Brief biographies of the participants can be found at the end of the article. This seminar is part of the GLORIA Center’s Experts Forum series.
Prof. Barry Rubin: Turkey is always interesting, always important, but right now it is even more interesting and more important. The question is the country’s direction. The current regime, which has been in power long enough and has won enough elections by large margins, is getting more confident. It is doing what it wants, rather than being restrained by fear that if it were to go too far toward Islamic, or Islamist, policies it would alienate the voters. Clearly we have seen the regime move toward Iran and Syria, and away from the United States and Israel. The European Union (EU) seems no closer to admitting Turkey, a source of frustration for Turkey and a process likely to be made more difficult by the government’s behavior. Let me stress that the issues here involve not only foreign policy but the Justice and Development (AK) party’s systematic effort to gain what seems to be intended as an irreversible hegemony over Turkish politics and society.
HOW HAS TURKEY CHANGED?
Dr. Soner Cagaptay: I think Turkey is changing and has changed on four levels. The first is the erosion of certain liberal democratic values, such as media freedom and gender equality, especially gender equality. For example, in government employment, the number of women in high-level positions is decreasing. As for the media, about half is now owned by the government or by pro-government interests, far more than a few years ago. One part of the media continues with fairly reasonable journalistic standards on issues, while the other half follows the government line. The weakening of such institutions and values is an important element in undermining democracy.
The second area of change is Turkey’s relations with the EU. We were all very excited when accession talks with the EU began. Now this train is stalled, and there are several factors to blame for it. The French have objected to it, the Greek Cypriots have provided the alibi, the Austrians don’t want Turkey, but the government of Turkey as well has not been pushing for reforms or making them the main focus of its agenda. For instance, in 2005, Turkey started the talks with the EU. That was the year we really saw the dream of Europe and Turkey come close to being a reality. But in 2005, the AK government declared it was not the year of Europe, but the year of Africa. So how serious are they in this regard?
If the process has now come to an almost complete halt, there is also an aspect of domestic politics, and we should all question to what extent the AK is committed to Turkey’s accession. After all, it would have to go through a politically costly set of reforms that it is not interested in pursuing because these would cost it domestic popularity.
Third, is Turkey’s lower commitment to Turkey’s traditional Western alliances, including, for example, Turkey’s position on Iran, which is weaker than even before. Whereas Turkey’s position until recently was that it did not object to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, in December 2008, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Washington, he gave a speech saying that countries that objected to Iran’s nuclear weapons should themselves not have nuclear weapons. The country has thus moved further from the U.S. position.
Turkey’s position on Israel is another example of this phenomenon. Typically, Turkey would have responded to Israel’s military operations in Gaza by urging restraint on both sides and hoping the hostilities would end quickly. Yet this was the first time Turkey departed from its established policy and basically bashed Israel for violence without putting any blame on Hamas for rocket attacks before or during the incursion. The government spoke as if Israel had caused the war and would keep causing war.
Fourth, there are powerfully negative public attitudes in Turkey toward the United States and Israel. Opinion polls show that the United States always ranks in the lower teens. Perhaps this will change with the Obama administration, but it will go back down pretty soon, when Turks realize that Obama is going to oppose Iran’s nuclear weapons drive and is not going to change U.S. policy significantly. Regarding Israel, popular attitudes are even more negative, in the single digits. This situation has even led to antisemitic incidents in Turkey, a shocking and shaming development in my view in a country that has for 500 years provided a safe haven for Jews. That tradition seems to be eroded right now and is changing in front of our very eyes.
Why should all this matter to those outside Turkey? After all, it could be argued that Turkey’s stance on certain issues–Iraq, Afghanistan, and al-Qa’ida–meet U.S. or Western needs. I think we should be concerned about these four elements of change for the following reasons:
Among the 57 countries that are members to the Organization of Islamic Countries, what makes Turkey unique? It is because it is a Muslim country a) which is a secular democracy; b) is in accession talks with the EU; c) is a NATO member; and d) has normal relations with Israel. You cannot find any other predominantly Muslim country with any of these characteristics.
Yet on all four of these aspects, we are seeing Turkey’s uniqueness coming undone; there are even issues with NATO. My sense and predication is that in the short term, the Turkish-Israeli relationship will go into a low profile phase where, as Barry said, objectively, military, security, and intelligence operations will continue but will not be spoken about. But if the persisting problem of a government not crazy about this relationship and a public that opposes the relationship is not addressed in Turkey then the relationship will decline. In a democracy, popular opinion eventually shapes foreign policy. If anti-Israeli views persist in Turkey, and the relationship loses its public/economic component, which acts as a shock absorber, sooner or later, public opinion will shape, trim, and erode the Turkish-Israeli relationship.
