Turkey’s Kissinger


From James Traub, the New York Times:  He [Ahmet Davutoglu, the Foreign Minister of Turkey] 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. …

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,” [columnist for the daily Radikal, Cengiz] 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.

He was an academic before he was a diplomat. His book “Strategic Depth,” published in Turkish in 2001, is regarded as the seminal application of international-relations theory to Turkey, though it is also a work of civilizational history and philosophy. (Such is Davutoglu’s intellectual ambition that he planned to follow up with “Philosophical Depth,” “Cultural Depth” and “Historical Depth.” He hasn’t yet gotten around to the others.) The book has gone through 41 printings in Turkish and has been translated into Greek, Albanian and now Arabic. It is 600 pages long, very dense and almost certainly more known than read. One of Davutoglu’s aides describes the book as “mesmerizing.” (Henri Barkey, a Turkey scholar at Lehigh University, pronounces the work “mumbo jumbo,” adding that Davutoglu “thinks of himself as God.”) “Strategic Depth” weaves elaborate connections between Turkey’s past and present, and among its relations in the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Balkans and elsewhere. The book was read as a call for Turkey to seize its destiny.

And in many ways, Turkey has. It is one of the great success stories of the world’s emerging powers. Shrugging off the effects of the global recession, the Turkish economy last year grew by more than 8 percent, and Turkey has become the world’s 17th-largest economy. Turkey is the “soft power” giant of the Middle East, exporting pop culture and serious ideas and attracting visitors, including one and a half million Iranians a year, to gape at the Turkish miracle. Paul Salem, a Lebanon-based Middle East scholar with the Carnegie Endowment, recently suggested, “It might be Turkey’s century, because it’s the only country in the Middle East actually pointing toward the future.” You increasingly hear the view that power in the Middle East is shifting away from Arab states and toward the two non-Arab powers, Turkey and Iran. Indeed, in “Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future,” Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times reporter, describes Turkey, Iran and the U.S. as “the tantalizing ‘power triangle’ of the 21st century,” destined to replace the Cold War triangle of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Davutoglu has climbed aboard the Turkish rocket. Turkey’s success raises his status; his achievements do the same for his country. Foreign Policy magazine ranked him No. 7 in its recent list of “100 Global Thinkers,” writing that under his leadership, “Turkey has assumed an international role not matched since a sultan sat in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace.” Davutoglu has maintained close relations with both Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul — one of the few senior figures to do so. He has filled the upper ranks of the foreign-affairs ministry with worldly, pragmatic, thoughtful diplomats who share his nationalist vision. They have done an extraordinarily deft job of balancing Turkey’s regional and global ambitions, of advancing its interests without setting off alarm bells in other capitals. …

On a flight to Ankara from Brussels, where he had just attended a NATO meeting, Davutoglu pushed away his half-eaten dinner and recited to me what he told his fellow foreign ministers: “If today there is an E.U., that emerged under the security umbrella of NATO. And who contributed most during those Cold War years? Turkey. Therefore when someone says, ‘Who lost Turkey?’ — there was such a question, because people said Turkey was turning to the East — this is an insult to Turkey. Why? Because it means he does not see Turkey as part of ‘we.’ It means Turkey is object, not subject. We don’t want to be on the agenda of international community as one item of crisis. We want to be in the international community to solve the crisis. …”

The cables recently disclosed by WikiLeaks vividly illustrate the tensions this produced with Washington. In a meeting with the assistant secretary of state Philip Gordon in Ankara in November 2009, Davutoglu advanced his theory of Turkish exceptionalism: “Only Turkey,” he said, “can speak bluntly and critically to the Iranians.” Davutoglu was confident that Iran was ready to strike a deal — with Turkey’s help. An obviously skeptical Gordon “pressed” him on his “assessment of the consequences if Iran gets a nuclear weapon.” In what the cable’s author described as “a spirited reply,” Davutoglu insisted that Turkey was well aware of the risk. Gordon “pushed back that Ankara should give a stern public message” to Iran; Davutoglu replied that they were doing so in private and “emphasized that Turkey’s foreign policy is giving ‘a sense of justice’ and ‘a sense of vision’ to the region.”

Behind this tense exchange with Gordon was the fear that Turkey was cutting Iran too much slack. Davutoglu is quite open about the fact that Turkey has interests in Iran that the United States and Europe do not have. “Our economy is growing,” Davutoglu told me, “and Iran is the only land corridor for us to reach Asia. Iran is the second source of energy for Turkey.” Sanctions on Iran would hurt Turkey. But Davutoglu also insists that Turkey’s assessment of Iran’s intentions is not affected by its interests. It’s easy to see why Gordon was skeptical. Prime Minister Erdogan has dismissed fears that Iran wants to build a bomb as “gossip.” And when I asked one of Davutoglu’s senior aides about the matter, he said: “For the time being, Iran does not have a nuclear-weapons program. We don’t know whether they will go there. …”

Turkey seemed to have made a choice among its conflicting ambitions. Steven Cook, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote, “Erdogan and his party believe they benefit domestically from the position Turkey has staked out in the Middle East,” and thus “the demands of domestic Turkish politics now trump the need to maintain good relations with the United States.” Turkey may be turning in a new direction, in other words, not so much because it has been rejected by the West as because it is being so ardently embraced by the East. …

A few months before he became Turkey’s foreign minister, Davutoglu visited Washington to meet with the incoming Obama team. He was dazzled. George W. Bush, he thought, had been America’s Caesar; Obama would be its Marcus Aurelius, its philosopher-king. “There will be a golden age in Turkish-American relations,” he predicted. It hasn’t worked out that way, and Davutoglu can barely process a setback so at odds with his grand intellectual and policy construct. He says that he was “shocked” when the U.S. opposed a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation of “the outrageous attack by the Israeli forces against the humanitarian flotilla.” (The administration said such a commission seemed to be rushing to judgment, and it endorsed instead a panel convened by the U.N. secretary-general.) But the professionals Davutoglu has surrounded himself with are not deluding themselves about their plight. “We’re getting a lot of flak from the Hill,” says Selim Yenel, the official in the foreign ministry responsible for relations with Washington. “We used to get hit by the Greek lobby and the Armenian lobby, but we were protected by the Jewish lobby. Now the Jewish lobby is coming after us as well. …”

Perhaps the setback is just a blip, a brief reversal in the upward path of one of the world’s rising powers. On the flight home from Brussels, where he conferred privately with Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and met with his European counterparts, Davutoglu was in an ebullient mood. He feels the wind of history filling his sails. Turkey, the crossroads of civilizations, the land where East and West, North and South, converge, is pointing the way to the world’s future. “Turkey is the litmus test of globalization,” he told me. “Success for Turkey will mean the success of globalization.” The world, as Davutoglu likes to say, expects great things from Turkey.  (photo: Reuters)

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