Extracts published by Michael Totten in Pajamas Media
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first major world leader to congratulate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the wake of Iran’s fraudulent elections. “There is no doubt he is our friend,” he insists, dismissing Western anxieties about Iran’s nuclear program as “gossip.” He has invited Hamas to Ankara, feted Sudan’s genocidal President Omer Hassan al-Bashir, and almost in the same breath harangued Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos for “knowing well how to kill.”
Last May, Turkey permitted the Mavi Marmara to sail toward Gaza, though it required little forethought to see that this expedition would not end happily. Many members of the IHH—the Turkish charity sponsoring the expedition—were well-known Islamist extremists of exceptional hostility to Israel. A more prudent Turkish government, averse to conflict with a longstanding ally, would have done precisely what the government of Cyprus did do. It would have declared that under no circumstances would that ship leave its ports.
Shortly after that debacle, Turkey announced joyfully that in concert with Brazil it had brokered a nuclear fuel-swap deal with Iran. Its terms failed to enthuse the United States; the deal would have left Tehran with enough low-enriched uranium to build a bomb. The announcement undermined American efforts to win support for sanctions against Iran in the United Nations. Turkey then voted against the sanctions, causing apoplexy in the State Department.
The AKP has barred Israel from annual military exercises on Turkey’s soil, but has signed a military pact with Syria. Recently, Turkey conducted joint military exercises with China. Meanwhile, domestic reforms aimed at Turkey’s European Union accession have stalled.
Analysts of these events tend to fall into two camps,. The first holds that they may above all be explained by the AKP’s religious extremism. Michael Rubin, for example, has made this case in Commentary: “Turkey today is an Islamic republic in all but name. Washington, its European allies, and Jerusalem must now come to terms with Turkey as a potential enemy.”
The second camp takes seriously the AKP’s own account of its policies, in particular the vision elaborated in Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s 2001 book, “Strategic Depth.” Turkey, says Davutoglu, is committed to the use of “soft power” to achieve “zero problems with its neighbors. These developments, he says, are based not on religion but “on a realistic, rational analysis of the strategic picture.” The Cold War having come to an end, he says, Turkey is now reprising its historic role as the region’s major power, shrewdly advancing its own traditional diplomatic and economic interests. Roger Cohen of The New York Times is among the persuaded: He dismisses Washington’s “nostalgia” for a “pliant Turkey” and declares it “time for Davuto?luism to roll off more American tongues.”
In this view, the AKP are very like the Ottomans—they are neo-Ottomans, it has become fashionable to say. “Turkish politicians,” writes Daniel Steinvorth in Spiegel, “are now evoking—and glorifying—the Ottoman era as a time when their country was still a respected hegemonic power in the Middle East and Caucasus region. It is a role that Ankara wants to play again today.”
In the debate between champions of these views, a third perspective has been overlooked. This view has considerable explanatory power.
In this view, the AKP is simply incompetent.
It is certainly true that the AKP’s senior figures grandly imagine themselves as the heirs to Ottoman statesmen. They promote this understanding of their behavior at every opportunity. “You forget,” many an AKP spokesman has said to me, “that we’ve been in this region for years. We know it better than you do. Trust us.”
But the Ottoman Empire to which they are appealing exists in their fantasies. They do not, in fact, know much about the real Ottoman Empire. Nor do they possess the Ottomans’ knowledge of the region, nor do they exhibit the Ottomans’ diplomatic sophistication. If they did, the lessons they would draw would be entirely different.
Much like its domestic policy, the AKP’s foreign policy focuses on the short-term. The party seeks to stay in power from election to election while making itself and its supporters as wealthy as possible as quickly as possible. Its policies are grounded in wishful thinking, greed, grandiosity, naiveté and emotion. They are not grounded in logic, and they are certainly not grounded in a “realistic, rational analysis of the strategic picture.” These policies are not merely annoying to the West—they are in the long term economically and strategically suicidal for Turkey, be that Turkey a secular state or a theocracy. Both the AKP and foreign observers have become so smitten with the AKP’s own legend that they have failed to notice this.
A policy of generating and exploiting anti-Israel and Islamist sentiment is, to be sure, an electoral crowd-pleaser in the short-term. The AKP may be able to win several more elections on the back of it. It may well succeed in permanently changing Turkey’s domestic political landscape by at once creating public demand for an anti-Western policy orientation and meeting that demand.
