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Turkish Tango: Foreign Policy Dance in Ankara Requires Attention

SOURCE: AP/Tolga Bozoglu

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, left, talks to the media with his Brazilian counterpart Celso Amorim in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, July 25, 2010. Davutoğlu and Amorim voted in support of a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear standoff.

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When NATO agreed on its new strategic concept this past weekend in Lisbon, the Turkish government made sure that Iran was not singled out as a threat to the alliance. Even though the much discussed missile shield was initiated because of Iran’s nuclear program and the country’s aggressive posture and destabilizing role in the region, Turkey has won a symbolic victory after engaging in a salsa-like side-stepping exercise in the run-up to this year’s summit—again.

Turkey’s reluctance to agree listing Syria and Iran or even the Middle East in general as threats to the NATO alliance raises the stakes for Turkey within the alliance after last year’s clash with its European allies. At NATO’s 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg in 2009, Turkey fought the nomination of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the organization’s new secretary general. Demands for his election reportedly included the appointment of a Turk as an aide to Fogh Rasmussen, senior NATO command positions for Turkish generals, and the closing of a Kurdish television station based in Denmark.

Now, new trouble over the missile shield is already showing on the horizon. NATO needs to reach consensus before 2012 about who will command the defense shield and where radars and technical equipment will be deployed. If the Turks keep dancing the tango with their NATO allies, it will offer conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic yet another opportunity to question the country’s commitment to one of the few functional alliances of the 21st century. It also raises a more crucial concern: Does the Turkish leadership see the longer-term strategic cost of its short-term ideological steps?

Tango is a complicated dance. Based on the fusion of musical styles from different continents it carries the traditions of African slaves as well as working-class and immigrant experiences of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. When the dance moves made it into the middle class, the footwork became more complex and theatric—allowing even the embrace to open for short moments to draw attention to the syncopated steps.

Turkish foreign policy reminds one of a tango these days even though the country is neither moving nor shifting as extremely as some conservative pundits would portray it. Turkey’s formerly close embrace with NATO and the United States is, however, opening every once in a while to proudly display the footwork of the agile Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s hallmark “zero problem policy,” reminding the audience of the strategic depth of the newest Turkish moves.

In recent conversations with CAP President and CEO John Podesta, Prime Minister Erdoğan, President Gül, and Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan all insisted that the United States constitutes the main focus of Turkish diplomacy, that the two countries agree on 90 percent of their foreign policy, and that Turkey-U.S. relations are meaningful, despite occasional tensions. This is a fair assessment of where Turkey and the United States stand, which is why it is important not to jump to simplistic conclusions based on the past disagreements as is done by some conservatives.

Moving with the speed he does, Davutoğlu has stepped on a number of toes and some of these current dissonances are caused by the continuous Turkish solos that increase the frustrations even of U.S. administration officials that understand Turkey and vigorously defend the need to make the model partnership work. The outlook is not brightened by the fact that Prime Minister Erdoğan recently announced that national elections will be held on June 12, 2011, possibly making the relationship with Israel a campaign issue.

During the Clinton administration, the U.S.-Turkey relationship was on a good track. President Clinton’s wildly successful Turkey visit shortly after the disastrous Izmit earthquake in 1999 set a positive tone in the relationship but the following years have not been good. During the Bush administration bilateral relations soured mostly because of the U.S.’s single-minded pursuit of the Iraq war, in which Turkey seemed only to figure as a launch pad for the military campaign.

The Obama administration’s strategy to rectify past mistakes is in both countries’ best interests and there is a solid base upon which to build the partnership that President Obama hailed during his visit to Ankara in 2009. The Turkish contributions to U.S. and allied interest in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan are often undervalued but they are substantial. Over the past three years Turkey has hosted five trilateral diplomatic sessions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the most recent taking place this summer.

President Gül visited Pakistan in April 2010 and pledged to improve strategic ties between the two countries, and set a goal of reaching $5 billion in trade by 2012. More importantly, Turkey currently has about 1,800 soldiers in Afghanistan, leads the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Wardak and Jawzjan provinces, and has contributed about $2 million to the Afghan National Army’s trust fund. A March 2010 plan called for the dispatch of 3,000 Afghani police officers annually to Jordan and Turkey for nine months of instruction.

In Iraq, Turkey’s business community is significantly engaged in reconstructing infrastructure in the country’s north and is playing a crucial role in stabilizing the war-torn society. Sixty percent of all foreign companies operating in Northern Iraq are Turkish and the bilateral trade is estimated at $5 billion. A High Level Strategic Cooperation Council between the two countries is up and running and during an October 2009 meeting, 48 cooperation agreements in a number of areas were signed, including cooperation on energy and water resources.

