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Turkey's Rise on World Stage Makes Waves in the West
The Washington Diplomat / January 2011

By Larry Luxner

Nine years ago, Namik Tan wrapped up his last tour of duty in Washington as first counselor at the Turkish Embassy and flew back to Ankara. Barely two weeks later, Muslim terrorists drove planes through the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Earlier this year, shortly after returning to Washington as Turkey’s ambassador, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution recognizing the World War I deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians as genocide — and Turkey angrily recalled Tan for consultations.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan eventually sent him back here, but the very next month, Israel attacked an aid flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip, killing eight Turkish citizens and a U.S. citizen of Turkish descent. The ensuing fallout between the two former allies sullied Ankara’s reputation on Capitol Hill while giving ammunition to neoconservatives who claim that Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are leading Turkey away from secular democracy and down the slippery slope to Islamic extremism.

And all that was before Turkey opposed United Nations sanctions against Iran — after brokering its own Iranian deal with Brazil that was promptly dismissed by Western powers — and half a year before WikiLeaks released a trove of U.S. State Department cables in late November suggesting, among other things, that Erdoğan is a power-hungry, paranoid Islamist who surrounds himself with “sycophantic,” contemptuous and incompetent advisors.

Oh, the documents also say that Erdoğan has an “unbridled ambition stemming from the belief God has anointed him to lead Turkey” and likes to present himself as the “Tribune of Anatolia.” Not exactly a flattering portrayal.

All in all, it’s been one crisis after another for Tan, a veteran Turkish diplomat who did little to hide his frustration or displeasure during an interview over breakfast in early November.

“The United States that I found after relocating here is different than the United States I left in 2001,” Tan told us. “I think the trauma of 9/11 is still alive, and it’s affected the American people in unprecedented ways. I found that they have started to develop some paranoid reactions. This is so unfortunate.”

Speaking with The Washington Diplomat for over an hour, Tan said, “America is the only country on the face of the earth where you won’t feel like a foreigner once you get in. This country is known for its great democracy, tolerance and freedom — and these assets should be preserved.”

Yet lately, Tan says, that tolerance is being drowned out by the paranoia he sees all around him.

“All the energy on the streets is lost on security,” he complained. “This economic downturn, coupled with the whole trauma of 9/11, makes peoples’ lives difficult, especially for foreigners. How could you imagine an ambassador taking off his shoes in an airport? This is too much.”

Likewise, the paranoia over Turkey — and perennial worrying about whether it’s drifting away from the West and toward the East — is just too much, he says.

Tan lamented the fact that even American officials who should know much better often have misconceptions about Turkey — a predominantly Muslim nation of 75 million inhabitants that straddles a strategic position between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, enjoys one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and is considered an emerging world power.

“Let me tell you a story,” the ambassador said, sipping on his tiny cup of thick Turkish coffee. “When I was assigned to be ambassador here, I was already deputy undersecretary for the Americas [at the Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry]. Before coming to Washington, we applied for visas, and my son was denied. I asked why, because he spent almost 16 years here and had graduated from McLean High School and George Mason University” — thanks to Tan’s previous diplomatic posting in D.C.

“They told me he had made an ‘erratic departure’ from the U.S., that he didn’t fill out the right form when he left the country,” the ambassador recalled with a look of indignation on his face. “So did that qualify him to be a terrorist? It was ridiculous. I mean, this was my son, for God’s sake. He’s spent more of his life in the United States than in Turkey.”

The error was immediately fixed, but the snafu illustrates what many Muslims fear is growing Islamophobia in the United States — at the same time that policymakers in Washington fret that historically secular Turkey is now, under Erdoğan’s AKP, turning away from the West and embracing radical Islamic states like Iran and Syria.

“This is a foreign policy challenge of the first order because it is important for the United States, NATO and the Western allies to figure out a way to engage a country like Turkey on many, many different levels and make it a success story,” said Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, which sponsored a Nov. 10 conference on U.S.-Turkish relations — conferences that have lately become something of a cottage industry in Washington.

“The way we talk about Turkey in the West,” he said, “thinking that religion or Islam or Islamic political organizations may be the root cause of the changes, I think, is applying a faulty perspective.”

Adds James Traub, writing in Foreign Policy: “It’s a caricature to say that Turkey has chosen the Middle East, or Islam, over the West. Turkey’s aspirations for full membership in the club of the West, including the European Union, is still a driving force.