But in the long term and in reality, Israel poses absolutely no strategic threat to Turkey. Nor does the United States. Nor does Europe. Iran, however, poses a massive threat—and all evidence suggests that the Ottomans would have perfectly understood this. It is Iran, not Turkey, that may plausibly be seen to be advancing both a coherent Islamist agenda and realistic, rational, long-term plan to establish itself as the region’s economic and diplomatic hegemon. It is Iran’s leadership, not Turkey’s, that in fact knows the region well.
What the AKP seems to be missing is this: Iran’s emergence as a nuclear state will overturn the entire regional power equilibrium. Turkey’s vulnerability to this is the most pronounced in NATO, and the AKP’s nonchalance about this is astounding. Neither a massive conventional army nor “strategic depth” are of the slightest value against weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, which is precisely why Iran wants them in the first place—obviously.
When Turkish spokesmen say they cannot imagine circumstances under which Iran would employ such weapons against Turkey, they are either disingenuous or stupid. One need not actually launch a nuclear weapon to change the strategic landscape. A nuclear-armed Iran would unhesitatingly begin exporting Shi’a radicalism throughout the region, and Turkey is part of the region. Iran has tried this before: The Turkish military ended up deporting the mullahs, but then, they could. Anyone in Turkey who believes the Iranians would refrain from influencing Turkish internal politics if they could get away with it has been paying no attention whatsoever to the way Iran operates throughout the region: It is only Turkey’s conventional military superiority that has dissuaded Iran from treating Turkey precisely as it does every other weak power in this neighborhood.
The mere announcement of the news that Iran has crossed the nuclear threshold will have an immediate, devastating effect on Turkey’s stature—that day will be the last we ever hear about a rising Turkey, Anatolian tigers, the Islamic-economic dynamo, or the revival of the Ottoman Empire. Several events will follow predictably: Russia and Israel will be compelled to respond, technically and doctrinally, and the Egyptians and Saudis will race to develop a bomb of their own. Turkey will have a choice: adopt toward Iran a submissive, marginalized posture, or acquire its own nuclear weapon. There is no third option.
If Turkey goes nuclear, the material costs will be massive, the political costs even greater. Turkey has been a party to the NPT since 1980. A nuclear Turkey would not only lose all hope of joining the EU, but be ostracized from it and lose all diplomatic influence in the West. It would become a pariah in NATO. NATO, in fact, would probably collapse, along with its nuclear-backed security guarantee. Whatever is left of the international nonproliferation regime would also collapse. An already grossly unstable region, in other words, would swiftly be armed to the eyeballs with weapons each and every one sufficient to destroy a city. Then it is a simple matter of time and odds: Sooner or later, one would be used.
In other words, regional and international nuclear anarchy would be unleashed, with Turkey at the center of it—a bridge between East and West, just as its leaders proudly assert it to be, but not in the way they would ever wish it. Even if we assume a fundamentally rational Iran that can be deterred from first use by the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction (alone quite a leap of faith), any rational strategic planner should recall that MAD worked only through the grace of God: The world came appalling close to the brink more than once. No reasonable strategist could expect this kind of luck to hold indefinitely, certainly not in a region like this—it is like banking on the idea that there hasn’t been a major plane crash in the past few months, so there will never be a plane crash again. Iran probably would not—in the short term—aim missiles at Turkish population centers, but a nuclear confrontation fought over Turkey’s head would be almost as devastating to it as one fought on its soil. Perhaps Brazil can afford to take these risks. Turkey cannot.
AKP spokesmen speak in apparent seriousness about the “unfairness” of Israel having nuclear weapons, as if nuclear arms were a playground toy, not an existential threat to their civilization. Anyone rational in Turkey—anyone remotely competent—would immediately stop worrying about “fair” and start worrying that Turkey in fifty years’ time will not exist.
The AKP’s response to this threat—one as serious for Turkey as it is for Israel—is to pretend it is not happening. Its leadership discounts as American and Israeli propaganda the idea that Iran is serious about building a Bomb, while simultaneously asserting that somehow they will honey-talk the Iranians into abandoning their nuclear ambitions—ambitions that date to the beginning of the Islamic Republic if not before, and have not wavered despite economic sanctions, international isolation, credible threats of massive air strikes, and the pressure all of these place on the regime’s power. The Iranians, Turkish statesmen imagine, will actually be dissuaded through Davutogluism, which in practice has meant doing everything the Iranians want no matter the cost to Turkey.
