Friday, October 14, 2011

What can the US learn from Turkey in the Middle East?

During the 1990s, Turkey was a relatively unstable country. The Islamist government of Necmitten Erbakan was removed by the military in 1997 following a longstanding pattern of Turkish generals removing any prime minister who threatened their prerogatives. Efforts to gain membership in the European Union were going nowhere and ethnic conflict between Turks and Kurds was growing as seen in the spread of support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

By the beginning of this century, Turkey was experiencing solid economic growth. EU membership was no longer a top priority, Turkish-Kurdish relations within Turkey were beginning to be addressed, and the PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was behind bars. Gradually, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has won two parliamentary elections in 2007 and 2011 following its initial victory in 2002, has been able to eliminate the power of the army to intervene in the political process. While there have been attempts to manipulate the constitution and the judiciary, most Turks seem quite content with AKP rule.

Perhaps Turkey's most impressive achievement, beyond its economic growth, has been its ability to become one of the dominant powers in the Middle East. It has skillfully deployed "soft power" to inject itself into a number of volatile conflicts that threaten the region's stability.

By concluding important economic agreements with the Iranian government, particularly in the energy field, Turkey has pacified Iran, its historic enemy. In championing the Palestinian cause, and backing away from its traditional close ties to Israel, Turkey has ingratiated itself with the Arab countries of the region, the core provinces of the former Ottoman Empire. It has also situated itself as a possible intermediary given its ties to both Israel, on the one hand, and the Palestinians and the Arab states, on the other.

While its foray into Lebanese politics in early 2011, where it sought to bring together the country contentious ethnoconfessional groups, was unsuccessful, Turkey is now a major player in efforts to force the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad to cede to the demands of democracy activists who fill the streets of many Syrian cities demanding the end of authoritarian rule. Turkish army maneuvers along the border with Syria have sent a strong message to Syria's Ba'thist regime that the wanton killing of its citizenry who are calling for democratic reforms cannot continue indefinitely.

Turkey's rather spectacular rise in power is paralleled by a decline in US power in the region. With the Tunisian and Egyptian autocrats, Zine al-Din Bin Ali and Husni Mubarak, no longer in power, and authoritarian rulers such as Ali Abdallah Salih in Yemen and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, who formerly cooperated with US anti-terrorism initiatives, likewise gone from power, the US has now to deal with governments that lack the stability and coherence of the autocratic regimes which have been deposed.

In Iraq, the US faces the ironic outcome that its removal of Saddam Husayn and his Ba'thist regime has led to much greater influence of its arch-enemy, Iran. The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki seems determined to demonstrate that it is not an American puppet as it seeks to placate Iran. Maliki's tilt toward Iran is most evident in his unwillingness to commit to allowing any significant number of US troops to remain in Iraq after the end of the Status of Forces Agreement on December 31 of this year (read my analysis, "US Foreign Policy in Post-SOFA Iraq" by clicking here).

In the energy field, not only has Turkey signed energy contracts with Iran, but it is at the center of the 7.9 billion Euro Nabucco Pipeline Project that will channel natural gas from Central Asia, and Iraq through Turkey to an energy hungry Europe, allowing Europe to become less dependent on Russian energy supplies and those of Russia's surrogates.

What can the US learn from Turkey's almost meteoric rise to a regional power in the Middle East? How can it develop policies based on mutually beneficial interests that align US foreign policy in the Middle East with that of Turkey? How can the US work with Turkey to offset its declining options in the Middle East?

To answer these questions requires greater scrutiny of the Turkish success. First, Turkey is exercising its economic muscle in the Middle East based on impressive GDP growth rates over the past 5 years. While economic growth was minimal in 2008 and even dropped in 2009, in 2010, real GDP growth reached 8.2%. Turkey has used its investments in Syria but especially in Iraq to influence domestic policy in both countries. While this policy has not prevented Bashar al-Asad's regime from brutally suppressing pro-democracy demonstrators, it has weakened the Syrian economy. Many analysts argue that if the Syrian economy continues to decline, the business elites of Damascus and Aleppo, a core component of the regime's political base, will turn against the regime, possibly bringing it down in the process.

