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The following article by NTV news director Mete Çubukçu appeared in the Radikal Iki supplement of the Radikal newspaper on 20 June 2010. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton.

If you don't want to sweat, stay out of the Middle East

Mete Çubukçu

A fresh option should be contemplated to the exclusion of those whose game is restricted to one axis alone and who put one foot solely in the West or the East.

The 2008 Gaza attack, the “one minute” outburst at Davos, the low chair crisis involving Turkey’s Tel Aviv Ambassador and the attack on the Gaza flotilla. Then, thousands of people pouring into the streets, Prime-Minister Erdoðan’s harsh criticism of Israel, a formation resembling a Middle East Union between Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan at the Turkish-Arab summit in Istanbul and the vote against imposing sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council. The words of Foreign Minister Davutoðlu about joint worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the suspension of relations with Israel.

Confusion reigns. This long list of factors provoking debate about the direction in which Turkey is headed, which some people do not wish to hear or listen to and view with horror, could easily be extended. In this debate, what really invites suspicion about a “shift of axis” is the way that all of these events have occurred in quick succession. There is nothing new about Turkish governments’ and Turkish public opinion’s sensitivity towards Palestine. There is nothing new about relations with Israel being reduced to a minimum. What is new is for all of this to be aired in full public view, accompanied by exaggerated rhetoric, for it to be played out before domestic public opinion and for words, rather than active politics, to reach the level of mutual insults.

Turkey is not experiencing its first crisis with Israel. Following the 1967 war, Turkey downgraded its relations with Israel to second secretary level. Following the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, the coup government reduced relations to the lowest level. During the second Intifada in 2002, the Ramallah raid was described by Ecevit as genocide. The phrase “state terror” was used. The difference is that this position at the time did not trouble the world.

Result-focussed politics are needed
The Western mind is concerned as to whether the government is motivated by religion in its approach to the Middle East and whether this is informed by ideological preferences. The rhetoric employed by the AKP does little to dispel such fears. However, in order to determine whether a country is undergoing a serious shift in its foreign policy, it is necessary to examine, not short-term, but long-term developments and whether old alliances are being maintained or not. Prior to the Mavi Marmara attack, short-term amelioration did not appear likely, but now this time frame has been extended. Freezing relations with Israel and reducing them to a minimum is not the end of the world. However, there will certainly be consequences. In 2003 the rejection of the 1 March proposal was not the end of the world; a principled stance in the name of peace was adopted. Now the loudmouths of that time once again compete with one another to paint the blackest picture. Of course, current foreign policy is not entirely without its flaws. The most important thing is to take result-focussed and result-achieving steps. For example, the appearance that the AKP is too closely in league with Hamas gives cause to great confusion. When Turkey is able to bring Al-Fatah and Hamas to the negotiating table, it will have achieved its goal and dispelled this image. Even though this is beyond Turkey’s power, brokering the release of Hamas-held Gilad Shalit could well be contemplated in this regard.

Orientalist analyses
In the matter of Iran, it acted in an internally consistent manner and voted “no”. The important thing here is the position that Iran will now adopt. If Iran confounds Turkey’s intentions and abandons the negotiating table, i.e. the swap agreement, Turkey will be left empty handed. The greatest risk is if Iran, which Turkey has been attempting to keep at the diplomatic table and prevail upon, gets up from the table. The USA’s issue is not with nuclear efforts, but with the Iranian regime itself. In any case, its issue with Turkey extends beyond the Israel crisis and essentially concerns its rapprochement with Iran.

The question of where Turkey is headed serves as a kind of litmus test, for observers from both the West and the East. There is a particular need to bear in mind that the Middle East does not have a homogenous structure. With respect to studies conducted by Gilles Keppel in which he tries to make sense of Turkey’s recent moves in terms of the notion of a ‘neo-Caliphate’, it is impossible to agree in particular with the neo-Caliphate aspect of this analysis. The neo-Caliphate, in a strained attempt at originality, is a self-seeking and typical Western analysis. It is an analysis which assumes that the way in which Turkey is perceived in the region has to do solely with religion: for Arabs the Ottoman Empire means imperialist pressure. Today, there are three axes of crisis which affect the Middle East: Israel-Palestine, the Gulf and Afghanistan. Turkey has cards in its hand in the three regions which it previously did not posses. Today there is a dearth of a Sunni, anti-Zionist, pro-Palestine style of leadership leaving Arab countries bereft of a shoulder to lean on. Turkey has realised its potential to fill this gap. But there is a price to pay.

The Middle East is not homogenous
Even if religion constitutes an important reference point in the Middle East, this does not have the same degree of validity for all countries. In the region, just as there are parties and sections of the public which take their lead from religion, there are also those which are secular. Mustafa Al-Labbad, one of SETA (the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research)’s guests last week when it brought Arab intellectuals together, is one of those with a different perspective on matters. For the Arab world is not homogenous. Al-Labbad supports Turkey’s recent Middle East initiatives. He finds its approaches to Iran and Gaza to be positive and says that as an important actor it has the potential to play a decisive role in the Middle East. He wishes for Turkey to take its place in the region with its own values. He says that, “Turkey should strive to ensure that standards such as democracy and human rights and concepts such as women’s rights become firmly established in the region.” According to Al-Labbad, it is important for Turkey to base its efforts not on Islamic values, but on universal values. Of course, the fact that it is Muslim sets it apart. But, if it strives towards democracy and not the kind of order desired for instance by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, this could have great significance. In the words of Al-Labbad of the Al-Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies, “The contribution which Turkey may make to the region will only be possible as a modern power which is open to the West and the European Union. We do not wish for Turkey to turn its face towards the Arab nations, but for it to be a bridge, a mediator, between the West and us.”

To sum up, a difficult process lies ahead of Turkey. A period which everyone tries to read differently and imbues with different expectations. However, the point which those who are incapable of reading the process have failed to understand is that the Cold War paradigm has finally ended and that new unions and alliances are forming all over the world. On condition of remaining within the main axis, new alliances may be entered into in various regions of the world with various countries. The world system is changing. Even if a break with the USA is not on the cards, we are well aware of the nature of the ‘contributions’ that the USA has made to Turkey on behalf of the Western camp. Do not forget the years when the Bush administration vented its fury on Turkey due to the failure of its parliament to approve the 1 March proposal. Anyhow, Turkey has not forsaken its main axis alliances. It is still in NATO; it is still attempting to accede to the EU. But it has to develop measured policies to deal with issues in its own region. To the extent that it remains uninvolved, it will simply experience developments in this region as a passive object.

Most importantly, apart from political realism, sight should not be lost of the importance of a conscientious and human approach to foreign policy on which certain persons cast scorn. Turkey should support and back all manner of initiatives involving peaceful means with reference to the region. But on condition that Turkey, mindful that its face is turned towards the EU, approaches the Middle East cognisant of its secular, democratic structure, flawed as that may be. Consequently, a fresh option should be contemplated to the exclusion of those whose game is restricted to one axis alone and who put one foot solely in the West or the East. One should not fall into the trap set by those zealots who stoke up an atmosphere of fear.

Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton