Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 18:10 pm (KSA) 15:10 pm (GMT)

Turkey’s turn from the West or yet another smear campaign?

Mehmet Kalyoncu

In a recent Washington Post article titled "Turkey's Turn From the West," Soner Çağaptay argued that the shifts in Turkey's domestic and foreign policies under the current Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and Turkey's strained relationship with Israel mark Turkey's turn away from the West.

He suggested that under the current government liberal political trends have been disappearing, EU accession talks have stalled and Turkey's relations with anti-Western states such as Iran have improved, while those with Israel have deteriorated. On the top of all this, notes Çağaptay, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan walked out of a Davos panel after chiding Israeli President Shimon Peres for "killing people." Then, somewhat redundantly, Çağaptay concludes that if Turkey fails in "these areas," or wavers in its commitment to transatlantic structures such as NATO, it cannot expect to be President Barack Obama's favorite Muslim country.

He suggested that under the current government liberal political trends have been disappearing, EU accession talks have stalled and Turkey's relations with anti-Western states such as Iran have improved, while those with Israel have deteriorated. On the top of all this, notes Çağaptay, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan walked out of a Davos panel after chiding Israeli President Shimon Peres for "killing people." Then, somewhat redundantly, Çağaptay concludes that if Turkey fails in "these areas," or wavers in its commitment to transatlantic structures such as NATO, it cannot expect to be President Barack Obama's favorite Muslim country.

However, Çağaptay's apparent readiness and attempt to explain the AK Party government's each and every policy as a signal of Turkey's detachment from the West and the apparent logical gap between his premises and conclusions raises a question about the validity of his arguments in general and his most recent Washington Post op-ed piece in particular.

One man's crusade against the AK Party

Çağaptay certainly seems to be one of the most brilliant Turkish scholars given his popularity in Washington and his prolific publication record so far. No need to mention that without academic credentials such as his, it would be difficult for one to lead the Turkish Research Program at WINEP, an influential think tank known for its allegedly pro-Israeli tendencies. In their most debated book, "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," two American scholars, John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, argued that the so-called Israel lobby "dominates the think-tanks which play an important role in shaping public debate as well as actual policy. The lobby created its own think tank in 1985, when Martin Indyk [who would later become an influential Middle East adviser to President Clinton] helped to found the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Although WINEP plays down its links to Israel, claiming instead to provide a 'balanced and realistic' perspective on the Middle East issues, it is funded by individuals deeply committed to advancing Israel's agenda." One definitely cannot argue that WINEP is a mere instrument for the pursuit of the Israeli interests just because it has been founded and funded by individuals fond of or zealous about Israel. Nor can one argue that Çağaptay is simply voicing WINEP's discontent with Turkey's current AK Party government just because he is paid by the organization. Maybe, he is; but that is not the point.

Rather, the point is that there seems to be a pattern of increasing discontent with the AK Party government in Çağaptay's speeches and writings. In July 2007, appearing before the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission) right after the parliamentary elections in Turkey, Çağaptay commented: "While 47 percent of the population voted for the ruling [AK] party, 37 percent voted for opposition secular leftist nationalists. … In this regard, with the country being split into two opposing political views, I think the election outcome is probably the best outcome in terms of political stability, because what we see is that the ruling party … emerged with 340 seats in the 550-member parliament." Accordingly, he goes on to acknowledge that during the first term of the AK Party government in office, as a result of Turkey's EU drive, reforms in the path of liberalization and further democratic consolidation took place. In addition, he stressed, with the lowered outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) threat after the capture of its leader, Abdullah Öcalan: "Issues that would have been considered taboo became possible to discuss in Turkish media. In fact, as a result of that, no taboos remained in Turkish media. And finally, the much-publicized reforms [related to] Kurds, including broadcasting in the Kurdish language, as well as education in Kurdish, became possible."