But Turkey aspires to many things, and some may contradict each other. The country wants to be a regional power in a region deeply suspicious of the West, of Israel and of the United States.”

Despite the seemingly endless speculation about Ankara’s true intentions, the government has spelled out its overriding philosophy pretty clearly over the last few years with its “zero problems” foreign policy — originally articulated by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who says the country’s policies are based on “a realistic, rational analysis of the strategic picture.”

“We don’t want to be a frontier country like in the Cold War,” Davutoğlu told New York Times columnist Richard Cohen in late October. “We don’t want problems with any neighbor.” As a result, Turkey is becoming much more neighborly, as Cohen detailed in the article “Turkey Steps Out.”

“Annual trade with Russia has since soared to $40 billion. Syrian-Turkish relations have never been better. Turkey’s commercial sway over northern Iraq is overwhelming. It has signed a free trade agreement with Jordan. And now Turkey says it aims — United Nations sanctions notwithstanding — to triple trade with Iran over the next five years,” he wrote.

The ambassador told The Diplomat that Turkey’s economic policies have put it in an enviable position. In fact, the Turks barely feel the global recession at all. Turkey’s gross domestic product soared by 11.7 percent in the first quarter of 2010, and 10.3 percent in the second.

“Turkey is now a booming economy in every sector,” Tan boasted. “Worldwide, we’re in second place in GDP growth after China.”

Commensurate with that economic strength, Turkey is ready to take its place as an influential world player — not surprising given its position as a Muslim democracy located at a geopolitical crossroads in the midst of some of the world’s most intractable crises.

Yet when Ankara tried to help defuse one of those crises, it was quickly rebuffed by the West. Relations with the United States tumbled after Turkey — along with Brazil — helped to broker a deal last May to reprocess up to 1,200 kilograms of Iran’s low-enriched uranium for peaceful purposes. The United States immediately denounced the move as ineffective and instead pushed forward a set of stringent new economic sanctions against Tehran that were backed by the U.N. Security Council — and which Turkey loudly opposed, exposing a rift in strategy when it comes to the Iranian nuclear dilemma.

“For the first time in history, the Islamic Republic of Iran has committed itself on paper to negotiations on the nuclear issue thanks to our efforts,” Tan contends. “Despite all the arguments against Iran, this is the reality. We never claimed we would solve this problem, but we have created a medium for negotiations.”

He added that “today, everybody including the United States is trying to build upon this. We have discussed extensively and in detail every effort with our American friends. So the criticism of Turkey’s efforts is really hard for us to understand.”

More recently, however, the West showed some signs of warming up to the idea of Turkish assistance to break the impasse with Iran, having agreed to schedule the next round of international talks in late January in Istanbul.

Cohen of the New York Times agrees that the country offers the West a diplomatic opportunity. “Turkey can be the West’s conduit to the Muslim world if Washington can bury its pique. The new Turkey won’t abandon NATO or its American alliance: If NATO wants to talk to the Taliban, or the West to Iran, it can help.”

Yet not everyone sees Turkey’s newfound self-confidence as helpful. Indeed, the country’s diplomatic muscle flexing has been met with the consternation from American and European officials who worry it comes at the expense of their regional interests.

For its part, however, Europe may only have itself to blame. It’s clear Turkey is actively looking elsewhere for partners after the European Union’s less-than-enthusiastic response to the country’s quixotic journey to join the 27-member bloc — an elusive goal that had defined Ankara’s foreign policy for years. “The E.U.’s rejection of Turkey, a hugely bad move, has been a key factor prompting Turkey to move closer to Iran and the Arab world,” argues New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Tan says membership is still a priority, but for now, Turkish business executives seem more interested in Baghdad than in Brussels.

“Turkey is trying to improve living standards for its people. That’s why we will continue looking toward the West,” said the ambassador. “Our complaint is this: We think the EU is very slow in embracing Turkey, even though we have met all their standards.

“They think that when we join this union, we’ll take our share from the existing cake. What we are saying is that when we become a full member, the cake will become bigger and then we’ll take our share. They should understand that Turkey would be a big asset for the EU.”