In explaining this policy to itself and the world, the AKP ties itself into extraordinary knots. It is remarkable what its spokesmen say and apparently believe. I have spoken to many of them at length. They clearly do believe that the achievements of Davuto?luism have thus far been so significant as to warrant this confidence. The only way this truly recalls Ottoman diplomacy is in its echo of the Ottoman Empire’s final, mortal blunder. throwing in its lot with the Central Powers. But even that, at the time, might have seemed a reasonable strategic calculation. This doesn’t.
Were Turkey to act now in extremely close cooperation with NATO and Israel, it would not be behaving as an anachronistically compliant neo-Cold War vassal state, but as a completely rational actor—for the simple reason that its new friends are not friends at all, but obviously either useless to it (in the case of al-Bashir), useful only for propaganda (in the case of Hamas), indifferent to its fate (in the case of China) or scheming to do exactly what every Turk has been born and raised to fear foreign powers will do: weaken Turkey, exploit it, and quite possibly even dismember it (in the case of Iran). The idea that China could be trusted to step in to protect Turkey is laughable. China’s real concern for the fate of Turkic peoples is displayed, after all, in its treatment of the Uighurs, which Erdo?an himself described as “genocidal”—before realizing that having alienated Israel and the United States, Turkey had nowhere left to go. The idea that NATO would come to Turkey’s aid is perfectly rational, however, and if Turkey’s leaders were thinking clearly, they would cling to NATO like a drowning man to a lifeboat. An alliance with Israel, likewise, makes perfect strategic sense, not least because Israeli intelligence about Iran is probably the best there is.
What has Turkey received for supporting Iran? It has not received support on Cyprus. It has not received support in its dealings with Armenia. It has certainly not persuaded Iran to stop meddling in Iraq—a matter of utmost strategic significance to Turkey, at least if its protestations of wanting a stable Middle East above all are serious. When retired ambassador Murat Bilhan brought up these points not long ago at an Iranian-Turkish roundtable discussion in Istanbul, he was told by Mostofa Dolatyar, from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, not look at these things through Western eyes. Western eyes—yes, yes, those devilish Western eyes that might make you notice that you’re actually getting nothing out of this.
The first thing to grasp, when trying to understand just how such blindness could be driving the show, is that all decisions are now being made by Erdo?an and Davuto?lu. Anyone who might tell them things they do not wish to hear has been marginalized or is too afraid to speak frankly to them. Western economies are tanking; Turkey’s seems to be booming. They have won a series of dramatic electoral victories at home; they have subdued domestic enemies said to be unconquerable; this has had predictable psychological consequences. They have become overconfident both in their own judgment and their luck.
Over the past five years, advisors with a deeper knowledge and understanding of the region have been shut out. At one point, observers close to the policymaking apparatus say, both were willing to listen to dissenting voices from the military and the foreign policy bureaucracy. But not now.
The former Turkish ambassador to the United States, Osman Faruk Logoglu, a 35-year veteran of the Turkish foreign service, was one of the only ones willing to say these things on the record, but not one person I spoke to disagreed. “Davutoglu,” said Logoglu, “is the formulator and implementer. The prime minister is the vocalizer and corrector,” and Davuto?lu “thinks he knows it all.” The AKP’s electoral victories have endowed him with “a very assertive confidence. As the foreign minister, he knows everyone. He thinks he’s on top of the world.”
Davutoglu, another senior diplomat told me, is not the only one who thinks he knows everything. “Erdo?an believes that Davuto?lu knows everything. In the past he had broader council, now he’s tightening the circle. In 2002, I could still speak to Erdo?an. I felt I was heard. Not anymore. The Foreign Ministry has no clout anymore. People are reluctant to tell Erdo?an the truth, because of his temperament.” (Erdogan has a famously short temper.)
“They don’t tell him how this is really playing in the US. The 2007 election went to their heads. Anyone sitting there as his advisor would be reluctant to talk. And you can’t communicate with Davutoglu because he talks so much.” He shrugged. “They’re bored by him in the US.”
“Erdogan,” said a well-informed Turkish journalist, “doesn’t trust Western intelligence. He believes the Iranians, he thinks they’re credible. When he reads from his talking points, that’s his advisors speaking, but when he’s off the cuff, responding to questions, that’s from the heart. He doesn’t take the Iran threat seriously, full stop. [President Abdullah] Gül takes it more seriously—he’s more nuanced and receptive to the bureaucracy. The military and the Foreign Ministry bureaucracy take it very seriously, but there’s not much they can do. The prime minister calls the shots.”