In Iraq, Turkey has invested heavily in the Iraqi economy to the tune of more than $6 billion. Its investments are still largely concentrated in Iraq's 3 majority Kurdish population provinces that comprise the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). While investments in the KRG have not led to an end of PKK attacks on Turkish forces that originate in Iraq's
mountainous Kurdish region, it has developed a greater inventive on the part of the KRG to reign in the PKK and prevent it from attacking Turkey.

Clearly, Turkish economic might has played and will continue to play a central role in its effort to become the regional hegemon. A key question here is whether the US is following Turkey's lead. Obviously it is not. On strategy might be for US firms to seek to form joint ventures with Turkish firms, such as the energy giants, Enerco Energy and BOTAS, to explore the region's undiscovered oil and natural gas resources

In Iraq, US-Turkish cooperation could not only benefit US firms and hence American overseas investment, but lighten its political footprint in a country that is still very sensitive to the charges by many political groups that the US' goal is to dominate Iraqi politics as a means to control its extensive hydrocarbon wealth (both oil and natural gas).

Turkey's foreign policy success is based on the fact that it treats other Middle Eastern states with respect and promotes a strong democratic agenda. Although it sent out ambiguous signals at first, evoking much anger among anti-Qaddafi forces, Turkey soon joined the chorus of states calling upon Muammar al-Qaddafi to step down from power. Its support for Mubarak's ouster in Egypt and its campaign against the Asad regime in Syria have strengthened its democratic credentials in the Arab world.

The US has not been as forceful as Turkey in supporting popular protest movements of the "Arab Spring." Continued public declarations of support for democratization in the Middle East would serve US interests, much as Turkey's support for democratic change has endeared it to Arab populations throughout the region. The mild Islamism of the AKP underscores the need to develop a model of democracy in the Middle East that reflects local cultural preferences. Here the US needs to recognize that a "one size fits all" definition of democracy can be counterproductive.

In comparing the foreign policies of the US and Turkey, we need realize that the government of President Recip Tayyip Erdogan faces few domestic constraints in exercising its foreign policy preferences. The US Congress has placed many roadblocks in the Obama administration's efforts to pursue American foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. Efforts to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians to the negotiating table have been labelled as "anti-Israeli" and "undermining our closest Middle East ally," as a number of Tea Party Republicans have declared. And Congress has yet to confirm the US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who has been using visits to areas where pro-democracy demonstrations have taken place as a means to put pressure on the Asad regime to end the killing of demonstrators.

What the US needs to learn from Turkey is that investment strategies which are multilateral in nature, such as the Nabucco Pipeline project, can not only have important economic multiplier effects, but can exercise enormous political influence. More active engagement of Turkey in bi-lateral meetings where the US seeks to forge ties around policies, both economic and political, that both countries are pursuing in the region, can become a "win-win" situation for both countries.

This is not to argue that the US should forgo its traditional foreign policy goals in the Middle East simply to placate Turkey. Nevertheless, both Turkey and the US seek to prevent Iran from undermining regional stability. Turkey is as horrified at the prospect of an Iranian-Israeli military conflict as is the US. Turkey, like the US, realizes that economic development and democratization are the keys to the region's stability, especially to meeting the aspirations of the region's large youth demographic, which is often referred to as the "youth bulge."

Turkey still faces a major problem in enacting national reconciliation with its own restive Kurdish population which is growing at a faster rate than the indigenous Turkish population. Here the US can create greater good will by trying to help the Turkish government develop policies that will promote such reconciliation. If the US can become more involved behind the scenes in helping Turkey tackle what is clearly its most significant domestic problem, then it will ingratiate itself with the Erdogan government. Helping Turkey's Kurds meet their demands for economic, cultural and political reforms will undermine support for the militant wing of the PKK which advocates the use of violence to achieve those goals, rather than through the use of peaceful means.

What Turkey demonstrates most clearly is that a bold, forceful and consistent foreign policy is, at the end of the day, one that is most effective in the Middle East. It has also shown that it can learn from its mistakes, as it did in Libya. Greater attention to the manner in which Turkey has been able to develop such an effective regional foreign policy policy could teach the US how to increase its own success in the Middle East as well.

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