Erdogan's Moment

  • Photograph by Adem Altan

    The standout Erdogan with his party's newly elected MPs after June's landslide

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    The consequences for Turkey are uncertain. Erdogan's anti-Israel rhetoric plays well with the AKP voter base and Arab audiences. But by turning on Assad, says Rand's Larrabee, Erdogan also risks antagonizing Syria's sponsor, Iran. Relations with Tehran have already cooled since Turkey agreed in September to install new NATO radar systems designed to detect missiles launched from Iran. Erdogan long pushed back against the radars for fear of antagonizing the Iranians. Now Turkish officials are seeking cover behind the fig leaf that data from the systems will not be shared with Israel; NATO says that's just not true. So much for Zero Problems.

    The New Ottoman Empire
    Inevitably, Erdogan's new foreign policy doctrine, aimed at increasing Turkey's political and economic influence in the Middle East and North Africa, has been dubbed "neo-Ottoman," after the dynasty that ruled much of the Muslim world from Istanbul for 600 years until shortly after World War I. Erdogan doesn't shirk from the comparison. "Of course, the empire had some beautiful parts and some not-so-beautiful parts," he says. "It's a very natural right for us to use what was beautiful about the Ottoman Empire today." Turkish officials envision an arrangement similar to the British Commonwealth, with a constellation of Balkan, East European and Arab states all looking to Istanbul for benign guidance.

    But invoking a long-gone — and not especially lamented — empire is no basis for foreign policy. The competition for influence in the new Middle East emerging from the Arab Spring is bound to be fierce. Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the region's traditional powers; there are American and European fingers in the pie too. Relative newcomers China and India have a growing economic interest in the region. Turkey's head start in the Arab Spring countries — it is already one of the largest investors in Egypt and Libya — will be difficult to maintain.

    If there's growing competition for Turkey abroad, for Erdogan there are also growing problems at home. That autocratic tendency has become more pronounced since June's huge election win. Political rivals complain that he has never quite shaken off the bullying streak he developed in the mean streets of Istanbul's Kasimpasa neighborhood. Despite his lofty position, he rarely misses a chance to rub his opponents' noses in the dirt, often using crude rhetoric unbecoming of a leader who aspires to statesmanship. He is notoriously thin-skinned about criticism and paranoid about coups. (This last is perhaps understandable: the Turkish military overthrew four elected governments in the 40 years before the AKP's 2002 victory.) For all its desire for Turkey to be seen as a modern state equal in freedoms to any in Europe, his government has jailed 68 journalists, accusing them of complicity in coup plots. On a recent trip to Istanbul, two top journalists agreed to talk with me about Erdogan only if I promised not to name them.

    Erdogan's treatment of Turkey's Kurdish minority had fluctuated between promises of political compromise and old-fashioned military repression. Violence has flared in recent months after a series of tit-for-tat attacks between the PKK and Turkish forces. Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy chairman of the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, scoffs at Erdogan's international popularity: "Before Turkey can be held up as a role model for the Middle East, it needs to sort out its own domestic conflicts."

    Conflicts in the neighborhood will have an impact on Turkey's economy: trade with Syria, a major partner, is imperiled by Erdogan's open falling out with Assad. The longer the dictatorship lingers in Damascus, the greater the cost. Antagonistic relations with Israel have not yet had a great economic effect, mainly because trade between the two countries is relatively small.

    In the political arena, Erdogan's next challenge is to rewrite the Turkish constitution. Fears that he will dilute Turkey's secularism have been replaced by a growing concern that he will push for executive power to be concentrated in the office of the President, and then seek that office himself. The Turkish presidency is currently a mostly ornamental position, held by Erdogan's longtime ally Abdullah Gul. Istanbul salons are rife with talk of the two men switching roles after the constitution is rewritten, drawing inevitable comparisons to the Medvedev-Putin swap in Moscow. It's a testament to how far the Islamist icon has come that his critics no longer worry that he may turn Turkey into another Iran. They now fear he will turn it into another Russia.

    — with reporting by Pelin Turgut / Istanbul

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