Why Turkey is still worthy of emulation

There's been some commentary lately about Turkish foreign policy faltering in the face of the Arab spring: Turkey first opposed NATO intervention in Libya, tried to mediate out of the impasse and then recently turned around to say Qadhafi must go. It has acted hesitantly over Syria, where it has considerable interests. Anthony Shadid in the NYT and Steve Cook in Foreign Policy have highlighted the problems the AKP government have faced in dealing with these issues. But I think they go too far in talking about Turkish incompetence in the face of a turbulent Middle East.

This is only the case if you feel that a foreign policy success for Turkey is about getting what it wants all the time. It's quite reasonable for Turkey to believe, with its considerable interests in Libya, that backing the rebels outright was not the best course of action, and that negotiations with the Qadhafi regime were worth a try. When it didn't work, they moved on. Likewise, I'm not convinced when Cook writes:

Instead, the Turks have indulged in cynical posturing. As Assad deploys troops and tanks against peaceful protestors, the Turkish foreign ministry counseled the Syrian leader to “implement [reforms] without further delay” and subsequently expressed satisfaction with Assad’s efforts. To which the only reasonable reply is, “What democratic reforms?” The Turkish position on Syria has not yet placed Ankara at odds with Washington or Brussels. But should the United States or Europe shift on Assad — a distinct possibility — then Turkey would find itself supporting a dictator against the will of its two most important allies, as well as the will of the Syrian people.

The criticism about Assad not implementing reforms is fair, but taken in the context of decades of American and European praise for "reform" in the dictatorial regimes that fell in Egypt and Tunisia (and others that may be about to fall elsewhere), some humility may be needed: let he who is without sin cast the first stone. It reminds me of the Obama administration's ridiculous posturing on Iran supplying Syria with riot control supplies — the irony won't be lost on many Egyptian protestors who found themselves gassed and shot with US-supplied weapons last January.

Turkey may indeed carry cynical moves, and deserves moral condemnation for it. But it doesn't mean its foreign policy is a failure. The real achievement of Turkey's foreign policy is not so much its success in achieving its goals, but its independence: it acts like a sovereign state, not a client state. In the face of a tough and unpredictable regional situation that directly affects its interests, it may have faltered, but it has retained its autonomy. That is what Arabs ruled by Quislings and acquiescent puppets have admired, not necessarily the policies themselves. 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.