Reconsidering Turkish foreign policy in the AKP years

Turkey has a long way to go before it corrects many forms of “discrimination against women wearing headscarves”.

Ahmet Davutoglu's approach yielded extraordinary results, and even where it failed, was consistent in exploring every plausible path to a more peaceful and just Middle East [EPA]

Istanbul, Turkey – Nothing epitomises the great political changes in Turkey over the course of the last decade than a little noticed media piece. It reported that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine attended a private iftar party (the ritual nightly breaking of the Ramadan fast) at the invitation of the current Turkish Chief of Staff, General Necdet Ozel. 

It was only a few years earlier that the military leadership was contemplating a coup to get rid of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) leadership as it had previously done in 1997 with Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan who became the victim of a bloodless coup because of his alleged Islamic agenda. 

Civil military relations 

Somewhat less striking, but not less relevant as a sign of this dramatic turn, is the remembrance that shortly after the AKP initially gained control of the government in 2002, it was much publicised that the wives of the elected leaders were not welcome at the major social gathering of top military officers held each year in Ankara because as devout they wore headscarves. 

A similar issue arose a few years later when ardent Kemalists insisted that Abdullah Gul could serve Turkey as president because his wife’s headscarf supposedly signalled the world that he did not represent secular Turks in the Ataturk tradition. 

Recent court testimony by the former Turkish chief of staff, Hilmi Ozkok, confirmed what many suspected, that there existed plans in 2003-2004 supported by many high ranking military officers to overrule the will of the Turkish electorate by removing the AKP from government and imposing martial law in their place. 

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Such recollections should help us appreciate the significance of such an iftar party between the Erdogans and the Ozels as a symbolic expression of how much things have changed for the better in Turkey with respect to civil-military relations. 

We can interpret this event in at least two ways. First, indicating a more relaxed attitude on the part of the military toward Turkish women who wear a headscarf in conformity to Islamic tradition. Although this is a definite in the right direction, Turkey has a long way to go before it corrects many forms of discrimination against women wearing headscarves that continue to restrict their life and work options in unacceptable ways from the perspective of religious freedom.  

Secondly, and crucially, suggesting that the armed forces had finally reconciled itself to the popularity and competence of AKP leadership, and seems ready to accept its reduced role in a revamped Turkish constitutional system, as well as now trusting the sincerity of AKP pledges of adherence to secular principles. This latter achievement is quite remarkable, a tribute to the skill with which Erdogan in particular has handled the civilianisation of the Turkish governing process. 

In 2000, Eric Rouleau, France’s lead commentator on the Middle East and former distinguished ambassador to Turkey (1988-1992), writing in Foreign Affairs, emphasised the extent to which “this system [of republican Turkey], which places the military at the very heart of political life” poses by far the biggest obstacle to Turkish entry into the European Union. 

Indeed, Rouleau and other Turkish experts believed that the Turkish deep state consisting of its security apparatus, including the intelligence organisations, was far too imbued with Kemalist ideology to sit idly by while the secular elites that run the country since the founding of the republic were displaced by the conservative societal forces that were the core of AKP support. 

And not only displaced, but their capacity to pull the strings of power from behind closed doors was ended by a series of bureaucratic reforms that curtailed the guardian role of the military. 

Political polarisation 

At the same time, despite these achievements of the AKP, the displaced secularists are no happier with Erdogan leadership than they were a decade ago. Those that identify with the opposition, and that includes most of the mainstream media, can never find a positive word to say about the domestic and foreign policy of the AKP, although the line of attack has drastically shifted its ground. 

A decade ago, the main line of attack focused on fears and allegations that the AKP was a stalking horse for an Islamic takeover of the governing process, with grim imaginings of “a second Iran” administered strictly in accordance with sharia. 

The current unwavering critical line of attack is focused on the belief that Erdogan dreams of being the new sultan of Turkey, dragging the country back toward the dark ages of authoritarian rule. It is odd that the same opposition that would have welcomed a coup against the elected leadership a decade ago now complains that the AKP is engaged in destroying Turkish constitutional democracy. 