Even though U.S. and Turkish strategies regarding Iran may differ, President Gül insisted in a recent conversation that the target remains the same in the end. He added that Turkey definitely does not want to see weapons of mass destruction in our neighborhood, an outcome that, according to him would cause greater concerns for Turkey than for the United States.

This comes after Davutoğlu negotiated a preliminary deal with the Iranian government earlier this year on uranium enrichment in an attempt to stamp the country’s ticket for the diplomatic big league. Yet Turkey and its compañero Brazil ended up being the only dissenters among a total of 15 Security Council members when it came time to sanction Iran in June of this year. Turkey’s vote against the measure simultaneously distanced the country from the United States and the global community. However, given the challenging experiences with wars in the region since 1990, this Turkish position needs to be recognized. As a consequence, the Obama administration is currently reassessing the role Turkey can play to bring Iran into a mutually acceptable deal over its nuclear program.

The impact of the vote and recent activities in and with Iran are compounded by the deterioration of the Turkish-Israeli relationship. After a decade of fairly close cooperation and major Turkish investment in bringing Syria and Israel closer to direct peace talks, the liaison of the Mediterranean democracies went into a staccato. The Gaza War in December 2008—which interrupted those mediation efforts—was read in Turkey as an Israeli vote of no confidence.

The conflict got even more personal with the infamous collision of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israel’s President Shimon Peres during a discussion in Davos in January 2009 and Israel’s snubbing and later apology to Turkey’s ambassador to Israel in January 2010. The flotilla incident that left eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American man dead when several ships tried to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip was the grand finale of disillusionment and demonstrated a breathtaking lack of strategic foresight by all involved.

Things are more complicated when it comes to Israel. Attitudes have hardened on both sides with the Turkish political leadership communicating the bottom line in harsh, diplomatic, or sophisticated versions, depending upon the interlocutor. The Turkish position can be summarized as follows: We will not backtrack from the key demands that Israel must apologize for the nine deaths in the Flotilla incident and has to pay compensation to the families of the dead. Obviously, the government is sure to have the chorus of Turkish public opinion humming along.

In Israel, dissenting opinions regarding Turkey are few and far apart. Alarmism over Turkey’s current role, regionally as well as bilaterally, is quickly becoming a majority view, facilitating a convenient option to put all the blame on the Turkish side. The worrying part of this trend is that the resentment on both sides has started spilling over from the political sector into broader society, including business communities and the administration professionals.

It seems that the Israeli military and the leadership of the Turkish military have undertaken sustained efforts to stabilize the situation because the military tends to be pragmatic and issue-oriented in its approach. It’s clear that Turkish and Israeli security interests converge to a great degree, not only because of the proximity of the two countries, but also because they are both democracies that share certain interests that are not shared by other countries in the immediate neighborhood. A complicating factor is the internal debate between the military and political and civil sector within Turkey. For the first time in recent Turkish history the military’s influence on public affairs, politics, and the judiciary has been seriously curbed. While this is a positive and necessary development, it might lessen the trust Israeli administrations have traditionally placed into the Turkish military.

Hence, the overall outlook is not bright. It is doubtful that there is any chance to change this vector in the foreseeable future because relations between the two countries are held hostage by domestic politics. And it seems that on the Israeli side there is no inclination, no energy, and no intention to remedy this situation.

Such attitudes seem to be justified by recurrent Turkish rhetoric about Israel, including conspiracy theories with regard to the Kurdish separatist Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, the group’s acronym in Turkish, and the occasional juxtaposition of Israel and the “Muslim world” in terms of cultural incompatibility. In addition, Israel’s complicated decision-making processes are even more cumbersome in the current government.

Nor is it entirely clear where Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stands regarding Turkey. What is obvious, however, is that any conciliatory move by Israel would be difficult given the composition of Israel’s right-wing government.

Chances are slim that the U.N.-led or Israeli-led investigation processes of the flotilla crisis will provide an opening to bring the two regional powers together. The United Nations offers only an isolated channel of communication. And given the depth of the disagreement, any attempt to put the relationship back on track faces tremendous odds.

Here, the Turkish tango quickly lost its complexity and became unfashionable and even dull. The absence of strong notions of human rights and democracy in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s foreign policy is helping the country’s standing among the region’s autocrats. Often, regionalism trumps political compatibility when it comes to the attempts to build a close relationship with the regime in Syria that culminated in a joint cabinet meeting in the fall of 2009. The current Turkish government counters by arguing its role as an active diplomatic outpost and broker in a difficult region. Yet these brokering attempts have not rendered many tangible results so far and it remains an open question if and when the AKP government will decide to make Turkey into a real stakeholder in the region rather than simply maintain its new role as a facilitator—and the relationship with Israel will be a litmus test in this regard.

