Smile and Smile: Turkey's Feel-Good Foreign Policy

World Affairs Journal
July/August 2010

As the First General Law of Travel tells us, every nation is its stereotype. Americans are indeed fat and overbearing, Mexicans lazy and pilfering, Germans disciplined and perverted. The Turks, as everyone knows, are insane and deceitful. I say this affectionately. I live in Turkey. On good days, I love Turkey. But I have long since learned that its people are apt to go berserk on you for no reason whatsoever, and you just can’t trust a word they say. As one Turkish friend put it (a man who has spent many years in America, and thus grasps the depth of the cultural chasm), “It’s not that they’re bad. They don’t even know they’re lying.”

My friend is right, and his comment suggests a point about Turkish culture that I doubt many Westerners grasp. People here—and, I would guess, throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, though Turkey is the only country I know well—see “truth” as something plastic, connected more to emotions than to facts or logic. If it feels true, it is true. What’s more, feelings here tend to change very quickly—and with them, the truth.

Take, for instance, my former landlord. Last year, my apartment was burgled. Under Turkish law, if your apartment is burgled, you have the right to insist that your landlord install bars on your windows. When I put this to my landlord, he objected, screaming violently, as so often people here do for no reason any American would accept as legitimate. First, my landlord screamed, there was no risk of burglary: there had never before been a burglary in our neighborhood. (Actually, our neighborhood was notorious for it.) Second, he screamed, to install bars would create a hazard: burglars would use them to climb up to the second floor. He offered both arguments in the same sentence. He was unperturbed by the obvious problem with his line of reasoning.

Later, when I discussed the matter with Turkish friends, they explained to me that I had made a critical negotiating mistake: I had insulted his honor by telling him I would have bars installed rather than asking him. The argument, they explained, had nothing to do with the real risk of burglary, and certainly nothing to do with my rights under Turkish rental law. It was about my failure to show the man the proper respect.

I’m not sure my Turkish friends were right about that, though. They are, after all, Turkish, so they pretty much say whatever sounds good to them at the time. They tend to explain these situations ex post facto with appeals to the subtleties of Turkish culture, but the story never stays the same. I’ve been in similar situations in which these same Turkish friends have explained that my mistake was asking, rather than telling. Asking, they have assured me, is a sign of weakness, so no wonder my adversaries sought to take advantage.

Not only is truth here derived from emotion, but the emotions themselves are more intense and more transitory. Arguing a mild difference of opinion by screaming and threatening would come across to Westerners as weak at best, lunatic at worst. Not here. No shame attaches to displays of anger that in the West would result in the issuance of restraining orders. The fights dissipate as quickly as they start; everyone proceeds to drink tea and moistly proclaim their mutual love. The entire incident is then forgotten, except by the American, who is still shaking with rage and nurtures her resentment forever.

The Turkish diplomat Namik Tan put it to me this way, shortly before decamping for his new job as ambassador to the United States, then promptly being recalled to Turkey to express the nation’s diplomatic pique at an ostensible insult to Turkish honor, then returning to America again, presumably to drink tea and proclaim Turkey’s love: “The West must understand,” he said, “that in this region, two plus two doesn’t always equal four. Sometimes it equals six, sometimes ten. You cannot hope to understand this region unless you grasp this.” You might think he meant this metaphorically, but in my experience this is literal. If someone here feels very strongly that he wants two plus two to make ten (or two o’clock to be ten o’clock, in the case, say, of a promise to deliver goods or services on a deadline), then—voilà!—that’s what it means, and there is an emotional truth to it, in the mind of the speaker, that is morally more important than any literal truth.

They don’t even know they’re lying. In Turkey, it is normal and expected to say that you will do something, have done something, or agree with something when, in fact, you won’t, haven’t, or don’t. This is so common that no one thinks of it as lying, in the sense that it is not viewed as unethical. It is just being polite. They assume you know they’re not being truthful, and they expect you to be lying as well, so it all evens out. I remember precisely the moment it dawned on me that this is how things work here. I’d asked a Turkish friend to send me an e-mail before noon. I don’t remember what it was all about now, but it was business-related. Knowing that time here is also a highly plastic concept, I’d pressed the point quite firmly: Before noon. Before the big hand and the little hand are pointing straight up. I had elicited multiple, firm promises that the information would be sent before noon, and that he understood the importance of this. I communicated the reasons why, should he fail to do this, it would cause quite a number of serious problems, not just to me, but to him, because it concerned a joint business venture. (Terrible idea in the first place, but that’s another story.) He agreed at least three times that he would send it.

When he didn’t, I was vexed. “Why,” I asked, “did you say you would send it if you didn’t mean it? If I’d known you weren’t going to do it, I would have known to plan things differently.”

He took umbrage at my tone. “You should have known I didn’t mean it,” he said angrily.

“How should I have known?”

“Because,” he exploded, “I didn’t want to!” He was enraged, I think, that I could be so obtuse.

These aspects of the Turkish national character have obvious significance to anyone who doubts the world would be better off with the Persian Gulf under an Iranian nuclear shield, and all of southern Europe and the Middle East within striking distance of nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles, which is to say, anyone rational, which is to say, not the prime minister of Turkey, who is, obviously, Turkish, and says pretty much whatever sounds good to him at the time.

