Terms of Engagement

Turkish Dilemma

Once a reliable Western ally, Turkey is now going its own way in the Middle East. And nobody in Washington or Brussels knows what to do about it.


My son wants to study a non-European language that’s going to matter in the future. He has been contemplating Arabic or Hindi. But after the last few weeks, I’m thinking — Turkish. All of a sudden, everyone wants to know about Turkey — and it turns out almost no one does. There’s no real mystery in that: Americans tend to benignly neglect other countries until they become a problem. And until just the other day, Turkey was a fun tourist destination; now it’s a problem.

Turkey has thrust itself into the American national consciousness by working with Brazil to broker a nuclear deal with Iran, which the United States viewed as unhelpful, at best; by voting (along with Brazil) against Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran; and by assailing Israel in the aftermath of the deadly attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla. Senior Obama administration officials have begun to worry that the West has "lost" Turkey; Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently fretted that Turkey is "moving eastward" and blamed the European Union for blocking Turkey’s aspiration for membership. The Wall Street Journal editorial page goes a step or three further and accuses Ankara of throwing in its lot with the fundamentalists and the Israel-haters.

Turkey didn’t set out to be a problem. Over the course of the last decade, the country’s diplomats seem to have taken a leaf from China, whose doctrine of "peaceful rise" dictated harmonious relations along its borders and a relatively low profile in global diplomacy. Turkey’s policy of "zero problems toward neighbors" smoothed away conflict with Middle Eastern partners, including both Israel and Iran. Through a series of bilateral agreements, Turkey has established a visa-free zone, and it hopes to establish a free trade zone in much of the area once occupied by the Ottoman Empire — without, as a Turkish diplomat pointed out to me, seeking to re-create Ottoman hegemony.

But success breeds confidence and makes yesterday’s modesty seem like undue timidity. Beijing, which once hid behind the skirts of the Non-Aligned Movement, now openly confronts Washington on both economic and military issues. And Turkey, no longer content to reduce friction along its borders, dreams of bringing a new order to the Middle East. "[T]he world expects great things from Turkey," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has written on this website.

He might be wrong there, but what’s clear is that Turkey expects great things from itself. Turkey may well have overplayed its hand by forcing Barack Obama’s administration to choose between its two closest allies in the Middle East — Turkey and Israel — but Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear to have decided that they would rather overplay their hand than underplay it.

Perhaps all emerging powers reach this inflection point, where nationalistic pride almost compels overreaching. (See under: Brazil.) But Turkey is the only emerging power located in the Middle East, a region where supreme global conflicts play themselves out. A peaceful rise in East Asia is no great feat, but try living next to Iraq and Iran without antagonizing somebody. The Turks infuriated George W. Bush’s administration by refusing to let U.S. troops invade Iraq through their territory. Had they acquiesced, they would have outraged their neighbors instead. Nor could Turkey’s remarkably warm relations with Israel survive long at a time when the Israeli government is seen as utterly intransigent toward the Palestinians; the Gaza-bound flotilla was only the last straw. Turkey’s aspirations for regional leadership virtually compelled the break with Israel. That had nothing to do with Ankara’s rejection by the European Union.

Turkey is also a democracy in a region where the United States is incredibly unpopular. Ordinary Egyptians hate U.S. policy, but autocratic President Hosni Mubarak feels free to ignore popular opinion. The same is true of Saudi Arabia, the United States’ other major regional ally. Indeed, the central paradox of President Bush’s policy of democracy promotion in the Middle East is that it might have been a disaster for U.S. interests had it succeeded among America’s allies — which, of course, it didn’t. In the latest survey by the Pew Research Center, 14 percent of Turks had a favorable view of the United States. (The figure in Egypt was 27 percent.) Turkish leaders can no more afford to ignore antipathy toward the United States, or Israel, than American leaders can ignore popular anger at Iran. Instead, they have stoked that anger through increasingly fierce attacks on Israel, led by Erdogan himself. "The government in Turkey has decided that the policy of confrontation with Israel suits it both domestically and regionally," says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And history has propelled Turkey forward. The rise of new states has loosened the West’s epochal grip on global economic, military, and political power. Additionally, the Middle East has been remade. Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, recently observed that in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, Arab leaders reorganized the Middle East as the Arab world; owing to the weakness of Arab states and then to the toppling of the Iraqi regime, that system has come to an end. Setting aside Israel, the big Middle Eastern powers are now the once-marginalized non-Arab ones: Iran and Turkey. And unlike Iran or any of the Arab states, Turkey has a great story to tell: not the reconstitution of the Ottoman Empire, but the rise of a democratic, free market state in the Islamic world of the Middle East. Salem described Turkey as "the only country in the Middle East actually pointing toward the future." That is what is known as soft power.

So yes, young people: Do learn Turkish. Turkey has the world’s 17th-largest economy and expects to be No. 10 before long. Some pundits and scholars would like to see the United States move toward Turkey rather than the other way around. In his new book, Reset, Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent, argues that the three non-Arab powers of the Middle East — the United States, Iran, and Turkey — constitute a "tantalizing ‘power triangle.’" Kinzer would have Iran and Turkey replace Israel and Saudi Arabia as key U.S. allies in the region. Perhaps the Turks entertain the same dreams.

That’s not going to happen. The White House is not going to leave Israel in the lurch, even if the right fears it and realists like Kinzer hope for it. But the real beef between the United States and Turkey is Iran: Barkey observes that Erdogan does not understand that for Obama, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a fundamental issue, not a matter of regional power. One administration official with whom I spoke said that the Turks "have a very high opinion of their role in the world" and seem blithely unaware that they are provoking a backlash on Capitol Hill.

What then? To say that Turkey doesn’t want to be a problem is only to say that Erdogan wants to have his cake and eat it, too: to court public opinion in Turkey and the region by targeting Israel, to satisfy nationalist aspirations by making a separate peace with Iran — but not to pay a price with the United States or Europe. The Turks profess bafflement at the harsh reception their diplomatic forays have received in the West. This is either naive or disingenuous. Still, what price will Turkey have to pay? Maybe the White House won’t try to stop Congress from passing a resolution accusing Turkey of having perpetrated genocide against Armenia (though it probably will). More seriously, Erdogan and Davutoglu are playing into the hands of Europeans who oppose Turkey’s aspirations for EU membership. Nevertheless, they might have more to gain than lose by playing to the Middle Eastern street — especially if they have concluded that the European Union won’t accept them anyway.

The problem for White House policymakers is different. This administration is prepared to take counsel from rising powers. This is a G-20, not a G-8, White House. "We’re trying to give them their place in the sun," says the official with whom I spoke. But how can they accord Turkey its place in the sun without acceding to a view of the Middle East that Washington does not and will not accept? "When you come up with that," the official told me, "let me know."

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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