What’s the matter with Turkey?

By Joshua W. Walker

The internal politics behind the country's strange recent behavior.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Ankara on Saturday, foreign-policy wonks are asking, "What's going on with Turkey?" Uncharacteristically, Turkey has been generating its share of headlines lately -- and not in a good way.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dramatic walkout at the World Economic Forum in Davos after an emotionally charged panel on the Gaza crisis, his call for Israel to be removed from the United Nations, and his posturing against an IMF agreement to help Turkey weather the economic crisis have left experts scratching their heads. With Turks heading to the polls for local elections in late March, Erdogan's "bring it on" attitude toward the West may be smart domestic politics, but it could have catastrophic repercussions for both Turkey and its long-time ally, the United States.

After leading the country through six years of unprecedented economic growth and undertaking far-reaching political reforms that have moved Turkey closer to realizing its dream of joining the European Union, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) seem to be going astray. Turkey's European reform program is bogged down, the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire remains the third rail of Turkish politics, there has been little letup in the military's battles with the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers Party, and strategic relations with Israel have virtually collapsed. The nexus of these problems is producing a nasty strain of Turkish nationalism, of which anti-Semitism -- a phenomenon largely alien to Turkey -- seems to be a central component.

Since Israel's December-January invasion of Gaza, a wave of anti-Semitism seems to have engulfed Turkey's political discourse. Even while emphasizing the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment, the Turks have engaged in a crude form of what can only be called Jew baiting. For example, Erdogan averred that Americans did not see what was really happening in Gaza because "Jews control the media." Reports of threats made to Jewish-owned businesses in Istanbul and Izmir as well as the appearance of billboards plastered with anti-Semitic messages have alarmed Turkey's 27,000-strong Jews, whose ancestors escaped the Inquisition for the safety of the Ottoman Empire. Sylvio Ovadya, the leader of the Jewish community -- which generally keeps a low profile -- recently asked President Abdullah Gül to make anti-Semitism a crime.

The cognitive dissonance over this outbreak of anti-Jewish sentiment is particularly jarring because Erdogan is no anti-Semite. After all, he spoke eloquently and forcefully in defense of Turkey's Jewish community after al-Qa'ida attacked two of Istanbul's synagogues in November 2003, is on record calling anti-Semitism a crime against humanity, and participated in the OSCE's 2004 Conference on Anti-Semitism that committed his government to combat anti-Semitism in all its forms.

But while anti-Semitism is cause for grave concern, the central problem in Turkey is a political system that one party -- arguably one personality, Erdogan -- thoroughly dominates. As polls point toward a resounding AKP victory in upcoming local elections, the party's domestic critics are increasingly concerned about the chilling effects of power left virtually unchecked. Turkey, they believe, has reached a critical juncture in its political development and they do not like the trajectory AKP has chosen.

The consolidation of AKP's political power has eliminated many of the traditional fault-lines in Turkey's perennial Kulturkampf. Few Turkey watchers would have ever believed that the military establishment and an Islamist-rooted political party could make common cause. Yet, the AKP is now riding a wave of popular sentiment that accommodates a previously irreconcilable mix of religious and secular nationalism. Oddly, Turkey has become more European, more democratic, more Islamic, and increasingly more nationalist simultaneously. In this complex political environment, the AKP has resorted to the lowest common denominators of economic and political populism to ensure its appeal among a large swath of the Turkish electorate that is angry at the EU, the United States, and Israel.

The prevailing mood in Turkey has come at the worst possible time for U.S.-Turkish relations. Proponents of a non-binding Congressional resolution recognizing the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as genocide have already begun soliciting support among their colleagues. There is, of course, a moral imperative to address one of the darkest episodes of the last century, yet should the resolution pass, we can expect a sharp Turkish backlash. Ankara would likely close or strictly limit use of Incirlik airbase, which is a main logistics hub for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Turks already largely alienated from Europe, the combination of Erdogan's current posturing and the possibility that Congress will pass an Armenian genocide resolution could cause long-term damage to U.S.-Turkish relations, leaving Ankara without an anchor in the West and Washington without a strategic partner in southeastern Europe and the Middle East.

The U.S.-Turkish alliance has undergone periods of great strain during the previous six decades. Shared interest in containing the Soviet threat was always sufficient to carry the bilateral relations during periods of tension. Yet, in the almost 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey's importance has not diminished. In fact, Ankara remains as critical an ally as ever as the Turks sit literally at the center of Washington's most pressing foreign-policy priorities in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucuses, Balkans, and Europe. As a result, the United States cannot afford to discount Turkey's regional role or internal instability.

Secretary Clinton will find the Turkey of today very different from the country she visited in 1999. It is not just "Islamist" political power, or the palpable buzz of Istanbul, which is on the verge of becoming a truly global city, or the sense that Turkey, with its newly minted seat on the U.N. Security Council, is a "player." It is all of these things. For years, Turks struggled with a debilitating sense of insecurity about their place in the world because they were, in the words of Turkey's founder Ataturk, trying to raise Turkey to "the level of civilization" -- i.e. Western civilization. Yet, the Turks have thus far been unable to crack the Western code, which above all else the European Union has come to represent. Europe, for its part, does not seem to want a country of 74 million Turkish Muslims. A whopping 81 percent of Austrians, for example, oppose Turkey's EU membership bid. Faced with the prospects of knocking on the gates of Vienna indefinitely, Turkey may simply look elsewhere.

Now, six years after the AKP came to power, Turkey's identity and survival are not entirely bound up in the West. Without abandoning its EU ambitions, Ankara has engaged its neighbors to the south and east, including Syria and Iran, and garnered the Turks newfound regional prestige after a long period of alienation from the Middle East.

Turkey today is a rising power in its region, a shift the United States should both acknowledge and leverage to its advantage. After all, Washington was initially critical of Ankara's growing ties with Damascus until it was revealed that the Turks were sponsoring indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria. As Secretary Clinton gets down to business with her Turkish counterparts, it will become obvious that U.S. and Turkish interests actually converge across a range of thorny regional problems. Take northern Iraq, where the continued improvement of Kurdish-Turkish relations is critical to PKK terrorist camps. Or Iran, where Turkey has a direct interest in seeing that its neighbor and regional rival does not acquire nuclear weapons. Ankara's growing economic and diplomatic ties with Tehran should be seen as a leading edge for Washington as it seeks ways to influence Iranian behavior for the better.

Yes, the trend in Turkey's domestic politics may be troubling. But despite the problems associated with AKP's accumulation of unrivalled political power, Turkey is still clearly a vital partner for the United States. An Armenian genocide resolution or efforts to punish Turkey based on a simplistic view of Erdo?an and his party as being "Islamist" or instinctively anti-Semitic or anti-Western will likely backfire. Secretary Clinton will have to find a way to make this key alliance work.

Joshua W. Walker was a guest fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations during the summer of 2008 and is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University.

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