Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Erdogan does DC

Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan is in Washington, D.C. for meetings with American officials and a number of public and private appearances along the DC circuit.

Unfortunately I'm too snowed under with work to actually go to any of them -- but I wish I could, because there's probably no more interesting figure in Middle East diplomacy these days. Erdogan has been charting a new course for Turkish foreign policy which has sparked noisy popular acclaim with Arab publics, wary observation from Arab leaders, and jittery anxiety among many Israelis.

Turkey's shifting Middle Eastern role is one of those factors which really could shake up long-standing patterns in a number of ways.

Erdogan, of course, heads the government of the mildly Islamist AKP. The electoral success and governing style of the AKP has proven absolutely fascinating to many in the Arab world. I've had many conversations with, and read hundreds of papers and op-eds by, Muslim Brotherhood members keen to figure out the lessons of the AKP's success. As a model of workable political Islam, the AKP offers an important model -- if a dual-edged one.

Many Turkish secularists continue to sound the alarm bells of creeping Islamism, complaining that even if the AKP is committed to democracy it is using its governing power to radically reshape Turkish political culture and governing principles. These strike me as healthy debates and normal politics, though, not the stuff of political apocalypse.

Erdogan burst into a new level of Arab popularity with his much publicized outburst at Davos, when he stormed off a panel with Shimon Peres in protest over Gaza as Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa sat by bemusedly. This demonstration captivated Arab audiences and become the talk of Arab politics for weeks.

Turkish diplomacy has built effectively on Erdogan's sudden personal popularity by seeking a more active and independent diplomatic role. Its diplomacy in many ways resembles that of Qatar, also an important American ally which has found considerable popularity with Arab public opinion. Like Qatar, Turkey explicitly and determinedly talks to both sides of the great Arab political divide, maintaining relations with Israel and the United States while also engaging regularly with Syria and Iran. It isn't for nothing that Turkey was well-positioned to mediate the secret Syrian-Israeli talks last year.

If this reorientation has earned Erdogan and Turkey applause in the Arab world, it has naturally provoked some serious criticism among Israelis and those committed to the Israeli-Turkish alliance (especially after its cancelation of a scheduled war game with Israel in October). I've seen an endless deluge of opeds filled with ominous warnings of Turkey's dangerous new path, rising anti-Americanism, the AKP's creeping Islamism, its alleged turn to a radical Islamist foreign policy. And don't think that Arab regimes, suspicious and fearful of their own Islamist movements, aren't fearful of the AKP's example and worried about the intrusion of a new, unpredictable diplomatic player into their turf.

I find this all overblown. Turkey's turn to a more active Middle East role was driven, I'd guess, as much by the effective closing of the door to European Union membership as it was by Erdogan's Islamism (the AKP was a strong advocate of EU membership when that was a viable option, hardly the marker of a radical Islamist agenda). It has played a more constructive role in Iraq, after tensions spiked over Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq because of alleged PKK safe havens there.

Its distancing from Israel is, from what I can tell from a distance, broadly popular with Turkish public opinion -- especially after the Gaza war. And it appears that Turkey and Israel have rebuilt their working relationship over the last few weeks.

Turkey's cultivation of good relations across the spectrum makes perfect sense for a player on the periphery without a direct stake in old battle lines which wants to maximize its diplomatic clout. And it is potentially extremely useful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Turkey is exactly the sort of player which the Obama foreign policy needs: one able to talk to both sides of deeply rooted conflicts, while maintaining its credibility and protecting its own interests.

Turkey can mediate Syrian-Israeli talks in a way which no Arab country could (I heard a rumor a few weeks back, which I couldn't confirm, that Syria was actually urging Turkey to rebuild its ties with Israel so that it could resume an effective mediation role). Turkey can bridge the gap with Iran in ways which few Arab states could -- and without the vulnerabilities of, say, a Qatar.

So I regret not having time to see Erdogan while he's in town. Turkish foreign policy is one of those wild cards which really could shake things up, bridge old divides, and introduce new possibilities. Obama's diplomacy should be creative and subtle enough to take advantage of those opportunities, and to maintain a strong alliance in new conditions.

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