With the election of 2003 that brought the Justice and Development Party to power, and a growing popular re-connection with traditional Islam and nationalism, Turkey embarked on a new era, both domestically and internationally. A former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey assesses the “tectonic shift” now taking place in this important American ally and its implications for Turkey’s relations with the United States. —Ed.
It is impossible to write about contemporary Turkey without provoking a reaction from someone. Still a young nation despite its rich history, Turkey has yet to write the full narrative of its place in history and its vision for the future. The disparate threads of belief and political destiny of today have yet to be woven into a blended pattern. With the momentous changes of the last five years, however, the next chapter of that saga has opened. It is impossible to predict the outcome, but what is clear is that another tectonic shift is occurring in Turkey.
The last five years for Turkey-U.S relations have been a roller coaster ride. Internationally, in 2003 Turkey broke with the United States over Iraq, not permitting American forces to enter Iraq through Turkey. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the defense minister both said later that the refusal was a mistake, but the decision angered many (and cheered other) Americans, deeply disturbed U.S.-Turkey military ties, unleashed a dramatic wave of anti-Americanism in Turkey, and eliminated Turkey as an arbiter of U.S. policy towards Kurdish northern Iraq.
Often in these difficult years of troubled relations between Washington and Ankara, I would think of the song “Cold, Cold Heart” by Nora Jones from an old Hank Williams ballad. It seemed to sum up the state of U.S. and Turkish affairs:
I’ve tried so hard, my dear, to show that you’re my every dream.
Yet you’re afraid each thing I do is just some evil scheme.
A memory from your lonesome past keeps us so far apart.
Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?
Now, following the recent visit of Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Washington in early January 2008, perhaps we have a new and positive beginning in the relationship between the United States and Turkey. U.S. progress in Iraq, the tardy but welcome U.S. decision to cooperate in countering the PKK terrorists, and Turkey’s also tardy but welcome commitment not to permanently damage ties with Washington have structured a different political setting. The situation today is hopeful also because both Turkey and the United States see their relationship more realistically, having to some extent exhausted themselves emotionally on the problems of the last five years. As described by Sedat Ergin, the editor of Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper, there is nevertheless a genuine irony in seeing the man who, as prime minister, lost the vote in March 2003 to cooperate with the United States in Iraq, now become the man, as president, who has ushered in what may be a new beginning.Domestically, the AK (Justice and Development) Party, which is the current party in power, controls just short of two-thirds of the seats in the legislature. It first entered parliament in 2002, reconstituted from the ashes of the Islamic oriented Welfare Party of the late 1990’s. In renewing itself the AK Party committed to broad political and economic reforms and to membership in the European Union, and it also de-emphasized religious values in favor of moral clean-government principles. Simultaneously, Turkey’s traditional ruling parties were collapsing across the board, ossified by decades of incestuous politicking, corruption, favor-trading, and incompetence in the face of the demands of the Turkish people for economic prosperity. In its first term in office, the AK government succeeded in launching negotiations with the EU, moving the Cyprus issue from the center stage of its relations with Europe, and growing the economy between five and seven percent annually, a near miracle in Turkish economic history. During the same period, it took steps regionally that drew Ankara away from Washington.
Future U.S.-Turkish Relations
In looking forward, it seems clear that in international affairs Turkey and the United States will pursue somewhat different tracks even as they seek ways to cooperate more. Turkey will not follow the U.S. lead ever again the way it did. The days of shared experience from Korea or of Cold War solidarity are gone forever. Rather, Turkey will act with greater independence, focused no longer first on how the United States might react. We already see several examples, for better or worse. Turkey has structured new economic ties with Iran, carried out an exchange of state visits with Syria, welcomed the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Turkey, de-emphasized its ties with Israel, and even hosted Sudanese President al-Bashir in January 2008. Ankara has pursued this diplomacy while continuing to press for European Union membership, playing a critical NATO role in Afghanistan (twice commanding NATO forces there), expanding its UN role (peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, and seeking a UNSC seat), broadening its economic penetration into Russia, and positioning itself as a key east-to-west energy conduit for Eurasia.
