Turkey´s foreign policy pivot (LA TIMES OP-ED) Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.03/21/12)
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What made Ankara do an about-face and re-embrace the West?
Recognition of what gives it power in the Middle East.
Turkey´s foreign policy has come full circle in the last year. Far
from confronting Washington on a range of issues, Ankara is embracing
its membership in NATO while working closely with Washington on
Middle East issues, including Iran and coordinating Syria policy.
What has changed?
First and foremost, Ankara has come to appreciate a constant in the
value of its foreign policy: Turkey is east if you view it from the
perspective of the West, and west if you view it from the perspective
of the East.
In the 2000s, Ankara´spivot away from the West almost upset Turkey´s
unique identity. The nation entered a period of increasingly cold
relations with the United States and turned its interest to the
Middle East in hopes of becoming a regional power. This strategy,
however, did not exactly make Ankara a formidable power in the Middle
East. Take, for instance, the Saudis´ and other Persian Gulf
countries´ yearning for a regional counterbalance against Iran. For
them the Turkey of the 2000s, isolated from NATO and Washington,
began to resemble a "wealthy Yemen," i.e., a prosperous, large Muslim
nation with no real value added to regional security. Ankara´s
strategy even started to erode its national prestige, although it
initially was popular with the people.
Ultimately, Turkey came to realize that its strategic value to the
Middle East is not rooted in the fact it´s a Muslim power — the
region has many such states — but that it is a Muslim power with
strong ties to the U.S., access to NATO technology and muscle, and
the ability to sit at the table with the Europeans. This realization
was the catalyst forAnkara´sforeign policy turnaround. Accordingly,
in September 2011, Turkey made the strategic choice to join NATO´s
missile defense project.
That was a major foreign policy move by the Turkish government. If
the Cold War defined NATO´s identity in the 20th century, then the
missile defense project defines NATO in the 21st. Just as members of
the alliance agreed to defend one another against communism during
the Cold War, with the missile defense project, the members of NATO
have now agreed to defend one another against a new threat, namely
ballistic missiles that would likely come from Iran, Russia, China or
other volatile regions.
This is what makes Ankara´s decision to join the missile defense
system the most important Turkish foreign policy move of the last
decade. It is Turkey saying Ankara´s relations with the West remain
key, but more important, that Turkey now appreciates the effect its
Western overlay — i.e., NATO membership — will have in making it a
For the Saudis and other Arab nations in the Middle East, Turkey is
no longer a "wealthy Yemen" but rather the strong Turkey that Ankara
sought to be when it launched its Middle East policy a decade ago.
Of course, other factors have helped foster Ankara´s foreign policy
change. One is the close relationship that has emerged between
President Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan
likes to be liked, and Obama has given him attention and respect,
which in turn helped remold Turkish foreign policy through Erdogan´s
At the same time, the Arab Spring has exposed the limits of
Turkey´s "act alone" strategy in the Middle East. For example, the
uprising in Syria demonstrated that Turkey cannot deal with massive
regional instability unilaterally. Ankara reportedly has asked for
NATO assistance to contain the fallout of the Syria crisis, such as
dealing with a probable massive refugee flow from Syria.
Moreover, the uprising in Syria has further cast Turkey and Iran as
regional adversaries: Turkey supports the Syrian opposition; Iran
arms the Assad regime. During the 2000s, Turkey approached Tehran to
establish good relations, but today Iran considers Turkey a rival.
This is one more reason why Ankara turned to Washington and NATO.
Turkey´s new foreign policy perspective even provides Israel with a
unique opportunity. But the Israelis first need to move beyond the
paralysis in their relationship with Ankara, which seems to boil down
to the "apology" issue over the 2010 flotilla incident off the coast
of Gaza. Ankara too should be interested in repairing ties with
Israel because Turkey´s value to the region would be increased if
Erdogan could pick up the phone and call any world leader, including
Israel´s. This is the logic behind Turkey´s pivot. (Copyright © 2012
Los Angeles Times 03/21/12)
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