On Sept. 12, Turkish voters approved a sweeping package of constitutional reforms aimed at bringing the nation’s military-imposed constitution in line with European standards of law and democracy. The package of 26 constitutional amendments passed with 58 percent of the vote, in what was widely seen as a referendum on the government of Erdoğan. Nearly 36 million Turks — 77 percent of eligible voters — cast ballots in the referendum, which analysts say will have profound consequences for Turkey’s general elections this spring.

But opponents of the amendments say the vote was no more than a power grab aimed at undermining the secular state established in 1923 by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

“The suggested changes are nothing more than the ruling party trying to convert institutions that do not favor their government, closer to their side. After these changes, all we would be left with would be a system lacking checks and balances,” wrote columnist Sedat Ergin of Hurriyet Daily News shortly before the referendum.

“My neoconservative friends argue that Turkey needs more democracy,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I agree, though I don’t believe that Turkey needs more democracy because Prime Minister Erdoğan is in the thrall of the Iranian president or Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Rather, Turkey is in the intermediate stage of a transition to democracy, which means that it will more often than not manifest both democratic and authoritarian tendencies.”

Also commenting on the “unresolved state” of Turkey’s democracy, Foreign Policy’s Traub pointed out that, “Eight years after Erdoğan gained power, secular Turks continue to doubt his commitment, and that of the ruling AKP, to human rights, tolerance, and the rule of law. Although many of the people I spoke to saw the country’s recent constitutional referendum — which among other things reduced the power of the army over the judiciary — as a further consolidation of Turkish democracy, plenty of others viewed it as a dangerous ploy by the AKP to increase its control over the state.”

On the whole though, Traub argues that the West and secular Turks should welcome the country’s evolution. “But Turkey is not content with being the brightest star in its benighted neighborhood; it wants to play on the world stage,” he cautions. “And that ambition may force Turkey to find a new balance among its competing identities.”

And in its neighborhood, probably the most conflicted relationship Turkey has is with Israel — which has many people concerned that Erdoğan is sacrificing a critical partnership to make himself look like a popular hero in the Arab world.

In fact, Turkey’s image in the United States, and especially among pro-Israel members of Congress, took an enormous hit after its Gaza flotilla confrontation with Israel last summer. Tan, a 54-year-old seasoned diplomat from Antakya, has a unique perspective on that crisis: He spent three years before coming to Washington as Turkey’s ambassador in Tel Aviv.

“I have so many friends in Israel, and they will continue to be my friends,” said Tan, who speaks a smattering of Hebrew in addition to fluent English, Russian and of course his native Turkish. “We are not against the Israeli people. But this is not the issue. How can a country just turn a blind eye to the killing of its own people? This was done in international waters, in total breach of international law. Nine people were killed, one of them an American citizen. How can we just forget this?”

The May 31 incident that so deeply infuriates Tan and most of the Arab and Muslim world was sparked when a motley crew of 663 activists from 37 countries — including members of several known terrorist organizations and, conversely, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust — attempted to sail a flotilla of six ships carrying aid to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in defiance of an Israeli maritime blockade.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to deliver the aid to Gaza if the ships would dock instead at the Israeli port of Ashdod, but flotilla organizers refused — precipitating a violent clash between Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and activists on board the largest ship, the MV Mavi Marmara.

Nine Turks were killed in the ensuing bloodshed, which succeeded in getting Israel to relax the blockade but sparked riots in the streets of Istanbul and further ruptured diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül, saying the IDF raid marked the first attack against Turkish citizens by a foreign military force in the republic’s 87-year history, recalled Turkey’s ambassador from Tel Aviv and demanded an apology from the Netanyahu government.

Tan, who told The Diplomat he’s lobbying members of “the powerful Jewish-American community” on this issue, warned, “Israel should remember that it’s about to lose one of its most important friends. Our relationship with the Jews goes back 500 years, and Turkey was the second country after the United States to recognize Israel’s independence.

“Turkish-Israeli relations are critically important for the peace and stability of this region. We’re a Muslim country and that makes us quite different,” he added. “What we expect from our Israeli friends is an apology and compensation. Nothing is more natural or fair. They should apologize to us as quickly as possible.”

Turkey’s offer of assistance to tackle Israel’s deadly forest fire in December was a step toward mending ties, and the two are said to be hashing out an agreement to end the friction, but it’s clear that resentment lingers on both sides.