Among those close to the AKP, only two names stand out as figures who might credibly claim a deeper knowledge of Iran: Arif Keskin, who is Azeri, and Ibrahim Kal?n, who holds a doctorate in Islamic theology and probably reads Persian quite well. Neither appear to have much influence. “Erdogan is only listening to Davutoglu,” one observer said to me. “Kalin lacks intellectual depth—not that you need that to influence Erdogan, who is shallow beyond belief. The most scared people in Turkey are the ones closest to Erdogan. Gül is a competitor. Davutoglu is surrounded by young, immature aides. The senior diplomats have been excluded and marginalized. Those left are practically servants. Davuto?lu is on his own.”
Erdogan has been talking to Ahmadinejad for some years. We don’t know much about what they say to each other—nothing leaks. These are not large delegations with note takers present. No one really knows what Ahmadinejad has been saying to him, but Erdo?an thinks Ahmadinejad seems okay, and he doesn’t really want to hear otherwise.
Now, there are many reasons beyond religious ideology for Erdo?an and Davutoglu to be engaging in wishful thinking. Of course they want to avoid another conflict in the region, just as everyone does. Turkey suffered greatly from First and Second Gulf Wars. It has considerable commercial and economic investment in Iran that it seeks to protect, including a gas pipeline. Two years ago, the Iranians showed Turkey how much trouble they could cause by cutting off the gas supply in the middle of winter. The AKP’s electoral base froze. They are not eager for this to happen again.
Iran has a great deal of capital, and Turkey is a lucrative market. Turkey’s only hope for sustained economic development is as an exporter. It is easy to persuade oneself that sanctions never work, because indeed, they usually don’t. Turkey’s position on sanctions has some rational support. And the West did say, confidently and erroneously, that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq, so it is easy to discount these warnings now.
It is the eagerness to embrace Iran well beyond the dictates of these calculations—and to alienate the very powers that serve as a check on Iran’s ambitions—that makes no sense and smacks of amateurism every bit as much as Islamism, if not more. Even economically, trade with Iran may bring in a few billion bucks, short term, but focusing on that to the exclusion of joining the EU is in the long-term economic insanity. Could anyone really think that in twenty years’ time, unfettered access to Iran’s battered economy would be worth more than unfettered access to all of Europe’s?
The example of the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian fuel swap negotiations deserves special scrutiny here. The United States deserves much blame for this debacle. There is no doubt that Obama’s communication with Turkey and Brazil was unclear, at best. The Turks are justified in saying this. One assumes the Obama Administration never took the these negotiations seriously and never dreamt the Iranians would accept the offer.
The question is why Turkey wished to involve itself in this at all, given that clearly, this diplomatic initiative was apt to result in precisely what resulted: a fiasco. “Turkey acted over-zealously and made a mess of it,” said a Turkish journalist who followed this story closely. (It is important to note how many of the people I spoke to were not willing to go on the record. This should tell you something about how likely it is that Erdogan is hearing dissenting views.) “Davutoglu and Erdogan thought they’d be heroes, rising stars of world politics, that they’d promote the image of Turkey and boost Turkish standing in the international field.”
But in retrospect, it is obvious what really happened. As we are continually reminded by observers with an enthusiasm for Middle East clichés, the Persians invented chess. To observe Turkish-Iranian relations closely is to marvel at it—it is so clear that Iran was three steps ahead of Turkey. “The Iranians,” recounted the journalist in question, “were closely watching the United States’ maneuvering in the Security Council. For months, the United States had been lobbying for sanctions. This, from the Iranian point of view, was the threat. Their overarching objective was to corner the United States. They watched. They remained engaged with Turkey. They were always ready to accept the fuel swap as a fallback position. The United States worked on the Russians, the Chinese, the French. Then France fell in line. Russia and China remained ambiguous. And had the US failed to convince China and Russia, Iran would never have accepted the deal.
“Then the permanent representatives to the UN made their statements—China and Russia were on board. The Tehran Declaration came immediately afterwards.
“It was a shrewd, preemptive move. Congratulations! The crisis is over! World peace is at hand! There’s no need for sanctions!”
Hilary Clinton was humiliated. The United States was made to look as if it were the obstacle to peace; the Turks were forced into a devastating choice: Lose face before Iran or enrage the United States. Erdo?an chose Iran—almost certainly not for any logical reason at all; Erdo?an is an emotional man. The Iranians successfully sheared off Turkey from the entire world, like Spassky demolishing an eager high-school amateur.
“The pathetic part,” added this journalist, “ is that Turkey and the United States are strategic partners. How could they have failed to communicate well enough to avoid this kind of fuck-up?”
The answer: incompetence. On both sides. The Americans failed to see this coming, and the Turks went begging for it. Neither side saw the trap.
AKP spokesmen always insist that Turkey is categorically opposed to an Iranian Bomb. This is not a lie. Even if we imagine them as their most ardent enemies portray them—as fervent religious zealots whose overarching goal is to transform Turkey into a theocracy—it still defies imagination that they could be so stupid as to want a nuclear Iran their border.
They are zealots, perhaps, but not quite in the way their critics are imagining. They’re zealots of delusional optimism and overconfidence. They have sincerely convinced themselves that they will be able to befriend Iran, dissuade them from going nuclear, and profit greatly from this relationship in the process. They refuse to entertain the idea that the Iranians view them as useful idiots. In this sense, yes, it is correct to see their Islamism, or at least their religious devotion, as relevant: Erdo?an and Davuto?lu are genuinely naïve enough to think all Muslims can be trusted. They believe the Iranians are negotiating with them more or less in good faith, as co-religionists and from a shared perspective of resentment of US power and hostility to Israel. Erdo?an disbelieves what has been reported about Iran’s human rights record. When asked why the Turkish government has not been more critical of it, spokesmen will say that it is highly critical—but privately. I have heard, however, from people who would have been in a good position to say several years ago (but who are not now) that this criticism is not really happening.
It is unlikely, however, that the Iranians truly view the Turks in a reciprocally trusting, friendly light. After all, if the AKP has convinced most of the world to buy the “Don’t worry about us, we’re not Islamists, we’re Ottomanists” line, they have probably persuaded the Iranians of this as well, if only inadvertently. It is far more likely that the regime loathes the AKP as Sunni dogs at best, secular Turks at worst, no matter how Islamist they may look to those who are terrified of them here in Turkey or abroad. What is more likely: that Iran has suddenly discovered an affection for Turks that it never once before possessed in all of Persian history, or that it is contemptuously exploiting Turkish naiveté to buy time?
There are dissenters from this policy within the AKP, and obviously there are dissenters in Turkey—they may well be the majority. Turkey’s Ambassador to the UN was reportedly almost in tears when he received word that he was to vote “No” on the sanctions package. The military, of course, is deeply frustrated. They’re the ones who are gaming out the scenarios. They get what’s at stake.
If you speak to anyone in the AKP—anyone who is staying on message, that is—you will hear the same words. “Sanctions don’t work. Engagement is the only possible path. You must trust us. We know Iran so much better than you do. Remember, we have been dealing with this region for centuries. Let us handle the diplomacy, we’re experts.” They believe this. They have absolutely persuaded themselves of this. They have persuaded many Western observers, too. But as Iranian friend of mine here in Istanbul put it, “They don’t understand the Iranian mentality at all. They haven’t even read a book about them.” He is a refugee from the regime. He knows its mentality all too well, alas.
The Ottomans Empire had settlements throughout the region, but not in Persia. And it is important to remember that Turkey experienced a profound rupture from its own history in 1922, when Atatürk purged the bureaucracy of its Ottoman elements, Westernized the education system, and replaced the Ottoman script was replaced with a Latin one. Every Turk born thereafter has been cut off from Ottoman culture. Turks of our generation can for the most part no more read Ottoman than a Latvian could. There is no special reason to think Turkish policy makers know Ottoman history intimately. There is no special reason to think they know recent history intimately. “Turkey’s regional knowledge is new,” said another journalist here. “It was cut off during the Cold War. The AKP is trying to recreate a lost past, but it’s a past according to them—a fantastic narrative. They don’t want to know why the Ottoman Empire collapsed after 200 agonizing years. ‘Trust us, we know Iran?’—that’s total bullshit.”
Turkish policy makers are probably even more cut off from the realities of Iran than American ones—American policy makers, after all, at least occasionally receive reports from professional analysts who read Farsi, and they probably even read them from time to time. The United States has had far more contact with the reality of Iranian foreign policy lately than the Turks—it’s the Americans who are in Iraq, not Turkey. Turkey, as its leaders are always keen to remind the world, stayed out of there, and it shows. There may have been a time when Americans couldn’t tell the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites. They sure grasp that now.
