In theory, not to mention in several hundred acres of newsprint, 2011 was the year Turkey’s foreign policy fell apart. The tabloid version of the ‘zero problems with the neighbors’ policy postulates that Turkey happily ignores the political shortcomings of a broad expanse of thugs, from Syria to Libya, Iran to Israel. By being diplomatically and commercially close to the unsavory leaders in each of these places, Turkey would gain influence, make money and help maintain an uneasy and fragile stability.
So when, by invading Gaza in 2009, Israel effectively sabotaged the Turkey-sponsored proximity peace talks with Syria, the foreign policy crafted by Ankara’s philosopher-politician Ahmet Davutoglu suffered its first punch in the midriff. This year, by cozying up to the regularly lamented Muammar Qadhafi while much of the rest of the world was plotting a bombing campaign in the name of protecting civilians, Turkey appeared recklessly out of line. However, it has emerged that Ankara was almost certainly looking both ways, by partly financing and supplying military training to the “rebels” from a fairly early stage.
Switching to the immediate next door neighbors and the continuing Syrian conflict, the easy narrative taken by most in the media is that Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan hung in there with a bunch of murderers for far too long. His valiant efforts to act as regional bigwig urging reform were never likely to succeed and Ankara’s prestige was dealt a humiliating blow. Turkey’s ability to put forward a consistent policy was again in tatters when Erdogan inevitably flipped and announced that enough was enough and the whole unsavory Bashar al-Assad gang had to go.
Then there is the continued retreat from a cuddly diplomatic and military love affair with Israel, the increasing unlikelihood of implementing the theatrically staged signing of protocols with Armenia and the bold threat to dispatch warships to the Eastern Mediterranean to singe an Israeli beard if necessary — just how much unraveling can one foreign policy take?
Viewing the wood and not the trees throws up another perspective. The dynamic duo, the Batman and Robin of Turkish foreign policy — Erdogan and Davutoglu — are not stupid, short-sighted nor fickle. The chain of events inspired by the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit-seller has had a profound effect on Turkey’s standing in the region and augurs well for an even more profound diplomatic and commercial marriage with the neighbors.
The Arab Spring has transformed Erdogan into the idol of many on the Arab street. The prime minister’s popularity at home is such that it would take a political earthquake to oust him and his party at the next elections. For his people the Qadhafis and Assads are irrelevancies, reminders only of the stoic attempts by Erdogan to spread peace, democracy and prosperity throughout the region. Just as a puppy is not just for Christmas, so foreign policy is not for a year or so, nor are banalities like zero problems with the neighbors the stuff of election manifestos. There is one succinct summary of foreign policy from 30 years ago that illustrates its peculiar characteristics. Told of Britain’s intentions toward the Falkland Islands around the time of the Argentinean invasion, then United States Secretary of State Alexander Haig characterized his British opposite number, Lord Carrington, as a “duplicitous bastard.”
It would be churlish to apply Haig’s crudities to other countries but the observation that all may not be as it appears is equally true. This rule applies also to Turkey, Israel and the US. The popular picture has Turkey and Israel in near open war but this doesn’t bear scrutiny. Despite Barack Obama’s disdain for the Israeli prime minister, though not as crude as Nicolas Sarkozy’s characterization of Benjamin Netanyahu as a liar, the US president is too shrewd to continue to openly embrace Turkey if they were as deeply hostile to Israel as the headlines would have it.
Ankara’s announced ambition as a regional broker and its pursuit of zero problems with the neighbors remains. The obstacles — having the neighbors infested with the wrong sort of leaders — are slowly being removed. Even the recalcitrant Israeli leadership may have to adapt to the changing world.
Peter Grimsditch is Executive's Turkey correspondent