This approach could reflect the emergence of a strategic shift in Turkey’s international policy to give greater weight to a regional emphasis imbued with a greater sense of a yet undefined Turkish national spirit. When the Republic of Turkey emerged in 1923, it was both decidedly secular and Western oriented. In its understandable rush to modernize, the new country was less tolerant of the perceived “backwardness” both of religion and of focusing too much on the Muslim world. Bernard Lewis, in his landmark 1961 book, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, described this process very clearly.But Turks did not cease to be Muslims; the ordinary people continued to go to mosques, and Islamic traditions continued to attach to all the significant events of village life: birth, circumcision, marriage, and death. This deeper current of life in Turkey never disappeared; it just rolled along beneath the upper layers of the Kemalist revolutionary reforms. Over the years, as Turkey’s political parties jockeyed for new support, they began to reach down to this Muslim undercurrent and use it to nourish the political life of the country. No one was more successful at tapping into this source of strength than Turgut Ozal, who adroitly used religious symbolism even as he dismantled the state-controlled economy and formed a strong alliance with the United States in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. These traditional party leaders still, however, arose from or were sponsored by the post-revolutionary Turkish elite.
When the AK Party began to appear, first in rough and unacceptable form, and later with greater sophistication, it had also connected directly into this vast reservoir of the Islamic faith and Muslim tradition in Turkey but in a very different way. The AK Party’s new leaders were neither elite nor protégés of the elite. More importantly, they did not want to emulate the old elite. They wanted to inaugurate a new leadership. The shift for Turkey might be compared to the rise of Andrew Jackson in American history, the abrupt displacement from the revolutionary and post-revolutionary leadership of the country to an entirely new group. If true, then in Turkey this is the crossing of a political Rubicon with lasting consequences for the framing of Turkish democracy. Moreover, the AK Party arrived not simply because of the failure of its political opposition but with its own strong base. Long before it came to power, the AK Party had built a reputation of responding to the needs of ordinary Turks, in sharp contrast to the apparent fumbling of the traditional parties.
These traditional sources of strength in Turkey, sources that pre-dated the Turkish Revolution and which remained dormant thereafter for decades before re-emerging into Turkish domestic life, may now become apparent as well on the international stage. Some say this approach is a new overlay of an “Ottoman” view of stability and economic viability from central Europe to central Asia and down through the Middle East. If this is so, there is no sense whatsoever that Turkey has any interest in being imperial, only in having an influence in every direction that over time appears reasonable and natural. In this manner, Turkey can cultivate ties with Europe, with Russia, with the Middle East, and with Israel in addition to the United States without abandoning any one for the sake of any other. Domestically, this allows the government to satisfy multiple constituencies, highlight Turkish nationalism in a benign form, and strengthen Ankara’s role as mediator in the region, enhancing its room for maneuver.
Turkey’s Role in International Affairs
On specific issues, Iraq will remain a central factor in the development of future U.S.-Turkish relations and Turkey’s role in the Middle East. One might recall that some of the traditional Turkish leaders in the past were actually supportive of Saddam Hussein. The AK Party now talks of working with Iraq on friendly terms, and President Gul emphasized that Turkey’s present policy is aimed at helping all of Iraq.
The twin questions of the PKK and Kirkuk, however, pose severe challenges for the United States and Turkey. There is no military solution to the PKK issue. The Americans know this, and the Turks know this at the leadership level. The February 2008 incursion by Turkey into northern Iraq does not change this logic. Turkish elite forces entering northern Iraq can certainly damage the PKK, but Turkey’s shallow crossing and clear avoidance of populated areas both demonstrate its limited aims and the external restraints. Moreover, as the incursion began, Turkey invited Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, for his first official visit to Turkey, and Mr. Talabani accepted. If and when a date is set, a more regular dialogue might be possible, one with both symbolic value and practical possibilities. Ankara also knows intellectually it has to do much more to improve the economic and political conditions in southeast Turkey, but its factions are too divided still to articulate a long term coherent approach with sufficient resources and political will to make success a real possibility.
Kirkuk is a city that is divided ethnically with strong Arab and Kurdish populations alongside a residual Turkomen community friendly with Turkey. Kirkuk’s oil fields are a critical prize in the development of Iraq. Turkey will never be satisfied with the Kurds in northern Iraq in control of the development of those fields. President Gul has proposed that the UN play a more active role in addressing Kirkuk. That proposal may deserve close attention. Without a managed solution, there could be an incentive for the Turks to intervene in Iraqi affairs to protect their interests, and the United States has the capability to avoid that risk from becoming reality.