Dr. Ian Lesser: One of the things I find very striking in Turkey is the steady deterioration of views about the West, Europe, Israel, and the United States. The secular opposition and the military and security establishment were traditionally very NATO- focused. These are now hotbeds of nationalism. I just came back from Turkey and strong language about Gaza wasn’t just coming from the AK party, it was also coming from the nationalist opposition, secular leftist, and secular rightists.
Dr. Stephen Larrabee: I found the discussion a little bit one-sided. While it is true that there has been growing anti-Americanism, or anti-Bushism, I would argue strongly that the more nationalistic, more anti-American party is the CHP (Republican People’s Party), partly because it is in opposition. When you look across the spectrum, it is not the AK that is the most anti-American. Similarly, when you look at the question of the EU, yes, there has been a slowdown in reform and it is regrettable and very troubling.
On the other hand, you need to look also at the EU’s behavior. Two of the main members, France and Germany, have essentially walked away from the basic principles of the EU accession negotiations and now are trying to talk about a privileged partnership. The EU has not lived up to its original agreement to lift the trade embargo against northern Cyprus. All these developments have led to a decline in Turkish support for the EU, which 3 years ago was close to 70 percent and is now somewhere between 40 and 50 percent. The EU is very unpopular today in many circles, not just in the AK. The AK has reacted to this decline in public support for the EU.
It is certainly true that Erdogan has been more outspoken and very critical of certain aspects of Israeli policy, but I would remind people also that this is not new, that his predecessor Bulent Ecevit, who was certainly not an Islamist, was critical at times as well. This criticism has not been limited solely to the AK party, although certainly Erdogan has been more outspoken. Although Erdogan has been highly critical of certain aspects of Israeli policy, the substance of the relationship with Israel remains reasonably good. Hence one should differentiate between the rhetoric and the substance–although one could imagine that the substance may eventually begin to be seriously affected as well if the Turkish criticism is continued.
Prof. Barry Rubin: I’ll try to sum up. One factor is the growing confidence of the AK doing what it wants to do or what significant parts of the party want to do. They feel more confident. They can pursue their real agenda. A second factor is, one we have long talked about, what would happen if Turkey to some extent gave up on EU membership. That phenomenon may also be happening. Two other things may be shorter-run factors: attitudes towards specific U.S. policies–for example, regarding northern Iraq–and the Gaza war.
However, note the difference between the first two and the last two points. If the latter issues are a large element of the problem, we would expect that within a year, we would see an improvement. But if the main aspect of the problem are the first two points–that is the AK feeling free to do what it wants to do and disillusionment with the European path–to which can be added structural changes in Turkey, this is a long-term, possibly permanent shift. In that case, Turkey would be standing at a historic crossroads.
Dr. Soner Cagaptay: Steve, I agree with you on the EU dimension and that its takes two to tango. This is not just the AK not driving the train, but it is also the French parking that train. So absolutely, there are two sides to it.
But we have to differentiate between the front-seat and the back-seat driver in Turkey. Turkey’s front seat driver for the last six years now has been the AK; the opposition has been the backseat driver. They are giving the government advice but the government is actually driving the car. It is the people in charge who have decided that they are not going to push aggressively for an EU accession for whatever reason.
It is also the people in charge who have decided that they are going to use a different rhetoric on the Arab-Israeli issue then Turkey has done for the last 60 years. Ecevit has criticized Israel, but never with the language of Erdogan. If you look at the latter’s comments for instance that “Allah will punish Israel” and that he questions Israel’s right to be in the UN, and that Hamas should be dealt with as a government, none of this would have come from previous Turkish governments.
So, I am going to suggest to this panel now a new way of thinking about Turkey, and I think this will help us make sense of the change that Turkey is going through. The Islamists in Turkey are no more in opposition. They are in government. The secular Turks are in opposition. When we start thinking of Turkey with this new paradigm it is a country run by what is an Islamist party in the Turkish context. The government controls two-thirds of the seats in the parliament. It has the presidency, the cabinet, and is about to have the power to appoint the judges to the Supreme Court. It controls half of the media. They have a fairly large support base among Turkey’s wealthiest people. When talking about political hegemony that is about as good as it gets.
Let us think of this not as the Islamist opposition and secular establishment but as the AK Islamist establishment and the secular opposition.