When I hear American officials discussing this region, I shudder. My government is obviously out of its depth. For all the talk of President Obama’s secret, traitorous sympathy with the Islamic world, or his childhood experience of the mysteries of the exotic Other, the man is—obviously—as American as a stalk of corn waving lonely on a Kansas plain. I am certain he, and everyone around him, thinks in terms of “reasons,” “logic,” “arguments,” “truth,” and “facts.” I am sure that deep down, he believes everyone does. All Americans do, just as all Turks believe the rest of the world is basically like them.

The utter irrationality of Turks—and the utter uselessness, for them, of our Western notions of truth and logic—are points Americans won’t grasp unless they’ve lived here quite some time—and even then they won’t grasp them, because they make no sense. But they’d best begin to try, because the prime minister is quite busy sending flotillas of unusually fractious Turkish humanitarians into war zones, transforming himself into the improbable hero of Hamas, and practicing nuclear diplomacy à la Turca. American negotiators were no doubt scratching their heads upon learning that Turkey had not merely abstained from voting on the Iranian sanctions package, but voted against it. An abstention, after all, would have registered Turkish misgivings more than adequately; the “no” vote manifestly obviates everything Turkey has long been saying about the role it seeks to play as a bridge between the East and the West, particularly in the wake of the Gaza flotilla fiasco. The bridge is now burnt. Turkey has taken sides, and the winner is the East.

According to its government, Turkey rejected the sanctions package because it had something better to offer, namely, the Turkish-Brazilian fuel swap. The logic of the recently negotiated deal with Iran was explained splendidly by one Professor Tolga Yarman from Okan University, in comments cited approvingly by the daily Zaman, a paper closely associated with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Yarman, the paper reported, “drew a similarity between Iran’s rugs and the nuclear deal, saying Iran is giving away its nuclear rope and giving up waving its nuclear carpet and in return getting a nuclear rug.” Don’t bother trying to parse that. No, nothing lost in translation either. You just have to shut your eyes and get in the mood: Iran’s getting a nuclear rug—we call this rug Shiva, destroyer of worlds—so rejoice.

What Turkey is getting from the deal is rather more unclear. If you look closely at the terms—with cold, soulless, logical, Western eyes—you’ll notice that what Turkey would appear to be getting is a very large amount of radioactive waste. In exchange, it plans to give Iran highly enriched uranium for free, having extracted no meaningful concessions. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, declared immediately after the announcement of the deal that of course Iran would continue its own uranium enrichment program. Turkey agreeably pronounced this a wonderful diplomatic triumph that obviated the need for sanctions. It was, Turkish diplomats insisted, just like the deal the West had tried to get from Iran six months prior but failed to obtain.

Now, this is partially true: Americans did propose a similar deal. But the key to the deal they proposed was that Iran would agree to stop enriching its own nuclear material. And that was when Iran had only half as much nuclear material to swap. Iran was supposed to trade it all for fuel rods suitable for medical research. It’s true that the same amount of material is to be exchanged under the terms of this new plan as under the old one. But when the plan was last proposed, in October, the swap would have left Iran with less than the one thousand kilograms of material needed to produce weapons-grade uranium. Since then, Iran has continued to churn out low-enriched material. It now has twice as much, and it will keep more than enough to build weapons. The logic of the original plan, in other words, has been completely obviated; only the idea of a swap remains. The new deal is entirely to Iran’s advantage. But logic is not the source of this initiative: emotions are. From the Turkish point of view, there is a good feeling, and that’s good enough.

Moreover, the Turks are furious over the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara, and furious here is reason sufficient unto itself. No one in the Turkish press is asking why a boat with civilian women and children on board was sent to break a military blockade, or why that blockade was imposed in the first place, or how Turkey might have reacted had Israel sent a similar flotilla to deliver uninspected cargo to strongholds of the the PKK. Nor are they asking who would be the losers in a Turkish-Israeli naval battle—only weeks ago an unreal, apocalyptic prospect, but now well within the realm of imagination. No one is noting that there is a contradiction in the Turkish position. Diplomacy, Turkish leaders insist, is the only solution to the Iranian threat, but this enthusiasm for diplomacy was hardly on display when the decision was made to challenge the Israeli military using a boat packed with agitated human shields. The Turkish government offers its arguments for diplomacy with Iran and provocation toward Israel in the same sentence. No one here seems perturbed by the obvious problem with this line of reasoning.

Many in the West have interpreted the Turkish position as evidence that the place is under the control of Islamic crypto-fundamentalists. This is certainly part of the picture and a very important part, but do not make the mistake of thinking that’s all there is to it. The West is overlooking something both more subtle and more obvious: Emotions are running the show. The Turks have a good feeling about their recent encounters with Iran and a bad feeling about their recent encounters with Israel. Long-term, rational economic and geostrategic interests? To hell with those. The patient, subtle advancement of an Islamist agenda? To hell with that, too. This is a logic-free zone. Iran’s not a threat. No sanctions need be applied.

