Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Re-Aligned Priorities

A few years ago, I took an internship with a boutique literary agency in West LA. At one point during my stint there, the Agent asked us interns to develop a book idea, fiction or non-fiction, that we thought would result in a compelling publication for a major publisher. The United States had at that point been engaged in the war in Iraq for a few years and I had become fascinated with the Turkish issue. At that point in time it seemed that Turkey stood at a crucial crossroads. Ankara had roundly denied US flyover rights through its airspace into northern targets in Iraq, and had been panned by the neocons for its apparent refusal to play along. This signalled to me the increasing importance of Turkey on the global scene. Ankara had taken a bold step in standing up to the neocon agenda and solidified its place as an independent actor. Given its geostrategic location, its increasing influence in both the Eurozone and the Arab states, and its secular, democratic (read: Kemalist) traditions, it seemed to me that a post 9/11 public would be hungry for reading material about this emerging nation.

Well, no book was ever produced, despite some modest efforts on my part. However, my prognostications seem to have been largely accurate. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern nation-state of Turkey, Ankara's natural inclination has been to stay out of the Middle Eastern arena, while trying to convince its Western neighbors that Turkey's rightful place was among the nations of Enlightenment Europe. This, of course, was a project rife with considerable obstacles. Some 90 plus percent of Turks are Muslims, yet the continuously secular character of the nation has always been guaranteed by the dedication of the nation's army to this end. Contrast this with Pakistan, whose military establishment has consistently counted Islamists among its ranks, or Iran whose Revolutionary Guard has been the very arm of Allah himself, promising the continuation of Imam Khomeini's revolution.

Before the commencement of hostilities in Iraq, the Pentagon had asked Ankara to show its support for the war effort by allowing U.S. flyover rights through Turkish airspace and into the northern provinces of Iraq The people of Turkey emerged on the streets in huge numbers, and Ankara responded to Washington by reflecting the will of the people, and denied the Pentagon's request. Despite the fact that the Turkish government seemingly embodied the very democratic ideals that Washington claimed it was spreading to the Middle East, the neocon administration derisively panned Ankara's decision.

It was a turning point for Turkey. Its geostrategic location was highlighted by the fact that war was now on its southern border. It also brought light to the fact that this was a large, complex, and cosmopolitan nation that seemed to have - at least for the moment - achieved some balance between Islam and democratic and free market institutions. To be sure, Turkey had its internal and external issues - in particular the lack of official recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the resulting human rights violations, as well as the persistent and bloody Kurdish issue. Nonetheless, Turkey was emerging on the world stage, the crossroads between Europe and Asia, between the Islamic world and the secular West.

For some time, it seemed that the specific mode by which Turkey would be integrated into the greater global community was through membership in the EU. This has been a subject of contentious debate for decades, with intensely felt opinions on both sides of the Bosporus, often devolving into racism and xenophobia. In Paris and Berlin, the possible inclusion of Turkey into "Europe" seemed to challenge the very meaning of the word. If Turkey, with its 70 million Muslims, its lower standard of living, and its questionable human rights standards became a part of Europe, then what is Europe? The debate continues and significant issues remain, particularly Turkish claims in Cyprus, the jailing of anti-establishment journalists in Turkey, and the rise of a moderate Pan-Islamist movement in the form of the AK Party. It seems for the moment, the Kemalist dream of a European Turkey is a dream deferred.

The entire European Union project met perhaps its greatest challenge with the recent economic struggles of Greece, and the continued worry about the future of the Spanish economy. The idea of a "united" Europe, that lives and dies together, stood naked in a stark light of skepticism when Berlin seemingly tried everything to avoid using its own purse to bailout Athens. A few observers (myself included) wondered out loud: "Maybe Turkey doesn't have as much to gain in the EU as it once thought?" The idea of bailing out smaller, mismanaged and slow developing economies for the sake of collective risk management and strength in the currency market may not be worth the price. The leaders of the AKP began to re-interpret the Kemalist legacy, envisioning Turkey as a dynamic state all its own, with influence in Europe and in the Arab world (and ultimately beyond), which it had never historically considered a major arena of engagement.

The re-alignment of foreign policy priorities owes its emergence to numerous factors, including the war in Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein. However, perhaps the single most important factor is the change within Turkey itself. This historically secular society has begun - even if modestly - to look at its Islamic heritage as part and parcel of its identity. Perhaps the clearest and most significant reflections of this trend is the Justice and Development Party, known in Turkey as the AKP, or AK Party. Moderately Conservative may be the best way to describe the party's spectrum balance. But perhaps what is most significant is the fact that the AKP withstood a judicial challenge that accused the party of engaging in "anti-secular activities" that contravened the Turkish National Constitution. The case revolved around lifting the ban on the hijab, and the AKP was vindicated when the Turkish High Court could not render a verdict against the party.

The AKP brings a vision of Turkey that is deeply engaged in the Middle East and with its Islamic neighbors. This vital shift has resulted in a re-alignment of regional power. Iraq remains an occupied nation. Saudi Arabia perhaps still wields great regional influence, given its oil wealth and custodianship of the pilgrimage sites, yet the threat of its unholy alliance with Wahhabism and the rise of internal threats to the Monarchy place the Saudis in a precarious situation. Iran meanwhile has emerged as state with likely the largest potential to assert more regional influence. However, the recent UN sanctions and woeful economic state within the Islamic Republic may destabilize Tehran and prove a major obstacle to any serious pretensions to regional hegemony. This puts the recent rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus into an even more interesting light. Syria still maintains serious influence in Lebanon, particularly through its regional proxies (read: Hezbollah). Ankara's increasingly frenetic participation in Middle Eastern affairs is evident by its fuel-swap arrangement with Tehran, and its recent vociferous public condemnation of Israel's brutal response to an international aid flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade. The new regional alignment seems to run from Ankara to Damascus and then Tehran. Strange bedfellows in many ways, yet these states will likely hold the helm in Middle Eastern affairs in the emerging decade.