Dr. Stephen Larrabee: I would try to put the recent deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations in perspective by saying that one of the main reasons for the deterioration is the differences over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but the deterioration has to be seen within the broader context of Turkey’s changing security environment. One of the factors was the Cold War’s end, which removed the main glue of the bilateral security relationship, the Soviet threat. At the same time, it opened up a number of new opportunities in areas that had been more or less off limits to Turkish policy, particularly Central Asia and the Middle East. Turkey now had opportunities that it had not had previously.
Second, the focus of threats and challenges changed quite dramatically. During the Cold War, the main threat was from the north, from the Soviet Union. Today, the main threats and challenges are on Turkey’s southern border. That has to do with the disintegration of Iraq, the problems in Lebanon, the problems posed by a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, and the problems that arise in Arab-Israeli disputes. So it is not unusual that Turkey would begin to focus much more heavily on the Middle East and particularly on Iraq.
The differences over Iraq, I would say, are the main–though not the sole–reason for the deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations. From the beginning, the Turkish leadership had reservations about the wisdom of the invasion and made their reservations clear. They did not like Saddam Hussein. They thought he was a brutal dictator just as much as the Bush administration, but they were worried that the invasion would lead to instability on their southern border fragmentation of Iraq, an increase in sectarian violence, and most of all an increase in Kurdish nationalism.
In fact, their worst fears came true. There was after the invasion a rather large increase for a number of years in sectarian violence. Iran’s role in Iraq and in the region has increased and the danger of the emergence of an independent Kurdish state on Turkish borders also has increased.
Finally, the insurgency from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) was reignited and strengthened. Therefore, if you try to look back at why this deterioration occurred, the fact that the United States was unwilling to assist Turkey in combating PKK terrorism for a number of years was seen in Turkey as hypocritical. After all, the United States had undertaken two military actions–Afghanistan and Iraq–to combat terrorism, and the Turks also saw themselves as faced with a terrorist threat.
I am quite convinced that as the U.S. presence in Iraq draws down, the degree of anti-Americanism will decline. The willingness of the United States to help to combat PKK terrorism, the willingness to provide the Turks with operational intelligence, has already had a positive impact on relations. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic. A number of Obama’s likely positions come closer to coinciding with Turkish government policy and interests than those of the Bush administration. If the U.S. government under Obama continues, as I suspect it will, to assist the Turks in combating PKK terrorism, I think there will likely be a gradual improvement of relations.
One of the key issues for the Turkish government will be the impact of a U.S. withdrawal on the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi Kurds. On one hand, one could argue that the United States has been restraining the Kurds and that there is fear in some parts of Turkey that with the U.S. withdrawal the Iraqi Kurds may feel less constrained about declaring independence.
The other side of the coin, however, in my view, is more likely. The impact would be to push the Kurds more toward accommodation with Turkey because they would realize that they were losing their most important patron and needed some replacement. This won’t happen overnight, but we are already beginning to see some elements of it.
Still, a lot will depend on what happens with the Armenian Genocide Resolution in the U.S. Congress. If the Congress passes the resolution, it could have a very negative impact on relations.
Prof. Barry Rubin: Basically, the view is that Iraq has been the main issue that has created friction. Do we want to conclude that there are other important issues that should be mentioned? When talking to people in Turkey one hears the idea from the opposition that the United States is really very pro-AK–which is given by the opposition as an excuse for its not doing better.
Dr. Stephen Larrabee: I do not want to say that Iraq is the overwhelming factor, but it is certainly–and you are correct at that–not the sole factor.
Barry Rubin: Could you mention some secondary factors?
Dr. Stephen Larrabee: I would say the differences on policy toward Iran both on the energy issue as well as Turkey’s relationship with Iran in general, also with Syria, but you are likely to see a realignment of policy between Turkey and the United States, because the Obama administration is likely to open a dialogue and try to engage with Iran. How successful that will be remains to be seen. The same with Syria, but this opening of a dialogue will mean that U.S. and Turkish policy will now be more in alignment than they were in the past. And there is the Arab-Israeli issue as well. So, there are a number of other issues there have been differences on.
Prof. Efraim Inbar: Basically, Soner pays more attention to identity issues, while Steven Larrabee is more or less talking about realpolitik. What are the main motivations behind the AK’s foreign policy? Is it Islamist forces or maybe realpolitik because with the Soviet Union no longer there, they do not need the Americans anymore, and they can dream about playing a central role in the Middle East?
Dr. Stephen Larrabee: I think that is a very interesting question. I have to say I am probably somewhere in between. When you listen to the language of Erdogan in particular, not just in talking about Gaza, you really get the sense that this is not a kind of political stretch. This is not a language of convenience or of strategic calculation. It may be all of those things, but it is also how they see the world. It conforms to their worldview.