Left alone, however, Turkey and Israel will almost certainly not be able to initiate the necessary rapprochement, even though it is in both states’ national interests. The United States has a huge stake in such a rapprochement and must therefore help unfreeze the situation and support all efforts to change the current dynamic.

Needless to say, the U.S. administration would be in a much better position to do so if all its players were on the ground, but they are not. Even though preserving stability in the eastern Mediterranean is central to the U.S. national security interests, the U.S. Senate has so far failed to fill an important vacancy at the American embassy in Ankara. Even though the United States is ably represented by the current Charge d’Affaires, Douglas Silliman, the continuing holdup of Ambassador-to-be Frank Ricciardone’s confirmation by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) is incurring considerable damage.

Sen. Brownback’s reasons for doing so have the taste of payback because he is suggesting that Ricciardone “downplayed” the Bush administration’s pro-democracy efforts in Egypt during his time as ambassador in Cairo, and did not subscribe to working with Iraqi opposition groups before the U.S.-led invasion. Holding up a key ambassadorial appointment is yet another indicator that conservative leaders in Congress are tone deaf to the changed environment and the consequences of the Iraq invasion—some are still dancing the old polka to the new rhythm of a polyphonic world. (Ricciardone is not the only collateral damage of partisan politics. Robert Ford is being prevented from starting work in Syria and so is Matthew Bryza, the nominee for Azerbaijan.)

Given all these challenges, it is not entirely clear if or how the United States can address the downward trajectory of Turkish-Israeli relations, or even if it is wise for the United States to make a significant move on the issue right now. For one, other worries in the region may prevent it, especially because the Middle East peace process remains a significant obstacle and the countries involved in the process need to show their willingness to be serious players. Secondly, in light of the sensitive relationship between the White House and the current Israeli government, an effort that would require a more compromising attitude in Jerusalem could backfire.

In addition, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor seems to have signaled to the Israeli Prime Minister this week that Republicans might be an ally against their own president by stressing in a private meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu “that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington.” Given these potential stumbling blocks and the fact that the Palestinian-Israeli process is occupying the White House, other matters might take precedence over engaging Turkey and Israel.

So what is to be done to save Turkey and Israel from themselves? The political arena is contaminated for the time being, and military-to-military interactions have been given a good shaking by the overdue, but still jarring, revision of civil-military relations in Turkey. This leaves the business community, which is an important and too-often ignored driving factor behind the sometimes grandiose Turkish posture. But business needs a calculable environment.

The new entrepreneurial classes, which are supportive of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, are already trying to constrain Prime Minister Erdoğan from too much foreign policy adventurism. After all, the trade volume between the Turkey and Israel has more than doubled to $3.3 billion only six years after the AKP came to power. After slipping during the global economic crisis, trade recovered quickly in 2010 and rose by 24 percent in the first quarter—by August the growth was above 40 percent with its traditional anchor of defense and technology imports from Israel. The current political problems have led to a significant drop in Israeli tourism to Turkey and in October Israel’s tourism minister even called on Israel to boycott Turkey after the government reportedly labeled Israel as a “strategic threat.”

Given the chronic miscommunications between Israel and Turkey the goal is to find common ground for a strategic dialogue. Since economic exchange constitutes one of the most resilient parts of the relationship, it is an obvious place to look. Turkish leaders have been outspoken about enhancing the living standards of the Palestinian population in Gaza and (inexplicably less so) the West Bank. While one can debate Israel’s sincerity, Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that improving the Palestinian economy is an Israeli interest.

These positions might offer just enough room to work. At the second Palestinian Business Forum, held in Istanbul last month, Turkish State Minister for foreign trade Zafer Çağlayan asked the Turkish business community for greater investment in the Palestinian territories. The United States could make the Turkish-Israeli-Palestinian dimension part of the recently launched Turkey-U.S. business alliance. Israel would be able to highlight the improvements it has recently made to its Gaza policy as well as provide exceptions for Turkish goods that are allowed in or out, similar to the exception whereby Gaza producers have been allowed to export certain products to the Netherlands. The hope is that business elites are prepared to become the conductors and drivers for the common good of the region—and help smooth the pitfalls of the regional realignment that is taking place.

For the Obama administration this scenario provides challenges and opportunities at the same time. It can rebuild a relationship that has been neglected for almost a decade but needs to do so by acknowledging the new rhythm of international relations after the demise of a bipolar world. The opening of Turkish society has produced ambivalent results but by engaging in a coordinated way at different levels, including security, diplomacy, civil society, and the business community, the United States can take a lead role in the Turkish tango without bending over backwards. In addition, it could prevent the Turkish leadership from looking silly when it ends up trying to tango alone.

Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at American Progress where his work as a member of the National Security team focuses on climate migration and security as well as transatlantic foreign policy including Turkey.

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