Some senior members of the AKP—Gül in particular—may justly claim to know the Saudis and Arab culture well. But Saudis and the Iranians are not the same. It is possible they are gravely confusing the Arab and Persian worlds—an irony given that every Turk alive will be rightly dismissive of the suggestion that one might easily confuse Turks and Arabs.
No one in the AKP leadership can remotely claim expertise on Persian culture, history, and negotiating strategy—and no one appears to have any deep familiarity with more than a millennium of Turkic-Persian rivalry. The Ottomans, by comparison, were intimately familiar with Persian culture, not least because they understood Persian. Persian was the first language of bureaucracy in Seljuk and early Ottoman Anatolia. Of course, to prevent the encroachment of Shi’ite ideas, the Ottomans were not taught Persian until the age of six—by that age, it was hoped, one’s Sunni identity would be strong enough to withstand the corruption. But from the age of six, literate Ottomans were steeped in it.
Not so, today. As Ambassador Logoglu put it, “Even today there might not be a single minister in the Foreign Service who speaks Persian. There may be some who have taken courses. I know for sure that when I was in the Foreign Service, the number who spoke Arabic was maybe one. I don’t think there were any who spoke Persian.” He thought there were perhaps one or two in the Turkish intelligence services. No one in the foreign service wishes to study Persian: competence in the language, after all, might result in being posted to Iran.
“Turkey has not one fluent Farsi speaker,” another diplomat told me, “except in the low administrative staff. It has none among career diplomats.” When meeting their Iranian counterparts, the Turks rely on local Iranian staff of Azeri origin for translation. In technical meetings, they use English. “I cannot know or disclose how many people speak Farsi in the Turkish Foreign Ministry,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Selçuk Ünal wrote to me. “But not very much.”
If you look at the ranks of pro-AKP think tanks—USAK, SETA, TEPA—you will likewise find no Persian experts. Even if there were, they would probably keep their counsel to themselves. Ambassador Lo?o?lu claims that Ulker, a company close to the AKP, withdrew its financial support from the Eurasian Studies Center out of displeasure with his warnings about the trajectory of Turkish foreign policy; this is probably true, and would have to weigh on the minds of other think tanks.
Indeed, by what means could the Turks deeply understand Iran? Gülen schools are forbidden there. The only avenue for regular Turkish contact with Iran is trade, and while this is considerable and growing, there is an obvious conflict when it comes to policy-making: You will not get dispassionate advice about the Iranian’s intentions from very the people who stand to get rich from the assumption that they are benign.
Iranians, on the other hand, know this region’s history exceptionally well. As Volkan Vural– Turkey’s former ambassador to Iran—remarked, “Iran has cultural continuity. That gives them an enormous advantage—they remember what happened centuries ago, We need a translator.”
The Iranians have real reasons to believe they know Turkey well. About thirty percent of its population is Azeri, which is to say that an important segment of Iran understands Turkish fluently. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s first language is Azeri. Azeris are now in the center of power, even more so than in the past. Turkish television broadcasts throughout the region; many in the Iranian leadership understand it. This understanding does not flow both ways.
The Turkish-Iranian border, the AKP will say over and over, has always been peaceful. Again, no one familiar with Ottoman history would imagine such a thing. Although it is commonly believed that Muslims perceive the Christian West as the greatest rival, the Turkish people have in fact defined themselves against Persia since the era of Kok Turk in the Turkish Central Asian Empire.
In the 11th century, the Turkish Seljuk Empire split. The rival empires fought for centuries, most famously during the Caldiran War under Sultan Yavuz Sultan Selim. From the 16th century to the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Persia was the Ottomans’ natural rival for influence in the East—an East that compassed not only the borderlands up through the Caucasus, but most of eastern Anatolia. Throughout this period, Persians undermined Ottoman Turkish policy, if not through direct confrontation, through subversion. One does not see much discussion of the Ottoman-Safavid conflict these days. But ignoring this history is like ignoring the Crusades when you talk about the contemporary conflict between the West and the Islamic world: an exercise in missing the big picture.
Turks, historically, have been masters of the art of war; Iranians have been masters of diplomacy. According to Turkish spokesmen, the new Turkish policy is diplomacy-only: The era of war is over. It is easy to see who in this equation has the advantage of talent and experience.
The incompetence in Turkey has surely been reinforced by the incompetence of the White House, particularly by Obama’s willingness to play the fantasy game along with Turkey. “He can’t play the religious game. He should be playing the security game,” said Lo?o?lu. His policy toward Turkey, he said, “is a bad imitation of the worst parts of Orientalism.”
