James TRAUB The New York Times
In the fall of 2009, relations between Serbia and Bosnia — never easy since the savage civil war of the 1990s — were slipping toward outright hostility. Western mediation efforts had failed. Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister of Turkey, offered to step in. It was a complicated role for Turkey, not least because Bosnia is, like Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country and Serbia is an Orthodox Christian nation with which Turkey had long been at odds. But Davutoglu had shaped Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy according to a principle he called “zero problems toward neighbors.” Neither Serbia nor Bosnia actually shares a border with Turkey. Davutoglu, however, defined his neighborhood expansively, as the vast space of former Ottoman dominion. “In six months,” Davutoglu told me in one of a series of conversations this past fall, “I visited Belgrade five times, Sarajevo maybe seven times.” He helped negotiate names of acceptable diplomats and the language of a Serbian apology for the atrocities in Srebrenica. Bosnia agreed, finally, to name an ambassador to Serbia. To seal the deal, as Davutoglu tells the tale, he met late one night at the Sarajevo airport with the Bosnian leader Haris Silajdzic. The Bosnian smoked furiously. Davutoglu, a pious Muslim, doesn’t smoke — but he made an exception: “I smoked; he smoked.” Silajdzic accepted the Serbian apology. Crisis averted. Davutoglu calls this diplomatic style “smoking like a Bosnian.”
Davutoglu (pronounced dah-woot-OH-loo) has many stories like this, involving Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan — and most of them appear to be true. (A State Department official confirmed the outlines of the Balkan narrative.) He is an extraordinary figure: brilliant, indefatigable, self-aggrandizing, always the hero of his own narratives. In the recent batch of State Department cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, one scholar was quoted as anointing the foreign minister “Turkey’s Kissinger,” while in 2004 a secondhand source was quoted as calling him “exceptionally dangerous.” But his abilities, and his worldview, matter because of the country whose diplomacy he drives: an Islamic democracy, a developing nation with a booming economy, a member of NATO with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a canny, forward-thinking populist who has drastically altered Turkish politics. Erdogan and Davutoglu share a grand vision: a renascent Turkey, expanding to fill a bygone Ottoman imperial space.
In a world that the U.S. no longer dominates as it once did, President Barack Obama has sought to forge strong relations with rising powers like India and Brazil. Turkey, however, is the one rising power that is located in the danger zone of the Middle East; it’s no coincidence that Obama chose to include Turkey in his first overseas trip and spoke glowingly of the “model partnership” between the two countries. This fits perfectly with Turkey’s ambition to be a global as well as a regional player.
And yet, despite all the mutual interests, and all of Davutoglu’s energy and innovation, something has gone very wrong over the last year. The Turks, led by Davutoglu, have embarked on diplomatic ventures with Israel and Iran, America’s foremost ally and its greatest adversary in the region, that have left officials and political leaders in Washington fuming. Obama administration officials are no longer sure whose side Turkey is on.
Davutoglu views the idea of “taking sides” as a Cold War relic. “We are not turning our face to East or West,” he told me. But it is almost impossible to have zero problems with neighbors if you live in Turkey’s neighborhood.
Istanbul is full of elegant and cosmopolitan intellectuals, few of whom had heard of Ahmet Davutoglu when he was named foreign-policy adviser to the prime minister in 2002. “Outside of Islamic circles,” says Cengiz Candar, a columnist for the daily Radikal, “he was not much known at all.” The victory of the moderate Islamist AK party in the 2002 parliamentary elections was a seismic event in Turkey, culturally as well as politically. Turkey had been an aggressively secular republic since its establishment in 1923; Turkey’s Westernized intellectuals, living in the coastal cities, especially Istanbul, looked upon the Islamists as bumpkins from the Anatolian hinterland. “These people came out of nowhere,” as Candar puts it.
Davutoglu, who is 51, hails from Konya, on the Anatolian plateau; though his English is excellent, he often drops definite articles, a sign that he came to the language relatively late. He has a slight mustache from under which a gentle and bemused smile usually pokes out. He is religiously observant; his wife, a doctor, wears a head scarf. Yet he has become surprisingly popular even among Turkey’s secular elite. “Deep in the Turkish psyche,” Candar says, “there is a feeling of pride and grandeur.” Turkey is not just another country, after all, but the heir of empires, classical as well as Ottoman, and the first secular republic in the Islamic world. Both in his intellectual work, which argues for the extraordinary status Turkey enjoys by virtue of its history and geographical position, and in his role as foreign minister, Davutoglu is seen as a champion of Turkish greatness.
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