrality and cultural centralism is even allowing Turkey to reimagine its role in the world’s increasingly multipolar power structure. Citing US and EU preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Turkey has made ostensible successes in calling for new negotiations between Israel and Syria. And with established powers bound to inaction by old policy precedents, Turkey paired with Brazil to agree to certify a non-weapons Iranian nuclear program.
In short, Turkey’s new reputation as a player with a vision definitely holds some water. Just ask master publicist Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Then again, he’d be leaving out a lot. Like most new darlings of the political community, Turkey’s image in the press has rarely strayed from stirling. It’d be fairly willing to believe it, but for the unlikely warning of one Turkish friend at Harvard – who agrees with the general trend, but offers some opposing insights.
According to my friend, who describes himself as “neither fully Middle Eastern and nor fully European,” the Western media are systematically unaware that “Turkey’s not just [shifting to the East] for a better foreign policy.” Rather, the ruling Justice and Development party has tried to play on its conservative Islamist base in accordance with the idea that “it’s always easy to bash on Israel is to gain popularity as a leader.”

He continued to explain that often, Turkey’s new alignment with powers in the Islamic world makes less practical sense than imagined. I’m reminded that Turkey’s most vibrant trade regime is conducted with the West, and yet the current government of “Turkey has voted no on the resolution that imposed sanctions on Iran even when China and Russia have joined with the US.”
I’m finally told that the most instructive example of Turkey’s shift can be found in the notorious Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, in which Turkish activists were killed in an attempt to breach the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. He takes no issue with Turkey’s demand for an apology from the Israeli government, but explained to me that he’s sometimes disturbed by Prime Minister Erdogan’s “unnecessarily emotional rhetoric.”
Not so different from how Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu framed it to us a few weeks ago. But my friend tells me that beyond the reach of Western media sources, Davutoglu’s message isn’t so agreeable. Turkish media outlets, however, do seem to have picked up on the takeaway of his post-flotilla meeting with a conference of Arab foreign ministers: “Jerusalem will be our capital.”
Hardly sounds like the guy offering to mediate Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
As it is, many in foreign policy have long suspected that the Turkish flotilla event was, at the very least, enabled by the Turkish government for reasons other than the humanitarian. I’m told that the fracas erupted almost in perfect coincidence with a national opposition leader’s peak in the polls. To the natural benefit of conservative incumbents, the next few days saw protestors in Istanbul benefit using “Islamic rhetoric rather than talking about humanitarian concerns.”
Hardly sounds like the media darling at harmony with its motley crew of neighbors. Yes, Turkey’s doing quite well. The one-time “pivotal state” has indeed grown and networked its way to “emergent power.” But until the Turkish state can begin to divest its foreign policy from domestic apprehensions about Israel and imperialism, the world would do best to stop fawning so hard.
After all, Turkey might not be quite as hot as we thought.

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