Now, it is wrong to assume that under a different government, Turkey’s posture toward Iran would be overtly hostile. Turkish-Iranian relations have long had cooperative aspects as well as competitive ones; even during the Iran-Iraq war, Turkey sought neutrality. But it would probably be more shrewd.
Turkey will always take pains to avoid provoking Iran: Iran has great potential to cause mischief to Turkish interests. But a cleverer, more self-interested government would not act as Tehran’s lifeline and source of international legitimacy. Turkey’s rhetoric toward Iran would be mild and balanced, not lavishly affectionate. The prime minister would never call Ahmadinjad “my friend.” Nor would Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi have reason to declare in return that Iran has “no better friend than Turkey in today’s world.”
Turkey would have waited cautiously before speaking after Iran’s fraudulent elections. There would have been no rush to be the intermediary in the P5+1. There would have been no eagerness to broker a fuel swap. No one would dream of compromising Turkey’s Western alliances to curry Iranian favor. What for? Trade would have continued, and Turkey would profit just as much from it, but skillful Turkish diplomats would see clearly that Iran has no choice but to trade with Turkey, so there is no need to give them flowers and chocolates to boot. Turkey could have played both sides of this skillfully and to advantage. Instead, it alienated Israel and its NATO allies deeply and pointlessly.
It is unlikely that any government would be eager to install a NATO missile shield—this would always be viewed as too provocative. No one in Turkey wants headaches with Iran; everyone knows how much trouble they can cause when they’re angry. But a different government wouldn’t have gotten itself into this situation in the first place. The willingness to accept that shield is seen as a test of Turkey’s loyalty to the West. Turkey has reduced, rather than enlarged, its room for maneuver—and again, gained nothing.
When you speak to spokesmen for the AKP, what often strikes you is the dreamy idealism, the divorce from reality. Merat Mercan, for example, a founding member of the AKP and the chairman of its Foreign Policy Committee, explained Turkey’s foreign policy to me this way: The old-time world politics are gone. We’re in the process of entering a new era. The dynamics of world politics are changing, so we have to be pro-active. By ‘we,’ I mean humans.” … That’s the problem between West and us—you look at specifics, I look at big trends. You can always find something negative. The whole world should be thankful to Turkey. We have a proven method. Unless a state wants and needs an enemy, the approach should be engagement. We engage Iran by ignoring itsy-bitsy statements. If your mind is geared toward engagement, then those statements cannot hurt you much.”
“You have to trust us,” he said. “We’re in this region. All your politicians will admit, Turkish policy is the best. We’ve never created trouble. We’re only helpful.”
He doesn’t believe Iran wants the Bomb. “I don’t trust your intelligence: Look at your record in Iraq. This is mental sickness. If you’re thinking this way, you can only lead to war. If your mentality is like ours, you exert all good intentions until the last minute. The Turkish approach could have solved the Cuban crisis.”
Mercan told me that the West should trust Turkey because alone among NATO members, it had won hearts and minds in Afghanistan. “Ask anyone,” he said to me. “Turkish soft power has been more effective at winning hearts and minds there than American power. Other soldiers in NATO wear the Turkish flag so they won’t get attacked.”
Try the experiment yourself: ask anyone. I asked the first person I could think of, a consultant who works in Afghanistan. Her response: “Never saw a Turkish soldier in Afghanistan, never even heard of a Turkish soldier in Afghanistan.” Turkey has 1,835 troops in Afghanistan. It controls the provincial reconstruction team in Wardak, outside of Kabul, which is more or less under Taliban control.
“What we’re trying to do is contribute to a thinking and evolution in the Western world.” Said Mercan. “Any other interpretation is ill-intentioned or misreading.”
I interrupted at some point in this conversation. “I really get the feeling speaking to you that your policy is extremely Utopian—“
“It’s Wilson’s. It’s Wilsonian,” he said.
“Yes, but where did that lead! That’s exactly right! It’s Wilsonian! But where did that lead! Wilsonian politics were an absolute failure, the League of Nations was an absolute–this is the point! You’re not learning the lessons! You’re not learning the lessons of the history of Wilson!”
“That’s because after this, the United States gave up Wilson’s politics. This Wilson’s politics was in the books but not reality, in implementation, otherwise—“
“Now, hold on a second! I agree. The problem with the League of Nations was enforcement. But the problem here is also enforcement. The League of Nations was destroyed because aggression went unpunished.”