The only real material advantage that accrues to Turkey from the bargain is the chance to do trade with Iran—in the short term, at least. I single out Turkey for no special opprobrium in noting that its government finds it commercially advantageous to pretend there’s nothing going on in Iran requiring any urgent further attention from the world; France and Russia have long followed the same policy. But France and Russia are both nuclear powers in their own right. Should Iran acquire the Bomb, they at least have a deterrent. Turkey is not a nuclear power. Iran is a state with whom it has a very long history of enmity and quite a number of significant outstanding geostrategic and religious conflicts. The Ottoman and Persian Empires have been competing for regional hegemony since the Safavid and Qajar dynasties. As the nineteenth-century Ottoman statesman Fuad Pa?a remarked, in comments no less true today,

The government of [Iran], which is in a state of continual disorder and in the grip of Shiite fanaticism, has always been at one and in agreement with our enemies. Even in the Crimean War, she came to an agreement with Russia and united her ambitions with hers. The fact that she was unable to bring her hostile calculations to fruition was due to the West’s prudent and vigilant diplomacy. Today, the Shah’s government follows in the wake of [Russia]. As long as the Ottoman government is not occupied elsewhere, the discredited Iranian government, being impotent, ignorant, and incapable of taking any initiative on its own, dares not quarrel with us. However, at the moment of our first confrontation with Russia, Iran will take her place among our most irreconcilable enemies, due to her political dependence and, more important, her blind jealousy, in spite of our cautious and well-intentioned attitude.

Russia’s fear of rising nationalism among its Turkic minorities gives it good reason to favor Iran. An Iran in possession of nuclear weapons would almost certainly cooperate with Russia to the detriment of Turkey, dominate Central Asia and the Caucasus, and put an end to Turkish aspirations to be a great power. A regional nuclear arms race would likely ensue. Iran has close diplomatic relations with Armenia; Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia. Tehran has supported the Kurdish-separatist PKK, with which Turkey is at war. The Iranians are still Shiite fanatics who deplore both Sunni Islam and the Turkish secular state. There is no way whatsoever that it could be in Turkey’s long-term military or economic interests to live next door to a nuclear Iran, however impressive the short-term trade benefits of this deal might be—and they are not even that impressive.

“Long-term thinking,” however, is not really a Turkish trait. If something works for the next two hours, many a Turkish repairman has assured me, that’s good enough. Foreigners here have a word for the kind of jerry-rigged system Turks like to construct rather than building something that might still work in ten years’ time: Turknology. My apartment is full of Turknological wonders: wires that for the moment seem to be conveying electricity, even if I dare not touch them; windows that at least serve to keep the rain out, though they cannot be opened.

American policymakers know this deal makes no sense, but they’re tripped up at the logical stumbling block: Why on earth are the Turks so pleased about it? (Having never once visited Brazil, I won’t begin to try to explain what they are getting out of it, although I would note that Brazil is tough to reach with intermediate-range ballistic missiles, so it can afford to be a bit more cavalier about these things. And, of course, they haven’t offered to adopt Iran’s radioactive pets.)

What Turkey is getting out of it, hard though this is for Americans to grasp, is the feeling that a happy deal has been concluded, and even more importantly, the feeling that Turkey matters. As one commenter on the English Web site of the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet put it, “For the first time Turquey [sic] is showing to all the world that it can propose serious solutions to problems that neither US nor the West could solve it. Turquey is becoming a big and powerful nation who deserves respect and proud.” It is irrelevant, in this universe, whether the solutions are, in reality, serious. Few people here are thinking that deeply about it. Most are just thrilled that the world must now pay attention to Turkey—and tickled that the West doesn’t like it. Of course, there are some people here who are thinking deeply about the ramifications of these policies, and they’re terrified. “We’re going to lose everything we’ve worked for like this,” one acquaintance said to me. “We’ll end up back in the Stone Age.”

Critics of the deal “are envious,” Prime Minister Erdogan declared, “because Brazil and Turkey brokered and pulled off a diplomatic success that other countries had been negotiating without result for many years.” It doesn’t matter that he didn’t pull it off either, or that what other countries had been trying to achieve, in proposing similar exchanges, was a deal in which Iran agreed to stop enriching the damned stuff altogether. The emotions are the facts. Stranger still, Erdogan almost certainly truly believes that the objections are rooted in envy. He too assumes everyone lives in a world like his, one in which the emotions are the facts, and it is not an incidental point that in Turkey envy is a particularly important emotion. Envy of the West—in tandem with envy’s sibling, resentment—has certainly helped define modern Turkey, so it could truly seem plausible, in his mind, that the sentiment runs both ways.

From an anthropological point of view, this is all very interesting and curious. From a strategic point of view, it’s a disaster—for the West, of course, but much more so for Turkey, which will find out soon enough that whatever anyone might feel, two plus two does equal four, every single time, and the difference between half and all the uranium is actually quite significant.

What should the West do? Beats me. All I know is that calmly pointing this out will have absolutely no effect. I, after all, can’t even persuade a Turk to send an e-mail on time. Even when he promises.