With Israel and Palestine, Turkey has firmly thrown its influence into support for the peace process, though Ankara continues to sharply criticize Israel from time to time. Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas addressed the Turkish parliament in June 2007. Israeli warplanes seem to have tracked the Turkish border carefully in September 2007 in striking at the alleged Syrian nuclear facility. Turkish peacekeeping troops are in Lebanon. There are limits to the Turkish role, however. The Turks are careful not to take up arms themselves against a Muslim state. There are no Turkish troops in combat in Afghanistan, for example. Turkey enjoys its role as a kind of mediator in the Middle East and is likely to continue to prefer its soft power influence.Iran will be a management task for Turkey. As President Gul said at a luncheon speech in January 2008 in answer to a question, the two countries have shared a common border since 1639. Gul believes that Turkey, as a working democracy with a Muslim population and a growing economy, will have more influence regionally than will Iran. Ankara opposes nuclear weapons for Iran, but will not take a hard line. It may act towards Iran more like Germany acted towards the Soviet Union in the Cold War: It will be firm on its principles, but never as tough as Washington, and always will keep the door open to advantageous economic development and political dialogue.
Armenia will continue to have a high profile in U.S.-Turkey relations. A former Turkish diplomat of great reputation said last year in Washington that because of the push by the Armenia government for resolutions condemning Turkey, the issue of relations between the two countries would be locked down for years. Let’s hope that is not the case. According to UNHCR statistics, at the end of 2006 there were still nearly 700,000 internally displaced persons in Azerbaijan, who have been there since the fighting of the late eighties and early nineties with no solution in sight for their plight. It also is possible to see a message from Ankara to Yerevan in the relations Turkey cultivates with Teheran, in addition to the ties fostered with Tbilisi and Baku, all Armenia’s neighbors. Turkey and Armenia have been able to carry on private diplomacy in the past. It would be in the interests of both countries to rekindle their efforts.
Turkish Internal Political Developments
Even as Turkey refashions its international role, domestically a political storm is breaking. Turkey is preparing a new constitution, and it will provoke vigorous debate for years. Many people think the current document, crafted under the military’s eye after the 1980 coup, gives priority to the state over individual rights. One government spokesman said the new constitution would be modeled on the constitution of Spain drafted after the Franco regime. A prominent Turkish professor recently said, “For the first time, civil society is engaged in the process of creating a constitution rather than taking on something imposed by the military.” The outcome of the debate could alter the character of the country as nothing else has done since the days of Kemal Ataturk. Another observer, a clearly skeptical university official, warned that the new constitution will “shake the fundamental values of the republic.”
The fight will be between those who believe the new constitution will be the fulfillment of Turkey’s democratic dream and those who fear it will destroy that dream. In early February 2008, Turkey’s parliament passed two new changes to the constitution. First, the parliament voted 403-107 (with the AK Party and another party — the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP — collaborating) in favor of a change stating that everyone has the right to equal treatment from state institutions. The parliament then backed by a nearly identical 403-108 vote a second amendment stating “no one can be deprived of [his or her] right to higher education.” These two changes enable Turkish women now to wear headscarves to university, a practice banned since 1997. An Iranian spokesman praised the move, saying it showed that Islam was spreading in Turkey. The government insisted, however, that the moves underline the principles of freedom, of diversity, and of choice in Turkish civil life, and that this step gives credence to Turkey’s drive to become an EU member. The most conservative of Islamic women’s head coverings would still not be permitted, but, make no mistake, this is a tectonic shift in Turkey’s political, educational, and social development.
The government could have picked a more conciliatory route to constitutional change. There is broad sentiment in Turkey for modernizing the 1980 constitution, and there are indeed a number of issues to be addressed, some by measures short of constitutional change. One is the famous section 301, which punishes speech that “insults Turkishness” and which has provided right wing prosecutors with multiple opportunities to attack various Turkish literary and political figures. Another is the proposal to reopen the Greek Orthodox Halki theological seminary on Heybeliada Island. Various Turkish scholars and senior judicial leaders have asked that the government follow the least controversial route, amending individual provisions of the 1980 document and passing legislation wherever possible. Even the speaker of parliament, Koksal Toptan, has asked for caution, stating that “There is actually no need for changes to be made to the constitution to solve the [headscarf] problem.” However, by having the parliament focus immediately on this issue as a constitutional question the government has rolled the entire discussion of constitutional change onto the most charged single issue of the whole debate.Deep emotions are stirring, and no one truly knows what will happen. On the right, people whisper that the military is only waiting until the public becomes disenchanted with the AK Party, and then it will launch its fifth coup since Ataturk’s death. In a move that may have inadvertently given credence to such ideas, on January 25 police arrested 33 people, including a retired brigadier general, from a shadowy ultra-nationalist group called Ergenekon and charged them with planning the assassination of major Kurdish political figures in Turkey plus Turkey’s Nobel Literature Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk. (Ergenekon is the name attributed to the original homeland of the Turks in Central Asia.) A breakdown of public order in the ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80s preceded those respective three coups by Turkey’s armed forces. A recurrence of public violence and murders of controversial public figures could start a similar downward spiral again.