“If it was only incidental, Israel would have apologized, or at least shown its regret in a more public way. However, in the last two or three years, Turkey has been conducting a campaign to delegitimize Israel. Therefore, Israel cannot apologize,” counters Anat Lapidot-Firilla, head of the Mediterranean program at Israel’s Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and a professor of Turkish foreign policy at Hebrew University.

“The Turks have played a very destructive role here,” added Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar at the D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center. “Erdoğan’s motives go well beyond the flotilla. He’s unhappy with [Turkey’s failure to achieve] entry into the European Union. Turkey’s role in NATO has fundamentally changed as a consequence of the end of the Cold War, so now Erdoğan sees a new role for himself as Mr. Palestine.”

Nevertheless, Lapidot-Firilla, who knew Tan when he was posted to Tel Aviv, praised him as a professional diplomat.

“He has a message he must convey, and that’s what he does,” she told The DiplomatIndeed, Ilhan Tanir, Washington correspondent for Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News, said the former ambassador, Nabi Şensoy, felt compelled to submit his resignation abruptly following an argument between him and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu — “an unfortunate incident” he says occurred in front of several people in the White House.

Tanir said the deeply conservative AKP was clearly unhappy with Şensoy’s service even before the embarrassing encounter. “He wasn’t particularly sensitive to the developments that were working against the AKP administration’s agenda” in Washington, Tanir reported on his blog.

Ambassador Tan, on the other hand, “has maintained special and strong relationships with many of his old colleagues in the U.S. capital and enjoyed a great working relationship with some of the most important lobbyists in Washington.”

Besides his posts in Washington and Tel Aviv, Tan has served as deputy undersecretary of bilateral political affairs and public diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2009-10), as well as deputy director-general at the ministry’s Information Department (2004-07). A graduate of the University of Ankara’s law school, he’s also been posted to Turkish embassies in Abu Dhabi and Moscow.

On the job for nearly a year now, Tan says his most important priorities as Ankara’s top diplomat in Washington are the Balkans, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Russia and energy. “These are very serious issues, all high on the agenda of U.S. policy,” he said.

On one of those fronts, Turkey and Russia signed 17 agreements earlier this year, including pacts to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant as well as an oil pipeline linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. In his first official visit to Turkey, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev predicted that the $40 billion in annual trade between the two countries would soon jump to $100 billion.

Another potential goldmine is Iraq — even though Ankara vehemently opposed the U.S. invasion in 2003. Tan was clearly excited to talk about what’s going on with Turkey’s southern neighbor. In fact, the morning of our breakfast interview, he had just gotten off the phone with his boss, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, who was leaving the next day for Baghdad.

“This is one of the hottest issues we’re dealing with,” he said. “We’ve been strong supporters of the recent election. This was an important achievement for the Iraqi people, and we think a government should be formed as quickly as possible, and that it should be broad-based to embrace all groups and parties who were successful in that election.”

He added: “If you try to build a coalition based on different sects and ethnicities, then you’re dead. You should be embracing, reaching out to every single group. We have a great stake in that country’s stability.”

One reason Ankara is so keen on seeing a stable Iraq is the infiltration into Turkey of thousands of militants belonging to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — which the United States, the EU, NATO and Turkey all list as a terrorist group. More than 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK took up arms against the Turkish government in 1984, fighting for Kurdish autonomy in southeastern Turkey.

The most recent terrorist attack was a suicide bombing on Nov. 1 that injured 32 people in downtown Istanbul; the PKK said it had nothing to do with that incident.

“The power vacuum created in the early days of the Iraqi war of course made our job very difficult, and this has led to an increase in terrorism,” said the ambassador. “They found a safe haven there and started hitting us from Iraq.”

Since then, however, Ankara’s security cooperation with Baghdad — and even to a degree with the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north — have vastly improved.

Yet as much as Turkey has strengthened its relations with a number of countries, it remains haunted by old diplomatic demons. Ankara has no chance of ever entering the EU if it doesn’t solve its long-standing dispute with Cyprus over the Turkish-occupied northern part of the island, which is recognized only by Turkey.

Likewise, the decades-long battle over the “so-called Armenian genocide issue” — as Tan puts it — remains a constant political headache, one the ambassador personally experienced his first few months on the job.