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There are certainly some valid complaints associated with Erdogan’s tendencies to express strong personal opinions on socially controversial topics, ranging from abortion to the advocacy of three children families. As well, there are journalists, students and political activists in fairly large numbers being held in prison without being charged with crimes. 

And there are the fears, resembling the earlier anxiety about Turkey becoming an Islamic republic, that Erdogan is laying the groundwork to become president in a revised constitutional framework that would give the position much greater powers than it now possesses. 

This persisting polarisation extends to other domains of policy, perhaps most justifiably in relation to the unresolved Kurdish issues, which has violently resurfaced after some relatively quiet years. It is reasonable to fault the AKP for promising to resolve the conflict when it was re-elected, and then failing to offer the kind of inducements that might make it happen.  

It is difficult to grasp the renewed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) violence, and the degree to which it is viewed as removing all hope of a negotiated solution to this conflict that has long been such a drain on Turkey’s energies, resources and reputation. It is hard to evaluate this latest stage of the struggle, and to what extent it is an extension of the growing tensions with the countries surrounding Turkey, and particularly with the Kurdish movements in these countries, especially Iraq. 

Also serious is some deserved criticism of Turkey’s Syrian policy that charges the government with an imprudent and amateurish shift from one extreme to the other. First, an ill-advised embrace of Assad’s dictatorial regime a few years ago followed by a supposedly premature and questionable alignment with anti-regime Syrian rebel forces. 

It is true that Ahmet Davutoglu’s positive initiatives in Damascus were hailed as the centerpiece of “zero problems with neighbours”, an approach that critics now find totally discredited given the deterioration of relations, not only with Syria, but with Iran and Iraq. 

Again such criticism is greatly overstated by an opposition that seizes on any failure of governing policy without considering either its positive sides or circumstances that help justify pushing a policy reset button. Davutoglu has done his best to offer a convincing rationale for the changed tone and substance of Turkish foreign policy, especially in relation to Syria. 

In the larger picture, there were few advance warnings that the Arab Spring would erupt, and produce the uprisings throughout the region that have taken place in the last 18 months. Prior to this tumult the Arab world seemed ultra-stable, with authoritarian regimes having been in place for several decades, and little indication that domestic challenges would emerge in the near future. 

In these conditions, it seemed sensible to have positive relations with neighbours and throughout the Arab world based on a mixture of practical and principled considerations. There were attractive economic opportunities to expand Turkish trade, investment and cultural influence; as well, it was reasonable to suppose that Turkish efforts at conflict mediation could open political space for modest moves toward democracy and the protection of human rights. 

Foreign policy 

It should also be pointed out that the Foreign Minister was tireless in his efforts to resolve conflicts within an expanding Turkish zone of activity and influence. There were constructive and well organised attempts to mediate the long festering conflict between Israel and Syria with respect to the Golan Heights, encouragement of a reconciliation process in former Yugoslavia that did achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in relations between Serbia and Bosnia. 

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Bravest of all, was the sensible effort to bring Hamas into the political arena so as to give some chance to a negotiated end to the Israel/Palestine conflict; and in concert with Brazil, was a temporarily successful effort to persuade Iran to enter an agreement to store outside its borders enriched uranium that could be used to fabricate nuclear weapons. 

These were all laudable objectives, and creative uses of the diplomacy of soft power, which if successful would reduce regional tensions, and raise hopes for peace. Even if unsuccessful, the attempt was a responsible effort to find ways other than reliance on threats to use force to resolve conflicts. 

These various initiatives was to make Turkey a major player in the region and beyond, a government that almost alone in the world was constructing a foreign policy that was neither a continuation of Cold War deference to Washington nor the adoption of an alienated anti-Western posture. 

Turkey continued its role in NATO, persisted with its attempts to satisfy the many demands of the EU accession process, and even participated militarily, in my view unwisely, in the failed NATO War in Afghanistan. 