The current political debate also occurs at a moment when there is no longer any effective political opposition to the AK Party. This is especially so since the MHP has joined ranks with the AK Party in parliament on key issues. The AK Party therefore is under less pressure in parliament to fully explain to the Turkish people what is going on and specifically to calm their fears about the arguments being tossed before them. Outside observers have stressed that the government can and should be doing more to allay the concerns of millions of Turks, especially Turkish women nurtured in the Ataturk traditions. The country would benefit from having the vigorous political debate occur where political debates should occur — in the parliament and not in the streets.
But since the parties listed in opposition either lost support in the last election in July 2007 or have too little gravitas at this point to serve as a platform for genuine debate, that is unlikely to happen. The principal opposition party, which lost votes in the 2007 election, has since relied almost entirely on negative attacks and on arguments based on fear. Many in the public, while clearly concerned, have little faith in the intelligence of the opposition to craft an effective solution. Therefore, the genuine opposition in provoking debate on the constitutional issues for some time will come from institutions of the state, such as the army, the judiciary, and the educational structure. Because each of these key players also has its own interests to protect, there is a diminished capacity for a comprehensive and genuinely open political debate.
In the face of political turmoil, the government thus far has been able to hold on to wide popular support in major part because of its effective management of the country’s economy. In fact, the AK Party has indeed done a much better job of restoring economic growth for Turkey than did any of the traditional parties in power for the previous two decades. Economic success and the commitment to EU membership were the principal reasons that the children of the old elite voted for the AK Party in 2007. As long as the economy stays on a healthy growth path, the younger generation will stay with AK.
There are issues, however. Turkey has a growing current account deficit as energy costs rise, and foreign direct investment currently only covers about two-thirds of that deficit. The credit crunch in the United States has not yet really impacted in Turkey, and the third quarter growth in Turkey’s economy was only 1.5 percent, the lowest in six years. At Davos in 2008, Turkey’s State Minister for the Economy, Mehmet Simsek, expressed his confidence that the Turkish economy would weather the shocks of the credit crunch from the U.S. sub-prime market tumble. On other occasions, Simsek has said that Turkey had one of the highest wage burdens among OECD countries. High taxes on labor, plus onerous welfare benefits, are a big obstacle to the creation of new jobs. Unemployment hovers at around 10 percent. If the AK Party is able to carry out reforms in social security and the labor sector, it will make a badly needed dent in that unemployment figure. The challenge ahead thus appears to be further reform of Turkey’s own economic institutions, not on Turkey’s ability to compete in the global economy or attract investment.
Turkey and Islamic Fundamentalism
What is the force of fundamentalism in Turkey today? First, Islam in Turkey is not the same as it is further south in the Middle East. The Turks were always pragmatic Muslims; they never exhibited the kind of zealous religious behavior found in the Arab world. According to a survey in November of 2006 by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), one of the country’s leading think tanks, fear that religion is becoming a more dominant sociopolitical force under the incumbent AK Party is not very realistic. Religion is indeed flourishing in Turkish society, but it is also undergoing a process of modernization and liberalization.
In 2006 more people (45 to 36 percent) than in 1999 said they were “Muslim first.” But the number of people who supported political parties based on religion dropped from 41 percent to 25 percent in the same period, and demand for “a shariah (Islamic law)-based religious state” dropped dramatically from 21 percent to 9 percent. Some interpret this data as people sensing more freedom to express a religious identification but not interested in changing the secular nature of the state.
It is obvious that many Turks worry actively about the growth of militant Islam. The headscarf, the pivot of Turkey’s culture war, stands as the symbol of this perceived threat. More than 70 percent of those who define themselves as “left wing” or “secular” think that the number of women in headscarves is on the rise and that this creates a menace for Turkish secularism. However, the TESEV study reveals that the number of women wearing the headscarf has actually been decreasing. Can Paker, TESEV’s president, remarking on this survey, has stated that “Turkey and its political secular system are doing fine. [The system] just needs more openness and freedom.”