I think that isn’t an unfair characterization of what the AK has been doing, not without some success actually. They now face some much tougher choices because of things happening in the world. They are very reluctant to make those choices, especially if it is a reaffirmation of core, Western institutional ties, NATO, EU, etc. I think it is a mixture of both the personality affinity and identity and these structural problems that is driving us in the direction of exactly what Soner describes, even if I don’t agree with every aspect of how you have laid it out. I think, on the whole, the effect is as you have described.
Dr. Soner Cagaptay: Let me give you some feedback from my four months of research in Turkey during autumn 2008. One of the questions I had was why do Turks hate America?
I did a test. I turned off CNN and BBC, the Financial Times, and email, and for two weeks I watched only the Turkish media and read only what Turks read. The conclusion is that what Turks hear about the United States, as reported in their media and described to them by the AK government, is an incredibly anti-Western, anti-European, and now anti-Israeli perspective. So your typical Turk does not like the United States, in fact, hates the United States because that is the only thing that he hears.
So Obama might do all the right things to make Turkey happy on Iran, the Armenian resolution, Iraq, the PKK, and the EU, but Turkish opinion will only turn around when the government also tells its people that the United States is a friend of Turkey and that Turkey and the Unites States do share common interests–such as a unified stable Iraq–and values such as democracy. What I say for Turkish-American ties could easily be applied to Turkish-Israeli relations as well.
Dr. Stephen Larrabee: Let us come back to this question of identity politics versus realpolitik because I think it is very important. I think what Soner and Ian have said is quite true. Identity politics do play a very important role. It is not just a question of realpolitik. But on the question of U.S.-Turkish relations, I think the main factor–though not the only factor–had to do with the U.S. handling of Iraq. I take very much to heart what Soner said, but when you look at what is being said in Turkey, you have to look at the other parties as well, and they are as bad and in many cases more anti-American. This is a problem that goes across the spectrum and involves a number of other parties, not to excuse the AK for some of the things they have said and done.
TURKEY AND ISRAEL
Prof. Efraim Inbar: We should remember first of all that the type of relationship we see now between Israel and Turkey is rather new. It is a question of 20 years, no more. There are several possible explanations for what we have seen from Erdogan. Part of it is a personal explanation. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Erdogan just a few days before the Gaza operation began. Olmert knew it was going to happen and either didn’t tell Erdogan about that or perhaps even implied the opposite. There may be a belief that he was misled–or at least could be accused of conspiring in implementing the operation–and this may have further inflamed the criticism.
A second explanation is of course a realpolitik explanation. The Turks are interested in their status with the Arab and Muslim world. Speaking like this against Israel can be seen simply as rhetoric, a cheap way to make gains. And if this is so, cooler heads may prevail, and business will continue as usual, as we have seen before. After all, the second intifada was a serious test to Turkish-Israeli relations, and they didn’t change their policies toward Israel. In fact, now, in comparison to the previous crisis, there is a change for the better–they didn’t call back their ambassador as they did in the past.
Moreover, if the Turks really want a role in the Middle East as they claim, they need good relations with Israel. So far, and I am not sure it is not going to change, Israeli-Turkish relations have been along the realpolitik paradigm, basically trying to ignore the differences and to focus on those things important to the defense and security interests of those two countries.
There is a third explanation. Indeed, what we see today is part of Turkey’s ongoing identity crisis. We probably see a greater component of Muslim identity, and it influences Turkish foreign policy. Israel is part of this debate.
Israel has always favored good relations with Turkey. There has already been a decline in Israeli tourism to Turkey. In addition, I think there are several tests ahead. What will happen to military relations, to economic relations? I think they may be influenced by the atmosphere in Turkey. At the same time, Israel should try to conduct a dialogue with the Islamists. We are indeed at a crossroads. Turkey, for its own reasons that Israel has no influence over, will show us where it is going.
Dr. Soner Cagaptay: If you watch the weather forecast on TRT, Turkey’s publicly funded television station, they will never give you the temperature for any Israeli cities, though they do provide the forecast for all cities outside of Israel, despite the fact that there is a large Turkish-speaking community in Israel that might actually be watching this station.
Dr. Anat Lapidot-Firilla: If we are talking about realpolitik, then perhaps we can ask ourselves if Turkey currently sees itself in competition with Israel. If so, as far as evaluating a strategic partnership, we need to come to the conclusion that we are no longer strategic partners, but rather that we stand in opposition due to a conflict of interests.
