Letter From Istanbul
Turkey is a country that had me at hello. I like the people, the culture, the food and, most of all, the idea of modern Turkey — the idea of a country at the hinge of Europe and the Middle East that manages to be at once modern, secular, Muslim, democratic, and has good relations with the Arabs, Israel and the West. After 9/11, I was among those hailing the Turkish model as the antidote to “Bin Ladenism.” Indeed, the last time I visited Turkey in 2005, my discussions with officials were all about Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. That is why it is quite shocking to come back today and find Turkey’s Islamist government seemingly focused not on joining the European Union but the Arab League — no, scratch that, on joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel.
Now how did that happen?
Wait one minute, Friedman. That is a gross exaggeration, say Turkish officials.
You’re right. I exaggerate, but not that much. A series of vacuums that emerged in and around Turkey in the last few years have drawn Turkey’s Islamist government — led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party — away from its balance point between East and West. This could have enormous implications. Turkey’s balancing role has been one of the most important, quiet, stabilizers in world politics. You only notice it when it is gone. Being in Istanbul convinces me that we could be on our way to losing it if all these vacuums get filled in the wrong ways.
The first vacuum comes courtesy of the European Union. After a decade of telling the Turks that if they wanted E.U. membership they had to reform their laws, economy, minority rights and civilian-military relations — which the Erdogan government systematically did — the E.U. leadership has now said to Turkey: “Oh, you mean nobody told you? We’re a Christian club. No Muslims allowed.” The E.U.’s rejection of Turkey, a hugely bad move, has been a key factor prompting Turkey to move closer to Iran and the Arab world.
But as Turkey started looking more South, it found another vacuum — no leadership in the Arab-Muslim world. Egypt is adrift. Saudi Arabia is asleep. Syria is too small. And Iraq is too fragile. Erdogan discovered that by taking a very hard line against Israel’s partial blockade of Hamas-led Gaza — and quietly supporting the Turkish-led flotilla to break that blockade, during which eight Turks were killed by Israel — Turkey could vastly increase its influence on the Arab street and in the Arab markets.
Indeed, Erdogan today is the most popular leader in the Arab world. Unfortunately, it is not because he is promoting a synthesis of democracy, modernity and Islam, but because he is loudly bashing Israel over its occupation and praising Hamas instead of the more responsible Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which is actually building the foundations of a Palestinian state.
There is nothing wrong with criticizing Israel’s human rights abuses in the territories. Israel’s failure to apply its creativity to solving the Palestinian problem is another dangerous vacuum. But it is very troubling when Erdogan decries Israelis as killers and, at the same time, warmly receives in Ankara Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the bloodshed in Darfur, and while politely hosting Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose government killed and jailed thousands of Iranians demanding that their votes be counted. Erdogan defended his reception of Bashir by saying: “It’s not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide.”
As one Turkish foreign policy analyst said to me: “We are not mediating between East and West anymore. We’ve become spokesmen for the most regressive elements in the East.”
Finally, there is a vacuum inside Turkey. The secular opposition parties have been in disarray most of the decade, the army has been cowed by wiretaps and the press has been increasingly intimidated into self-censorship because of government pressures. In September, the Erdogan government levied a tax fine of $2.5 billion on the largest, most influential — and most critical — media conglomerate, Dogan Holdings, to bring it to heel. At the same time, Erdogan lately has spoken with increasing vitriol about Israel in his public speeches — describing Israelis as killers — to build up his domestic support. He regularly labels his critics as “Israel’s contractors” and “Tel Aviv’s lawyers.”
Sad. Erdogan is smart, charismatic and can be very pragmatic. He’s no dictator. I’d love to see him be the most popular leader on the Arab street, but not by being more radical than the Arab radicals and by catering to Hamas, but by being more of a democracy advocate than the undemocratic Arab leaders and mediating in a balanced way between all Palestinians and Israel. That is not where Erdogan is at, though, and it’s troubling. Maybe President Obama should invite him for a weekend at Camp David to clear the air before U.S.-Turkey relations get where they’re going — over a cliff.