“I was recalled for consultations” following the House committee’s decision to label the killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide, he said. “We’ve received some assurances from the administration that they’re strongly against such a resolution, and that they’d fight it,” he explained. “So my government decided to put me back into my place. You cannot compromise your foreign policy — especially relations with Turkey — for such an irrelevant issue.”

To the ambassador, the Armenian genocide may be irrelevant, but not to Canada, France and 20 other countries whose sympathetic governments have passed similar genocide resolutions despite Turkish objections and threats.

In fact, what exactly happened to the Armenians during World War I is a highly sensitive subject in Turkey, where the government says that to describe it as genocide equates it with the Nazi Holocaust (also see “Armenia-Turkey Genocide Battle Rears Its Head Again in U.S. Politics” in the April 2010 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

In recent years, Turkish officials have admitted that hundreds of thousands of predominantly Christian Armenians died, but they dispute suggestions that it was part of a concerted religious or ethnic cleansing campaign. Rather, they insist that many Armenians died from war and the chaotic demise of the Ottoman Empire — and they claim that thousands of Turks were killed by Armenians as well.

For the moment, the two adversaries do not have diplomatic relations, and a protocol signed in Geneva more than a year ago promising to restore bilateral ties has yet to be ratified by the parliament of either country.

“What we say to our Armenian friends is, let’s establish a historical commission with experts from other countries,” Tan said. “And when they come up with a decision, we’ll respect it.”

In the meantime, he says, “every subject should be dealt with on its merits. If you try to do otherwise based on subjective political favors, then you’ll be in really big trouble. It only complicates your job — and that’s what we don’t want in our relationship with the United States. We’re very much satisfied with our relations, and we’ve been friends and NATO members for ages, cooperating on some very critical issues.”

But whether Turkey is a friend or foe, or both, has dominated the discussion in Washington foreign policy circles. Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a frequent critic of the AKP government, accuses Turkey of adopting an “us-versus-them Islam at the expense of its nationalist identity.”

“Riding the wave of anti-Western sentiment unleashed by the 2003 Iraq war, the AKP has chilled Turkey’s relationship with the West and, instead, has tried to reposition the country as a leader of the re-christened Muslim world. It has encouraged an ‘us (Muslims) versus them (the West)’ worldview at the expense of Turkey’s historic flexibility,” he wrote recently in Foreign Affairs.

Others say it’s the West that needs to be flexible and engage, rather than demonize, Turkey. “In the Middle East, the other regional heavyweights are either authoritarian allies — Egypt and Saudi Arabia — authoritarian and antagonistic toward the United States — Iran — or democratic but besieged on all sides — Israel. No other state can substitute for Turkey as a pillar of stability and democratic values,” wrote Daniel M. Kliman and Joshua W. Walker in the Christian Science Monitor. “In European capitals and Washington, it will be tempting to conclude that Turkey is already ‘lost,’ that it is inevitably fated to become a rising theocracy that will work against rather than for international order. This would be a grave mistake.”

For their part, AKP government officials routinely dismiss the theory that the West has somehow “lost” Turkey. Rather, the say Ankara is simply finding its voice, both in its own backyard and on the world stage, as a Muslim democracy unapologetically advancing its own economic and political interests.

Interestingly, the WikiLeaks revelations reflect American anxiety and uncertainty about the government’s direction, paradoxically praising and insulting its prime minister. On the one hand, the dispatches describe Erdoğan as a “natural politician” who has “street-fighter instincts” yet is “charismatic” and “a perfectionist workaholic who sincerely cares for the well-being of those around him.”

On the other hand, he’s labeled “thin-skinned,” with “an authoritarian loner streak” and advisors — including Davutoğlu — who have “little understanding of politics beyond Ankara.”

The leaked cables also accuse Erdoğan of corruption and of personally hating Israel, while also suggesting that the government is quietly letting weapons flow across the border to al-Qaeda jihadists executing terrorist attacks in neighboring Iraq.

While Tan couldn’t be reached for comment on the leaked cables, Davutoğlu — who happened to be speaking in Washington when the story hit the press Nov. 29 — claimed he wouldn’t be the least bit upset if Turkey’s diplomatic cables and other documents were disclosed in similar fashion.

“We follow a foreign policy of principles. We do not say one thing in Tehran and something different in Washington,” the foreign minister told his audience at the Brookings Institution. “Open all the archives. Our foreign policy is sincere, honest and candid.”

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