It is not quite true to say that critical comments about Israel were made by Turkish leaders before. That is not the issue. The issue is that never before did such remarks involve such a systematic campaign and attempt to mobilize Turkish people in an anti-Israel direction. The ruling party and government were very active to ensure a certain view of Israelis and Jews, especially on the part of the younger generation in Turkey. That is why we should notice AK policy. It is not merely the rhetoric of politicians–and this makes me concerned.
Prof. Barry Rubin: I think that we should lay out what is underlying this discussion, which is the Turkish conception of strategy and realpolitik. We are not just dealing with a question of identity but of Turkey’s whole orientation. Will it be Islamist or Kemalist? How will Turkey see its regional goals, and in what way will it define its friends and enemies? What is at stake here are not just bilateral relations with Israel or even the United States, but the whole nature of Turkey itself.
If the AK is going to view itself as close to or even aligned to some degree with Iran, Syria, and Hamas–not the Palestinian Authority–that is a hugely changed conception. This does not mean Turkey will not seek good relations with Europe or America, though less likely with Israel, yet it will be a very different Turkey from the one that has existed for a very long time.
In addition, this would mark a significant change in the regional power balance. It is not just, for example, a matter of the Turkish government not worrying about Iran having nuclear weapons, but the regime possibly wants Iran to have nuclear weapons because it sees that as empowering Muslims. This means it is not just sympathetic to Palestinian suffering but that it wants Hamas to take over the Palestinian leadership. It implies that Turkey does not just have problems with the U.S. over Iraq, but would like to see a very different Iraq.
Are they entering into, at least in a loose way, what Syrian President Bashar Asad calls “the resistance camp” and that whatever they say to keep the EU happy or to avoid friction with the United States, this may be the biggest strategic shift in the Middle East since the Iranian Revolution. I do not want to overstate the case, but here is a piece of evidence. Compared to its warming toward Iran, Syria, and Hamas, we see no equivalent Turkish moves toward Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan–the opponents of the Iranian-led coalition.
Dr. Ian Lesser: The United States and Israel are being affected by something that is happening in Turkey which is not anything new. The AK is a mass party; public opinion counts. There has been a certain distortion in the way the United States sees our own relationship with Turkey. We could go and deal with a very small number of strategic elites, military, and some in the private sector, and they would give us essentially what we wanted out of a realist view of our interest. That has not gone away entirely, but it is getting very rough at the edges, and I think it is affecting both relationships.
When I was in Ankara and Istanbul, taxi drivers were donating a day’s salary to a Gaza fund. Every taxi in Ankara had rather appalling photos plastered on the backs of the taxis that had been centrally distributed, but everybody had them. I was in Gaziantep at factories where there were big placards outside talking about Gaza, so this is not something that is being stirred up without there being a constituency. There is really a deep reservoir of public affinity, unease, all of these things, and its affecting both relationships.
Dr. Soner Cagaptay: Let me make this suggestion. The U.S.-Turkish relationship would not be facing the problems it has without the Iraq War. The AK has used this to its advantage to boost domestic popularity and realized that it can get away with anti-American rhetoric at home if it sustains good relations with the United States in Iraq, and it worked.
What I see for the Turkish-Israeli relationship is that Hamas is doing to the Turkish-Israeli relationship what the Iraq war has done to the Turkish-American relationship. It is because the AK’s sympathies are largely with Hamas as a political party, not with the Palestinians as a whole. And this is not just my own analysis. Prime Minister Erdogan sees Hamas as a party that should be dealt with and should not be isolated. Is Hamas going to disappear? No. Thus, you are going to get an incredible beating of Israel in Turkey through the Hamas factor.
You might still continue to have the Turkish-Israeli military relationship, but all of that will have to be very low key, under the radar, invisible. And I think the mid-term challenge that faces the relationship is, as Ian mentioned, the economic and cultural component of Turkish-Israeli ties. They are very strong, but can you sustain them in a country where Israelis feel physically threatened?
That is why I think eventually that leg is going to come undone when you have Israelis who go to Turkey on vacation, to invest, for conferences and they are not well received. I see a huge number of problems because the AK’s sympathies are, in the final analysis, with Hamas; they don’t see Hamas as a problem. Turkey invited Hamas to Ankara in 2005, and then suggested it was some kind of exceptional circumstance, but it turned out that Turkey’s contacts with Hamas continued and remain strong.
TURKEY AS A MIDDLE EAST POWER
Dr. Soner Cagaptay: At the Kuwait summit, the moderates–including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt–gathered. At the Doha summit were Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey. So to answer Barry’s question, that is how the AK positions itself in Arab politics.