In May 2008 during his interview with the staunchly secularist Cumhuriyet daily, Çağaptay argued that the AK Party government has increasingly transformed from a pluralist party that sought political alliances with opposition parties into a majoritarian party that prefers to rely on the 47 percent popular vote it received. What Çağaptay argued would very much make sense if out of the two opposition parties, the CHP did not appear to be the main political force behind the court case to close the AK Party, and the MHP did not appear to have caused the court case in the first place by luring the AK Party government to lift the infamous headscarf ban. Moreover, rather interestingly, he also argued that the AK Party government's appetite for Turkey's EU membership had diminished after the EU accession talks actually started in 2005 and, as such, the prospect of the EU membership turned from an idea into a reality. Again, his argument would be convincing if after 2005 the AK Party government did not face one existential threat after another, was not occupied with increasing PKK terrorist attacks from northern Iraq and did not have to deal with the global economic crisis, which has affected Turkey, as well. If nothing else, the government's recent decision to create a "chief EU negotiator" position separate from the foreign minister should indicate its revitalized interest in pursing the EU accession talks.

In the aftermath of the Davos scandal

Nevertheless, it seems Çağaptay is not convinced by the AK Party government's recent overtures toward re-boosting Turkey's EU accession process. In his Washington Post article, which coincided with the immediate aftermath of Prime Minister Erdoğan's public criticism of Israel in Davos, Çağaptay argued that Turkey's domestic situation and foreign policy signified the country's departure from the Western camp. According to Çağaptay, women in Turkey are politically, economically and socially less empowered and, as such, less free than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia. By that token, he implies, Turkey under the AK Party government has become less democratic than Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, he suggests that Ankara's rapprochement with Tehran poses a grave danger to Turkey's Western orientation as well as its alliance with the United States. One wonders how that is possible given the fact that the Obama administration has stated that it would consider even open diplomatic relations with Iran, and that the European Union has never ceased its relations with Iran. No need to mention that, according to Trita Parsi of John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAID), not even Israel has ever ceased its relations with Iran, despite all the inflammatory rhetoric between the two.

Çağaptay also seems concerned about the fate of the Turkish-Israeli relationship and the alleged emergence of anti-Semitism in Turkey. He stresses that anti-Semitism is not hard-wired into Turkish society -- rather its seeds are being spread by the political leadership. Similarly, he stresses that the Israelis have long felt comfortable visiting, doing business and vacationing in Turkey. These are certainly legitimate concerns and should be addressed thoroughly. During the infamous Davos panel, Prime Minister Erdoğan stressed that anti-Semitism was a crime against humanity and should be eliminated by all means. Later, Mr. Erdoğan continued to announce that whoever wants to harm the Jews in Turkey must face him first. In a similar fashion, Israeli officials, most prominently President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, announced that the Turkish-Israeli relationship was strong enough to endure occasional disagreements. Nevertheless, the AK Party government should not suffice with the current nature of Turkish-Israeli relations, and should boost social and cultural relations between the two countries, as well. However, in order for that to happen, it would be necessary for the Israeli authorities to make necessary arrangements to enable an equal number of Turks, some 500,000 of them, feel comfortable visiting, doing business and vacationing in Israel every year.

Finally, Çağaptay suggests, "If Turkish foreign policy is based on solidarity with Islamist regimes or causes, Ankara cannot hope to be considered a serious NATO ally. Likewise, if the AKP discriminates against women, forgoes normal relations with Israel, curbs media freedoms or loses interest in joining Europe, it will hardly endear itself to the United States." What he suggests is quite right indeed. However, those suggestions seem quite hypothetical and far from reflecting the realities on the ground, at least at the moment. Unless Çağaptay himself says so, one cannot know for sure whether the op-ed piece genuinely reflects his own views on the AK Party government and the contemporary direction Turkey is heading in; however, unlike his fine scholarly work, Çağaptay's op-ed piece in The Washington Post seems more like a hastily-written diatribe against the AK Party government produced in retaliation for Israeli President Peres' humiliation at the Davos panel. It is sad to see that because of the special interests reigning in Washington, Turkey risks not only facing another smear campaign in the months to come, but also losing one of its finest scholars and most talented advocates.


* Publsihed in Turkey's TODAY'S ZAMAN on Feb. 4. Mehmet Kalyoncu is an international relations analyst and author of the book "A Civilian Response to Ethno-Religious Conflict: The Gülen Movement in Southeast Turkey."

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