Turkish Dismay and the U.S. in the Middle East

4 Jun

Turkish Dismay and the U.S. in the Middle East

The Middle East is not for the faint of heart. While there are clear trends and cultural ties that pull it together, it is such a large and complex collection of nations that it is incredibly easy misunderstand it. A number of people who will remain anonymous make a living doing so. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that thinking of the Middle East as a region with a coherent political history only weakens one’s understanding of what is going on in its constituent nations.

Take the Arab Spring, which began with a self-immolating pushcart vendor in Tunisia, set off a wave of instability that toppled several autocratic regimes, and sent ripples into even the most stable countries in the region. At first, it was hard not to be swept up in the fervor; I recall pulling up a live stream of al-Jazeera on one of the first days to be greeted by a horde of protesters storming across a bridge and pushing a bus into the Nile and thinking “this is pretty cool.” While there was plenty of chaos and heartbreak in the streets of Cairo as the weeks went by, there were also acts of true heroism and an explosion of hope that us Westerners can barely fathom. It looked like an inspirational moment that might swing the future of an entire region, especially when one considered Egypt’s cultural and political prominence in the Middle East.

Since then, the dream has soured somewhat. Egypt is far from the Western democracy some idealistic observers hoped it might become; instead, it is an unstable mess governed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet it was one of the more peaceful revolts, when compared to the brutal repression in several countries, the NATO-supported war in Libya (which has now spilled into Mali), and the horrific civil war in Syria. The future is anything but predictable, but it seems safe to say that history most any historical rendering of its events will have to be very, very nuanced.

The U.S. response to the crises has likewise been frustrating to anyone who expects any sort of symmetry: intervention in Libya, general support for the Egyptian opposition, hand-wringing in Syria, and steadfast support of the regime in Bahrain. The awkward response is understandable, given the limits of geopolitical reality and the measured sobriety in the wake of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, most of these conflagrations offer two bad choices: an existing autocrat or a complete power vacuum that tends to wind up empowering the well-organized hard-line Islamic groups (though there is plenty of variety within and among these groups). “Better the devil we know,” many sensible people say, but this presents a false choice. Even if Hosni Mubarak had stayed in power, he wouldn’t have lasted forever. Autocracies can appear stable because they often have the same leader for years and years, but in the end, they all fall in one way or another. Ideally they go gently and gradually, as in Myanmar or South Africa, but when they don’t know when to let go, it’s near-impossible to get a happy ending. Change, in this case, is inevitable. The real question for the United States is one of how to react to events that one cannot fully control.

All of this brings us to Turkey, where recent protests spurred me to write this post. Over the past decade Turkey had, by in large, stood at safe removal from the discord in the rest of the region. With its “zero problem” foreign policy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration, now in its twelfth year, harnessed political Islam and economic growth to form a stable and democratic government largely unconcerned with the tribulations in other nations. Of course, Turkey had always been different: it is populated by Turks instead of Arabs, has a longer democratic tradition, and its proximity to Europe meant it was often at some remove from the Middle Eastern lands it once ruled back when it was the Ottoman Empire. But with accession to the European Union stalled and looking less desirable after the financial crisis, the Turks turned their eyes back southward. Suddenly Erdogan had things to say about everything in the region, and ruffled some feathers in the U.S. and Israel. Part of this was out of necessity; the war in Syria has sent refugees spilling across its borders. But under the leadership of ambitious Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turks have started to posture as a regional leader, perhaps in search of a “Pax Ottomana,” with imperfect but stable Turkey as the ideal for the rest of the region.

The riots in Istanbul could unsettle that narrative, particularly if Erdogan continues to make a mess of these protests. But Turkey’s fall from grace has even deeper repercussions. Writes Daniel Larison:

Erdogan’s heavy-handed and tone-deaf response to the protests in Turkey is a continuation of how he has treated internal dissent for a long time, but it is also an expression of his assumption, reinforced by multiple general election victories, that he and his party really do speak for the majority of the country. Turkey has become more democratic in important respects over the last decade, but it has also become more illiberal, which is what can happen when populist majoritarian political forces displace an unrepresentative, less democratic system.

It is worth noting that the immediate catalyst for the riots was not an increased religious bent by the Erdogan government (though there certainly has been some of that); it was a plan to develop a public park in a manner the local residents did not like. It was not religious tyranny, but rather tyranny of the democratically-elected national government over the local. It is a classic case of state overreach by a leader who has probably been in power a bit too long, and who has lost sight of the things that got them into politics in the first place. Erdogan and his allies have now conflated themselves with Turkey, and have got their political agenda mixed up in a project of national greatness. It’s unfortunate, given the subtleties and successes of his government, and there is a small chance that Erdogan will recognize his folly. But the more likely outcome is a blow to the Turkish ideal for the rest of the Middle East. Even if the political consequences of the riots are minor, it will now be difficult for the Turks to pass themselves as some perfect fusion of democratic and Islamic ideals. While Erdogan may be able to atone for this error, he and his party will now be under much greater scrutiny, and the longer this goes on, the more Turkey looks more comparable to Egypt than to Europe.

This is not necessarily some great tragedy or lost opportunity. In fact, the Pax Ottomana dream was probably doomed from the start. The overarching theme here is one of foreign policy hubris. Just as Turkey cannot remake the Middle East in its image, the United States is largely powerless. Tearing down an unsavory regime is one thing, but when it comes to nation-building afterwards, it’s hard to think of any real success stories. Non-Westerners who try to slap Western institutions atop their own cultures don’t have a very good track record, either. It is also no less absurd for nations to sit around posturing as examples for others than it is for individual humans do so. Turkey is a fascinating country for a plethora of reasons, but it is not the answer to the Middle East’s democratic aspirations. It is merely Turkey, caught up in its own rich narrative that will continue to evolve of its own accord. It should be treated as such, not as some extension of Europe or the Middle East but as somewhere caught up somewhere between the pull of both, yet capable of writing its own future.

I’m not saying the situation is hopeless for widespread Middle Eastern liberal democracy; after all, those initial Arab Spring revolts did rise up organically, and many people in the region clearly want a political future that breaks from their political past. But they will have to decide their futures for themselves, a fact that can be both liberating and terrifying for the rest of the world. The result will most likely be convoluted, and different in every country, reflecting the nuances of each. We’ll have to learn to work with it, and instead of a Middle Eastern policy, the U.S. needs a Syria policy, an Egypt policy, a Turkey policy, and a policy for everyone else. If that sounds overwhelming, well, it should. The world is an overwhelming place, and a nation half the world away has few roads to safely insert itself into the internal affairs of countries in that part of the world. In many cases, it is probably best not to, obtuse and distant as that course of action may seem.

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