Fairly considered, the Davutoglu approach yielded extraordinary results, and even where it failed, was consistent in exploring every plausible path to a more peaceful and just Middle East. His statesmanship was widely heralded throughout the world, and quickly made him one of the most admired foreign policy architects in the world. He ranked 7th in the listing of the 100 most influential persons in the world in all fields (including business, culture, politics) that is compiled periodically by Foreign Policy, a leading journal of opinion in the United States. 

Turkey had elevated its diplomatic stature throughout the world in a short time without throwing its military weight around. This enhanced stature was acknowledged in many quarters, including the UN where Turkey was overwhelmingly elected to term membership on the Security Council. 

It should also be appreciated that Turkey has displayed a principled commitment to international law and morality on key regional issues, especially in relation to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Syrian mediation efforts were abandoned after Israel’s all-out attack on Gaza at the end of 2008, which also led to Erdogan’s famous rebuke of the Israeli President at the Davos World Economic Forum. 

This refusal to ignore Israel’s defiance of international law undoubtedly contribute to the confrontation arising from Israel’s commando attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla of peace ships in international waters on May 31, 2010, that were carrying humanitarian assistance to the unlawfully blockaded civilian population of Gaza. 

Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish nationals in the incident, which caused a rupture of relations between the two countries that has not yet been overcome, although Turkey has taken a most moderate position given the unprovoked assault on its ship and passengers, seeking only an apology and compensation for the families. 

There were other notable Turkish initiatives, none more spectacular than the major effort to engage with Somalia at a time when the rest of the world turned its back on a country being written off as the worst example of “a failed state”. 

Not only did Turkey offer material assistance in relation to reconstructing the infrastructure of governance. It also more impressively ventured where angels feared to tread: organising a high profile courageous visit by the Turkish prime minister with his wife and other notables to Mogadishu at a time when the security situation in the Somalia capital was widely considered very dangerous for any visitors. 

Such a show of solidarity to a struggling African nation was unprecedented, and has been followed up by Ankara with a continuing and successful engagement with a range of projects to improve the situation in this troubled country. In a similar spirit of outreach, Turkey hosted a UN summit on behalf of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in May 2011, and accepted leadership responsibility on behalf of the world community in bringing some relief to the most impoverished group of states in the world. 

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Need responsible opposition

More recently, Davutoglu together with Erdogan visited the Muslim minority in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine that had been brutally attacked in June by the local Buddhist majority, claiming that the Muslims were unwanted illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In response, Bangladesh reported that the Rohingyas had been living in Myanmar for centuries. 

This high level Turkish mission delivered medical aid, displayed empathy that could only be interpreted as a genuine humanitarian gesture far removed from any calculations of national advantage, and above all, conveyed its sense of how important it was to Turkey to do what it could to protect this vulnerable minority in a distant country.  

Davutoglu made clear the more universalist motivation underlying the visit by also going to the Buddhist community to express his hope that the two communities could learn to live in peace and mutual respect. This trip to Myanmar is one more example of how Turkey continues to earn respect in this period far beyond what it had possessed earlier and also in a manner that few states can claim, or even an attempt. 

Surely, Turkey as is the case with any democracy, would benefit from a responsible opposition that calls attention to failings while being ready to give credit for constructive undertakings and achievements of the government. Unfortunately, the polarised and demoralised opposition is strident in their criticism, bereft of alternative policies, and lacking in overall credibility as a useful critical voice. 

It is especially suspect for the most secularised segments of Turkish society to complain about an authoritarian drift in AKP leadership when it was these very social forces that a few years earlier was practically pleading for the army to step in, and handover power back to them in the most anti-democratic manner imaginable. 

Instead of taking justifiable pride in the great Turkish accomplishments of the last decade, the unrestrained hostility of anti-AKP political forces is generating a sterile debate that makes it virtually impossible to solve the problems facing the country or to take full advantage of the opportunities that await such a vibrant country as Turkey viewed from outside by most, especially in the region, as a shining success story, both economically and politically.    

Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

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