“Now … no. The problem is that–we have to engage nations.”
“I think you should go back and revisit the history of Wilson,” I said.
I have had many conversations like that, here inside the logic-free zone. “In anything related to the Middle East,” one of the above-mentioned Turkish journalists said to me, “we see the sentimental factor. Davutoglu is strongly sentimental, which keeps him from establishing realistic contact with the facts.”
This seems is quite common. When I asked another highly placed figure in the foreign policy establishment why Turkey appeared to be so sanguine about the Iranian missile threat by comparison with the Gulf States, reminding him that the UAE Ambassador has publicly begged the United States to stop Iran with military force, whatever the immediate consequences, he looked momentarily perplexed, then said, “Well, the Gulf States—don’t forget there are religious differences there. They’re Sunni, and the Iranians are Shi’a .”
Astonished, I replied that Turks too were Sunnis. Yes, he said, but the Gulf States had a history of conflict with Iran.
Turkey too had a history of conflict with Iran, I said.
“Yes, but think about it,” he answered. “The UAE is very small and weak.” When I replied that by comparison with a nuclear Iran Turkey too would be small and weak, he said Turkey would worry about that when the time came—and anyway, there was no reason to believe Iran was trying to build a Bomb.
Ambassador Logoglu understands it thus: “Turkey is enthused with a sense of self-confidence. Erdo?an and Davuto?lu think the can solve any problem, especially in our neighborhood. He mimicked them: “We know the culture, the history, the body language.”
“All of which,” he added, “is untrue.”
The overriding feeling he added, was that the Iranians were of the same religion, even though it was a different sect, and besides, Iran would never use the Bomb against Turkey. “But an Iran with a nuke can manipulate the region, leave it forever unstable.” Iran, he noted, has recently been at war with its Arab neighbors and is in fact still at war in Iraq. It has threatened and terrorized the Gulf countries, has threatened and terrorized Israel, it has threatened and terrorized the United States, and recently declared that its border extends to Lebanon.
“We say it like a mantra, said Logoglu. “‘our border is peaceful, we haven’t fought with Iran.’ It’s as if Iran can attack everyone else, but not Turkey.”
Yes, Islamism plays a part in the AKP’s doctrine. But it is more heuristically useful to use this as your starting assumption: They don’t have a doctrine. Certainly, the leadership hopes to assume a leading role in the Islamic world and the Middle East economy. There is in fact a major obstacle in their way, but they don’t want to think about it. They genuinely believe the Iranian threat is exaggerated. They have persuaded themselves that the world is alarmed about Iran only because it’s an Islamic country, and they know Islamic countries better. And besides, they need the money, now. “Our long-term political interests have been subdued by our short-term interests,” lamented yet another diplomat.
They are willing to take a subtle vein of anti-Western sentiment that runs through Turkish society and gin it up, to make it an overt, driving sentiment. But the game they have started has created its own dynamics, and soon they will be hostage to it. If they tell you that they have to follow this policy because it is what the electorate wants, remember to ask them who, exactly, has been telling the electorate they should want this in the first place.
It is not just Iran. For example, Turkey has nothing to show for the domestic and international political risk it took by inviting exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to Ankara to speak at the AKP headquarters last year. As the Turkish columnist Abdulhamit Bilici allows on the pages of Zaman—a paper closely associated with the government—“Hamas did not take any steps toward improvement, which was the most unfortunate aspect of this move. However, if Hamas, which had agreed to enter elections, had given event the tiniest hint that it would distance itself from violence, this would have had massive repercussions. If Mashaal had given such a signal, this would have prevented the division in Palestine and avoided the international embargoes and Turkey would have gained great prestige.” Well, yes. And if they’d discovered a cure for cancer, Turkey’s prestige would have been enhanced even further.
But reality seems to have no impact on the optimism of anyone observing these events. “While it did not have the intended results,” Bilici continues, “this diplomatic initiative served to increase Turkey’s effectiveness in the region. Obviously this has played an important role in making Turkey the key player in the Gaza crisis and helping it be actively involved in the cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas.”
To look at the results of any of these policies is to come to the same conclusion. Turkey is kidding itself and it is harming itself, and the rest of the world is going along for the ride. Over and over, the same themes emerge: naiveté, wishful thinking, and sheer incompetence, which no one is pointing out because everyone is swallowing the AKP’s line: “Trust us, we know what we’re doing!”
Unfortunately, this is not a strategic doctrine: It’s just famous last words.