Dr. Steven Larrabee: If I could perhaps address Barry’s questions, it is not true that the Turkish government does not care about whether or not Iran gets nuclear weapons. It has made it very clear privately and publicly that it opposes the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran. Not because Turkey really feels a threat from Iran, but because Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could stimulate a nuclear arms race in the region and could raise the nuclear issue in Turkey itself.
On Iran, there are a number of differences with the United States. Turkish and U.S. interests do not totally coincide. Turkey needs the United States. It wants to reduce its dependence on Russia by turning to Iran as a source of oil and natural gas.
Second, there is the Kurdish issue on which Iran and Turkey see eye-to-eye. Turkey has national interests that drive it toward an accommodation with Tehran in certain areas. The same is true in the case of Syria. But certainly on the nuclear issue the United States and Turkey see eye-to-eye much more.
Last, I think that what you are seeing is actually a shift in Turkish perspectives on its role in the Middle East. Under Ataturk and for a long time, Turkey tried to stay aloof from the Middle East and concentrated its major efforts on strengthening ties with the West.
Now, for a variety of reasons, including the changing strategic context from the end of the Cold War, many of the problems in the Middle East are on Turkey’s southern borders. Turkey is beginning to return to a role that it played historically and traditionally. I would say that the Republican era, particularly under Ataturk, now is much more of an anomaly in terms of Middle East policy and Turkey’s returning to a more historic role and trying to play a larger regional role. Islamic politics plays a role here, but, again, I do not think that it is the main driving force directing Turkey in these directions.
Prof. Efraim Inbar: I think the intriguing question is indeed Barry’s. We can think of Turkey’s view as seeing the Americans declining, for example, with the United States getting out of Iraq. Turkey has aspirations to play a role in the Middle East. They may be lining themselves up with the radicals. They may be weakening Egypt, which has been a competitor for hegemony in the Middle East. They are being pushed more into Middle Eastern politics by geography. A very interesting question will be how it would affect Turkey’s policies if the Russians were to come back to the region.
Prof. Ofra Bengio: Indeed, under the AK, relations with the Middle East have changed dramatically in threat perceptions, its role in the region, and its relationship with certain specific countries. Turkey wants to play a pivotal role in the region, which some have called an Ottoman strategy. This strategy is both multilateralist and aimed at avoiding conflict with any neighbor. Turkey can work with the Arab world, the Muslim countries, and Israel as well. I do not think it will have to choose between these categories, and this is an important point.
In this context, Turkey hopes to play the role of mediator, which requires a reasonably good relationship with Israel. By turning Islam into its platform, rather than nationalism, the AK opened the door for a closer alignment with Arab countries and Iran. This was a way to advance its own bid for regional leadership. There is also a domestic component here: the economic crisis within Turkey and the hope to bring Arab financial support and investment.
Relations with Syria have undergone a major transformation, even a revolution. Turkey gave up its support for the PKK; Turkey offered to help Syria escape isolation. In exchange, one could say the competition between Turkey and Syria has been replaced by competition between Turkey and Egypt.
Another change concerns threat perceptions. Worrying about the Kurds is a constant in Turkish policy, but that threat–once linked to Iran and Syria–is now seen as emanating from Iraq. Turkey grappled with this problem of northern Iraq by cooperating with Iran and Syria on this issue. It is, however, vying with Iran for influence inside Iraq itself while also engaging the Kurdish regional government rather than having a conflict with it. Regarding relations with Iran, again we have seen a major change. Turkey no longer views Iran as an ideological threat but wants to engage Iran through negotiation and cooperation.
TURKEY AND THE EUROPEAN UNION
Dr. Ian Lesser: I will make three points on this topic. The first is that the question of Turkey’s membership in the EU is a fifteen-year project at a minimum. There is no question that the process is troubled on both sides at the moment. In order to get the process with Europe really seriously going again, Turkey has to make some concessions. It is a question of how long it will take Turkey to agree to the conditions necessary to become a member. Some Turks recognize that, but in general that is not what you see in the debate.
If you ask Turks and Europeans whether it is a good idea for Turkey to come into the European Union and whether it is likely to happen, you get an interesting result. In Turkey, most people still think it is a good idea. They see it as leading to prosperity. The numbers have been going down over time, but still many people think it is a good idea. But if you ask if it is likely they say, “No, it is not going to happen.” The European responses are the exact opposite. Is it a good idea? No. Is it likely to happen? Yes.
Turks are very surprised to hear this result sometimes. You obviously have many people in Europe who do not like the idea but think it is inevitable. Why? It could be that they simply do not feel that they have control over the process. Other enlargements that they didn’t think were necessarily such a good idea happened anyway.