At that same time, when asked what kind of president Turkey should have, a great number of people answered that he should be “modern” and “Muslim.” This sounds like an obvious contradiction, but it may well express the belief among Turks that they have a right to their cultural and religious identity and at the same time want to be regarded and accepted in the world as a modern state with democratic institutions and practices.
In the Middle East, the rise of radical Islam has been traced by many to the preceding failures of Arab governments to effectively implement Western-inspired economic reform or rally positive nationalism to protect Arab countries and promote prosperity. A front page article in the New York Times of February 17, 2008, for example, graphically recounts the life of an impoverished young Egyptian man locked out of marriage chances and a professional future who has turned increasingly to Islam. According to the article, the commitment to Islam is rising throughout the region because of this deep and chronic frustration among young men who cannot fashion a better future for themselves under existing circumstances. Turkey has not had this problem to date, as its democratic institutions and economic policies have provided its youth both arenas for political action and hope for a brighter future. If Turkey continues to register such progress, it will likely avoid the backlash of a religious revolt from its younger generation.The United States and Turkey: A Look Ahead
In conclusion, focusing on what the United States might do to advance its own interests with Turkey and in the region, I offer the following in addition to the points already covered:
1) Resolve to resolve Iraq together; no deal with Iraq is worth Turkey’s long-term determined opposition that could lead to another round of U.S.-Turkey tensions. Let Turkey actually help in Iraq. Ankara offered in 2002-2003, but the offer drowned in the aftermath of the 2003 vote.
2) Help Turkey on the EU and be willing to explain again and again why a Europe with Turkey is better than a Europe without Turkey. Despite recent discouragement from France, Turkey also needs to help its friends in Europe and in the United States by continuing to keep up the pace of reforms.
3) Strongly support the new opening on Cyprus. Dimitris Christofias, the newly elected President of Cyprus, has set reconciliation with northern Cyprus as his priority goal and has requested the UN to arrange a meeting between him and Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat. An American role could be decisive.
4) Encourage greater expansion of civil rights in Turkey, very importantly the protections for free speech, including removing the famous section 301. Emphasize the need for full legal protection of individual rights, now inadequately referenced in the AKP articulation, although the government says these protections will be proposed in the new constitution.
5) Address regional energy and energy development issues as a strategic priority with Turkey. Turkey is the only major route from central Asia to Europe for energy supplies, and Moscow is in the midst of a charm campaign in Turkey.
6) Pay more attention to Black Sea regional development. The Black Sea now has NATO members on its south and west, a struggling Ukraine and resurgent Russia in the center, and Georgia under heavy Russian pressure in the east. Once central Europe is consolidated for the EU and NATO, the Black Sea region will become the next focus of competition for security and democratic development. Despite progress, the region is not yet at the tipping point for the West and for democracy.
To summarize, we appear to be at a new departure point for Turkey and for the United States. Five years after the vote of March 1, 2003, all of us could say it is about time. Both countries seem to see more clearly how much it would help both of them to find better ways to cooperate. The United States has acted very responsibly, even if belatedly, in offering Turkey visible, effective help on the PKK, and there may be a need for more. Turkey for its part understands more than it admitted in years past that a good relationship with the United States and the ability to attract American capital and business serves vital Turkish interests. Having burned themselves out on the issues of war and turmoil in the region since 1991, perhaps the United States and Turkey now can proceed in greater peace to address the challenges ahead.
But the focus of attention now has moved from the international to the domestic scene. In Turkey, there are few calm moments. It took an Ataturk to bring the core of the old empire from the ashes of defeat and build a democratic state. In the succeeding decades, it was men with strong convictions and clear abilities, such as Turgut Ozal, who produced lasting effects on the country. Turks are now in the throes of having to decide if Tayip Erdogan is a successor to Ataturk and Ozal or has come to dismantle what they built. This is the existential question for Turkey, for all Turks, and for all who care about Turkey. In watching Turkey as it embarks on this new era, domestically and internationally, all of us, the Turks as participants and the rest of us as concerned observers, need to remind ourselves of the enormous achievements of Turkey in the twentieth century and its vast potential for positive contributions in the twenty-first.
Ambassador W. Robert Pearson (ret.) currently heads the International Division of The SPECTRUM Group, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Virginia. He completed a 30-year career with the Department of State as Director General of the Foreign Service. He served as Ambassador to Turkey (2000-2003); Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Paris and the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels; Executive Secretary of the Department of State; Deputy Executive Secretary of the National Security Council; Chair of NATO’s Political Committee; and Political Officer in China. He speaks French, Chinese, and Turkish and is a member of the California Bar.