In his rise to power, Turkish President Erdogan won popular support by showing independence in foreign affairs but then got caught up in his own grand ambitions, including support for violent “regime change” in Syria, setting the stage for an electoral rebuke, as ex-CIA officer Graham E. Fuller explains.
By Graham E. Fuller
It was welcome news that Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan was dramatically foiled in his bid to win a majority in Turkey’s recent parliamentary elections. Those elections were in essence a referendum on ErdoÄŸan himself and his ambitions to create a super-presidency in which he could legally extend his increasingly authoritarian ruling style for years to come.
The Turkish public clearly recognized that ErdoÄŸan had overextended himself and had lost his touch in the increasing self-adulation and erratic ruling style over the past few years. The AKP, even with a plurality of votes, will not now be able to form a government without the participation of one or more opposition political parties.
Washington, which had grown increasingly irritated with ErdoÄŸan’s policies and unpredictable style in recent years, now hopes that a new Turkish government, even a coalition, will significantly change Turkey’s foreign policy strategies and tactics.
Don’t bet on it. Despite ErdoÄŸan’s personal excesses and recent poor judgment in foreign policy, the main thrust of his earlier foreign policies is unlikely to change significantly. While we can’t know yet what kind of ruling coalition will emerge in the weeks ahead, no combination will dramatically change the substance of Turkish policies.
In my book of last year, Turkey and the Arab Spring: Turkey and Leadership in the Middle East, I set forth detailed arguments for why AKP foreign policy in its first decade of rule (up until the turmoil of the Arab Spring) represented a new, profound, substantive, and permanent strategic shift in Turkey’s foreign policy vision.
What are those key elements of AKP strategy?
–As a “lite” Islamist party, the AKP moved to embrace and celebrate Turkey’s Islamic heritage and identity, much to the approbation of a majority of Turks; that identity had been suppressed under previous decades of imposed, official, authoritarian secularism that alienated large segments of the traditional Turkish population. The AKP moved to acknowledge and embrace Turkey’s central role in the past centuries of Middle Eastern history in the form of the Ottoman Empire. In this sense it represented “the return of history”, Turkey’s re-acknowledgment of itself as, among other things, a Middle Eastern culture.
–The AKP moved to distance itself from key U.S. policies in the Middle East which it had judged to be flawed, failing, and, above all, harmful to Turkey’s own interests: U.S. refusals to negotiate or deal with its chief opponents in the region (Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq); coupled with the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; and U.S. unconditional backing of Israel).
–Foreign Minister DavutoÄŸlu proclaimed a new policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” That meant abandoning its long-term ideological hostility against virtually all of Turkey’s neighbors and working to reach accommodation on all bilateral issues where possible. Ankara’s new relations were revolutionized in respect to Iran, Syria, Iraq, Hamas, Hezbollah, as well as with Russia and China, efforts that were hugely successful in promoting Turkish economic and political interests in these regions.
“Zero problems with neighbors” actually embraced a new ideological open-mindedness and flexibility, very much at odds with U.S. policies that were quick to brand countries and leaders as enemies; in DavutoÄŸlu’s view, how you address another country can heavily influence your relations with it.
–A new sensitivity to Arab issues and a desire to witness the spread of democratic values whose absence DavutoÄŸlu saw as a key source of the region’s weakness. But Turkey nonetheless accepted existing rulers of the day as a reality.
–A “global” vision of Turkey’s place in the world that included a Eurasian dimension (close relations with Russia, China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Central Asian states), expansion of interests and ties into Africa (especially Muslim Africa), and even early forays into Latin America. Turkey proclaimed its interest in preserving Islamic culture across the Muslim world and bolstering Islamic development.
–Ankara encouraged the spread of high-quality Turkish schools in over 100 countries under the aegis of Fethullah GÃ¼len’s huge Islamic civic organization Hizmet (Service) whose vision openly championed building schools, not mosques, as the best way to advance the Muslim world as a whole.
(Ironically, ErdoÄŸan later came to feel threatened by the Islamic credentials and growing power of Hizmet, especially in its willingness to call out the AKP government on corruption issues; ErdoÄŸan has since proceeded to demonize his former ally and conduct an hysterical and obsessive witch hunt against it.)
In short, Turkey saw itself as becoming a significant major player with a broad visionary foreign policy while its economy attained the position of number 16 in the world, becoming a new international hub. Turkey was democratic, it removed the military from politics for the first time ever, had a powerful army that was part of NATO, all while bidding to meet EU criteria for membership.
Most Muslim states would have given their eye teeth for accomplishments like this, especially when coupled with AKP’s confidence in being able to still say no to the U.S. on key foreign policy issues.
Whatever new government emerges in Turkey, these milestones will almost surely persist. Turkey is never going back to being a “loyal American ally.” It will never again deny its Islamic identity (although it will likely downplay some of the Islamic rhetoric).
It will not destroy the valuable international network of Hizmet schools. It will not reject the foundations of Turkey’s broad political, economic and cultural soft and hard power. Turkey will not cease to be the most important Muslim country in the world, without benefit of oil.
But then Turkey’s foreign policy went off the rails with the roller coaster events of the Arab Spring. (So did America’s). It could not decide whether to deal with existing realities, or to push for democratic change that would alienate authoritarian rulers.
ErdoÄŸan’s personal prestige got particularly caught up in overthrowing Bashar al-Assad in Syria at all cost, a massive mistake. A new government will likely walk back from that blunder. A new government will also be less sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood (but will not condemn it.) It will work with Iran as a vitally important neighbor. It will not give up its Eurasian (Russian, Chinese) ties. It will maintain its strategic independence from Washington.
So we should welcome the curtailing of much of ErdoÄŸan’s new and dangerous megalomania and personal ambitions. But don’t expect any new government to introduce dramatic changes in foreign policy either.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle). [This article originally appeared at grahamefuller.com]