Howard Eissenstat* Informed Comment
For a while, at least, Turkey seemed to be riding high as a wave of protests swept from Tunisia to Egypt to a half dozen other states in the Middle East and North Africa. After a few days of uncomfortable silence as protests were met with violence in Egypt, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan called on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to heed the will of his people and, using language meant to underline Turkey’s role as a regional leader, spoke in explicitly religious language to do so. The speech met with positive media coverage, both regionally and in the West, and Turkey’s image was burnished. Without giving too much thought about what the “Turkish model” might actually be, a lot of commentators suggested it might be a path for the region to take.
Of course, Erdoğan’s challenge to Mubarak was a relatively easy call. Mubarak was a rival to Erdoğan’s in his attempt to reframe Turkey as a regional powerhouse and the two were at odds over both Iran and Gaza. Moreover, Mubarak’s fall represented further proof that U.S. influence in the region was in decline and that the time was ripe for a more aggressive Turkish regional policy based on both shared values (democratic, Islamic, and anti-imperial) and a shared desire for economic development (preferably with Turkish companies leading the way). As Turkish Foreign Minister’s recent speech at Ahmet Davutoğlu at the al Jazeera Conference in Doha, this is how Turkey hopes to present itself within the region.
Libya, however, has proved to be a challenge and highlights some of the limitations of Turkish foreign policy. There are two reasons for this difficulty.
First, unlike Egypt, Turkey had been actively engaging with Libya for some time. Before the crisis, Turkey had tens of thousands of workers in Libya (in a remarkable demonstration of its military and technical prowess, it repatriated twenty thousand citizens in a matter of days). It also has billions of dollars of investment (much of it by businesses closely aligned to Erdoğan’s own party, Justice and Development or AKP) which it risks losing if the Gaddafi regime falls. Just as important, however, is that while the fall of the Mubarak regime seemed to fit the AKP’s assumptions about declining Western power in the region, events in Libya risked reinforcing American and European influence.
With only the barest lip service to democratic values, Turkey has made clear its opposition to international action in support of the revolution in Libya. It used its effective veto to stifle discussions within NATO and Erdoğan publicly and loudly criticized the unanimously approved UN Security Council sanctions on Libya imposed on February 26. It has made its continued opposition to international intervention clear, arguing that sanctions will only bring more pain to the Libyan people. To its credit, Turkey has indeed been at the forefront of sending humanitarian aid to Libya.
Nonetheless, Turkish statements regarding Libya have taken on a surreal quality given the brutality of Gaddafi’s forces as they roll back the revolution: there is little point in speaking Libyans “embracing each other,” as Gaddafi’s troops, some of them mercenaries, brutally make war on the Libyan people. Moreover, Turkey’s regional isolation seems to only increase as the Arab League voted, on March 12, to also support a no-fly zone for Libya. The next twenty-four hours will tell whether Turkey will change its position within NATO given the Security Council resolution this evening (March 17). To date, however, it has shown no inclination to do so.
Clearly, in this case, Turkey’s commitment to democracy in the region has been trumped by other concerns. Economics is one part of it. Turkish businesses are already preparing to return to Libya. But economics isn’t the whole story. Just as important is the sense among the AKP’s inner circle that all Western intervention is ill-intentioned. Turkey’s leaders make clear that they see any EU or NATO involvement in Libya as nothing less than a variant form of imperialism. More broadly, however, Turkey wants any resolution to be a regional one: the AKP’s commitment to democracy in the Middle East is significantly weaker than its concern that Turkey takes the lead in forging a new regional order.
There are echoes of an earlier crisis in current events. In the wake of the stolen elections in Iran in 2009, Turkey was among the first to congratulate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his re-election and made clear that it recognized the elections as valid. Turkish media sources close to the ruling AKP dismissed the popular protests as Western machinations. At the time, Turkey seemed isolated, both from its Western allies and from most of the region. But Ahmadinejad was able consolidate power and Turkish-Iranian regional and economic ties have only blossomed since then. In Iran, the AKP gambled on authoritarian continuity and it paid off.
Despite to the costs of its reputation among its Western allies, Turkey may still come out a winner in the Libyan crisis. It seems increasingly likely that any international response to Gaddafi will be too little too late. The Libyan opposition is fragmented and in retreat. Even if sanctions continue and the no fly zone is a success, Gaddafi, oil rich and with no scruples to speak of, may stubborn his way to survival. If he does, Turkey’s gamble will have paid off in significant ways.
Even so, the costs will be steep. Even if Gaddafi retains control, it is likely that sanctions will continue for as long as he is in power. Turkish investments there were will go to waste regardless.
More importantly, Turkish regional power, under the AKP, has expanded almost exclusively through “soft power”: the strength of Turkish technical know-how, the prestige of its universities, the strength and diversity of its economy. But a key element of that soft power has been the image of the AKP as a model for blending Islamic sensibilities with democratic ideals. That image has, sadly, seemed increasingly tarnished both at home and abroad in the past five years. And Turkey’s double-talk on Libya only serves to highlight how weak its commitment to democracy in the region really is.
*Howard Eissenstat; Department of History; St. Lawrence University