You now have key political actors who are not just ambivalent but really against the idea, such as Sarkozy in France and Merkel in Germany. The economic crisis is likely to have an extremely negative effect on already unenthusiastic European views of the costs and advantages of taking in Turkey for EU membership.
If Turkey becomes–and is perceived as becoming–more and more Middle Eastern, that complicates this relationship with Europe. It gets much harder to make the case for Turkish membership. Moreover, given Turkey’s other activities, it just reduces the energy and commitment to this European project. There has to be some kind of focus.
Regarding Turkey’s EU membership, I don’t think you are going to see anything very different from the Obama administration. It will be very committed to promoting Turkey as a member of the EU eventually. What has changed, of course, is that it gets tougher and tougher for us to make the case.
This stance does give the United States a better hearing for its interests in Turkey. But from our point of view, I think our interest is not for Turkey to become a member but for Turkey to continue to converge with Europe in different sectors that are meaningful to us.
Dr. Anat Lapidot-Firilla: We often hear the argument that the process of Turkey moving toward EU membership is more important than the goal of achieving it, but it is a strange argument. After all, it is this process that made Turkey more religious and to a certain extent created the problems we are debating now. Therefore, if there is no happy ending to the process (acceptance to the EU), the process may prove to be is a very negative one.
Dr. Stephen Larrabee: You make a very interesting point.
Prof. Barry Rubin: Let us talk in more detail about Anat’s point. One aspect of the EU process was to make the army weaker so that it would not have a public role. The process kicked out some of the controls that Ataturk and his successors had put in. Knowing the army is unable to act makes it easier for the AK to go further toward dismantling the republic as it has existed. Earlier in the AK’s reign, the EU gave it certain benefits that strengthened its claim to being moderate and successful. So this is a great irony: The membership process was supposed to bring Turkey closer to Europe but in fact ended up pushing Turkey further away from Europe in terms of its norms and internal politics.
Dr. Ian Lesser: In terms of Turkish nationalism, which in my view is just as potent a force affecting U.S. and Israeli relations with Turkey today as Islamism–maybe more–there is a certain artificiality to this process with Europe in which Turkey feels itself continuously disappointed, not taken seriously, and not dealt with in good faith. We can argue whether that is true, but that is how it is seen. There are constantly issues arising where Turkish nationalism is stirred up. And some of this mood at the moment can be attributed to not just what the United States seems to be doing or not doing in Iraq, for example, but also what the EU does. This process issue that you mention becomes part of the substance.
Dr. Stephen Larrabee: An important factor not mentioned yet is the shift in the EU’s own mood, a kind of enlargement fatigue that goes beyond Turkey. The French and Dutch referendum made clear that there is real concern among the public in most European countries about the process of enlargement, and that has had an impact on the debate in the EU and, thus, on the debate in Turkey. Another thing worth noting is that in the past, EU-Turkish relations have gone up and down, but Turkey could always count on its relationship with the United States when relations with the EU were bad.
This is the first time in my memory that Turkey’s relations with the EU and the United States have been simultaneously bad. This has led to a questioning of the relationship with the West, a feeling of greater vulnerability, of nationalism, a sense that Turkey can no longer rely on its traditional allies–not just the EU but also the United States. This has contributed to this more nationalistic mood and, at the same time, the growing sense of vulnerability. So it is a dangerous mixture of factors affecting Turkey’s overall relations not simply with the EU but with the West as a whole. This also helps to explain why Turkey has moved toward a somewhat less pro-Western policy.
Prof. Barry Rubin: Aside from disappointments with the United States and Europe, there has also been the failed idea of a Turkic community, of a special relationship with the ex-Soviet republics. That pulled away still another alternative to a Middle East orientation and possibly a trend toward believing that Iran, Syria, and Hamas are the kind of people they want to have as allies.
Remember also that this basic idea was brought up by Erbakan, the Islamist leader and briefly prime minister, out of whose party the AK itself came. He was ridiculed at the time and ended up looking very foolish. To quote an Egyptian proverb, his idea of Turkey aligning with Arab and Muslim states was seen in Turkey as, “No matter how many zeros you have you still have zero.”
The AK has reintroduced this notion in a more subtle way and it has become a driving force in Turkish strategy and policy. Remember that close Turkish-Israeli relations were based on the fact that Turkey’s interests were opposed to those of Iran–because Iran was pushing Islamism–and Syria–because Syria was pushing radicalism and the Kurdish issue. Yet if Turkey reverses direction on these issues, it no longer needs Israel and, to some extent, the regime may feel it no longer needs Europe or America either. The real loser here is not Israel but the United States.
Dr. Ian Lesser: It also threatens to reverse some of the things that have really been very positive in terms of the EU candidacy: the talks with Greece that transcended that old rivalry, for example. A rising mood of nationalism could unravel some of these things that have actually been very positive.
Dr. Stephen Larrabee: Certainly, there is a big difference between the AK’s policy and that of Erbakan, which was decidedly anti-Western ideologically. The National Salvation Party and Refah were opposed to NATO membership; they were opposed to membership with the EU. What has changed is a number of factors. Iraq has had a deleterious impact on U.S.-Turkish relations, while the changes in the EU have had a deleterious impact on Turkish relations with the EU. There have been changes in Syria since 1998 that were justifiably why Turkey would want to maintain a better relationship with Syria. The same applies to Iran. So you have a change in the strategic context as well as changes within the Islamist movement itself and the victory of modernists within the internal debate.
All of these factors have come together to push Turkey in a slightly different direction that is based on a feeling that Turkey can no longer rely on its traditional allies. This gives this new direction, this effort at rebalancing, a somewhat uncertain and dangerous connotation.
Prof. Barry Rubin: You are 100 percent right about the background but that doesn’t change the outcome. The question remains, however, have things passed a certain point? And would even the undoing of certain elements, for example, a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, have much effect in moving things back. I am simply raising these issues and asking you to make us all feel better by explaining why this is only temporary.
Dr. Stephen Larrabee: I think these are the key questions, and this going to be very difficult to answer. My own sense is that if Congress does not pass the Armenian Resolution and the United States and Turkey can begin to move back to a better relationship, that doesn’t mean we won’t have differences, but again I think the differences over Iran will be mitigated somewhat by the fact that Obama is likely to open a dialogue with Teheran and the same with Syria. We will not be able to put the toothpaste back into the tube completely, but I think we can certainly halt the downward spiral that relations have been on for the past five years.
Dr. Soner Cagaptay: I think the EU factor is useful not only because it is about Turkey’s transformation, but also because, as Stephen said, it provides us an anchor that could tie Turkey to the West at a time when Turkey’s relations with the United States have gone through ups and downs. We should promote it.
We have had some pessimistic conversations about where Turkey is going. Turkey is changing both at home and in foreign policy. I see a slipping away from certain liberal democratic values, from Europe. We need to make sure that the EU process therefore becomes a benchmark for both Turkey’s internal process, but also an anchor that ties Turkey to the West. The same points apply to NATO.
Dr. Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has written extensively on U.S.-Turkish relations, Turkish domestic politics, and Turkish nationalism. His Ph.D. is from Yale University (2003), and he has taught courses at Yale and Princeton Universities, as well as serving as visiting professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. His latest book is Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk? (Routledge, 2006).
Dr. Stephen Larrabee is Distinguished Chair in European Security at RAND Corporation in Washington, D.C. He specializes in NATO, Eastern Europe, Turkey, Russia, and the Ukraine. He previously served as Vice President and Director of Studies at the Institute for East-West Security Studies, New York. His Ph.D. in political science and international affairs is from Columbia University. He makes frequent media appearances, and writes commentary in the International Herald Tribune; New York Times; United Press International; and Washington Times.
Dr. Ian Lesser is Senior Transatlantic Fellow, The German Marshall Fund of the United States. His expertise includes transatlantic relations, NATO, the European Union, and Turkey. He previously served in the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., where he led a major project on the future of U.S.-Turkish relations. He spent over a decade at RAND as a senior analyst and research manager. From 1994-1995, he was a member of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. He received his D.Phil. from Oxford University.
Prof. Ofra Bengio is Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and Senior Lecturer, Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University. Her fields of specialization are contemporary Middle Eastern history, modern and contemporary politics of Iraq, and the Arabic language. She is the author of Saddam’s Word: Political Discourse in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 1998); Editor (with Gabriel Ben-Dor) of Minorities and State in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner, 1999); and The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
Prof. Efraim Inbar is a Professor in Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and the Director of its Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. He completed his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Chicago. He served as visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University (2004), at Georgetown University (1991-1992), and visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (1996). His area of specialization is Middle Eastern strategic issues with a special interest in the politics and strategy of Israeli national security. His latest book is Israel’s National Security: Issues and Challenges since the Yom Kippur War (Routledge, 2008).
Dr. Anat Lapidot-Firilla is a Senior Fellow and the Academic Director of the Mediterranean unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. She is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and Policy Studies, School of Public Policy, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and teaches at the Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies Program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research focuses on various aspects of religion, politics, and identity with an emphasis on contemporary Turkey.
Prof. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).