Voice

All Roads Lead to Istanbul

Turkey is more popular now than it has been since the Ottoman Empire. But can it please all of its new friends at the same time?

ANKARA, Turkey - It's great to be Turkey just now. The economy, barely scathed by the global recession, grew 11.7 percent in the first quarter of this year, and 10.3 percent in the second.  Like the Ottoman Empire reborn, Turkey has sponsored a visa-free zone with Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and is moving toward creating a free trade zone as well. And Turkey is a force not just in its neighborhood but, increasingly, in the world. It's the next president of the Council of Europe, an observer of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and a new friend of ASEAN and Mercosur. And the world is beating a path to its doorstep: When I was in Ankara this week, the Sudanese foreign minister was in town; the French, the Austrians, and the Poles had just visited. Senior Iraqi politicians were making regular pilgrimages. Turkey has become a net exporter of diplomatic services. "For the first time," says Selim Yenel, the highly Americanized deputy undersecretary of foreign affairs responsible for relations with Washington, "they're asking us for advice."

Like its fellow emerging powers Brazil and South Africa, Turkey was once a right-wing state that the West could safely pocket during the Cold War. And like these countries, the Turks now have the self-confidence to feel that they no longer need belong to anyone. Such states are now a force unto themselves, as Turkey and Brazil demonstrated -- to Washington's chagrin -- when they reached a deal with Iran this past May to ensure that Tehran would not produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Intriguingly, Turkey, Brazil, and Nigeria currently serve on the U.N. Security Council, and South Africa and India will next year -- a murderers' row of emerging powers, and a glimpse of a post-hegemonic, polycentric world.

But diplomatically, Turkey matters more than the others do. Among them, only Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim and located in the Middle East, within hailing distance of practically every crisis zone on the planet. And thus the question of what kind of force Turkey will be matters more as well. Turkish diplomats, well aware that the eyes of the world are on them, are quick to give assurances that they are a liberal, secular, and, above all, responsible influence in their neighborhood and beyond.

The question arises, of course, because of the events of this past spring, when, in dismayingly rapid succession, Turkey delivered the unwanted gift of the Iranian deal and voted against a U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution to impose sanctions on Iran -- and then erupted in outrage when Israeli commandos, determined to stop a flotilla sailing from Turkey to Gaza, killed eight Turkish citizens in the course of a terribly botched operation. The accident of timing left the toxic impression that Turkey viewed Iran as a friend and Israel as an enemy. Turkey's policy of "zero problems with neighbors" seemed to mean that it was prepared to alienate its old friends in the West in order to mollify countries in its own backyard, including the worst among them. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman wrote that Turkey seems intent on "joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel."

I think that's a bum rap. On Israel, virtually everyone I've spoken to here, including harsh critics of the ruling AKP, has said that popular opinion was so outraged by the event -- the first time since the Ottomans, as one is constantly told, that Turkish civilians had ever been killed by a foreign army -- that no government could have preserved its popular legitimacy without demanding an apology (though whether leading figures had to describe the incident as state terrorism is another matter). Turkey is still waiting for that apology. As for Iran, it's clear that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his team really did believe that the West would welcome the deal they struck, by which Iran would agree to transfer 1,200 kilograms of uranium out of the country to be enriched for civilian purposes. The fact that they were wrong probably says as much about U.S. President Barack Obama's ambivalence about engaging Iran as it does about Turkish tone-deafness or disingenuousness.   

Still, Turkish officials recognize that they've jeopardized their emerging brand identity and have some serious repair work to do. "We've got to find something flashy," Yenel told me. Maybe Turkey could persuade Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier? (Good luck with that.) Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed off on his apparent obsession with Gaza and Israel's perfidy, and a U.N. investigative panel may deliver a definitive judgment on the flotilla incident in early 2011 (compelling an Israeli apology, Turkey hopes).

It's a caricature to say that Turkey has chosen the Middle East, or Islam, over the West. Turkey's aspiration for full membership in the club of the West, including the European Union, is still a driving force. But Turkey aspires to many things, and some may contradict each other. The country wants to be a regional power in a region deeply suspicious of the West, of Israel, and of the United States; a Sunni power acting as a broker for Sunnis in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere; a charter member of the new nexus of emerging powers around the world; and a dependable ally of the West. When Turkey is forced to choose among these roles, the neighborhood tends to win out, and that's when you get votes against sanctions on Iran. At this week's NATO summit in Brussels, for instance, Davutoglu has expressed skepticism about missile defense, because any such system would be aimed at countries like Iran and Syria, which Turkey declines to characterize as threats.

Turkish officials insist that they embrace the "universal values" that drive public discourse, if not necessarily policy, in the West. But they seem to give their Muslim brothers a pass on human rights. Erdogan notoriously exonerated Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir by saying "A Muslim can never commit genocide." Erdogan also publicly congratulated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his victory in the 2009 election, widely condemned elsewhere as grossly rigged. Turkish diplomats say that they use tough language in private -- but autocratic regimes shrug off private recriminations.

Unlike China or even India, Turkey does not resort to the language of "sovereignty" when defending abusive regimes -- it takes the "Western" view of international law. Rather, its dilemma has to do with its neighborhood: You can't be a regional leader in the Middle East if you take human rights too seriously. But the problem might also have to do with the unresolved state of Turkey's own democracy. Eight years after Erdogan gained power, secular Turks continue to doubt his commitment, and that of the ruling AKP, to human rights, tolerance, and the rule of law. Although many of the people I spoke to saw the country's recent constitutional referendum -- which among other things reduced the power of the army over the judiciary -- as a further consolidation of Turkish democracy, plenty of others viewed it as a dangerous ploy by the AKP to increase its control over the state. Secular Turks fear that the country is becoming steadily more conservative -- certainly in the Anatolian heartland, if not yet in the big cities.

From the time of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has been committed to its "European vocation." But Ataturk was a modernizer, not a liberal; one of his slogans was "For the people, despite the people." And if Kemalist secularism was not a formula for European-style liberal individualism, it's scarcely clear that the AKP's market-oriented moderate Islamic restoration is, either. Turkey's democracy is not yet "consolidated," as political scientists put it.

Turkey is a success story that the West has every reason to welcome. The image of moderation and tolerant cosmopolitanism that it offers to Middle Eastern audiences contributes not only to Turkish soft power but to global peace and security, at least in the long run. That's already a pretty solid record. But Turkey is not content with being the brightest star in its benighted neighborhood; it wants to play on the world stage. And that ambition may force Turkey to find a new balance among its competing identities.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

How Lebanon Was Lost

A former U.S. ally under Bush's Freedom Agenda, the country is now being neglected in the name of "engagement" with Syria -- and the results could be disastrous.

Last month, Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon and the son of Rafik Hariri, the beloved former prime minister who was murdered five years ago in a massive car-bomb explosion, publicly recanted his allegation that high-level Syrian officials had ordered the killing. "During a period of time we accused Syria of being behind the assassination," he said in a newspaper interview. "This was a political accusation, and this political accusation has ended." Hariri has not changed his mind, of course; rather, he has recognized his own helplessness.

Pity poor Lebanon. That charming and tormented mix of beachfront property and guerrilla warfare has been the playground of rival states and militias and gangs since a war of all against all broke out in 1975. Much of it, perhaps, was the fault of the Lebanese themselves; read Fouad Ajami's masterful and terribly sad The Dream Palace of the Arabs on the subject. But right now, Lebanon, or at least the democratic forces in Lebanon, are being held hostage. And no one, including the United States, is going to come to its rescue.

The situation is incredibly complicated, as it always is in Lebanon. A special tribunal, impaneled by order of the U.N. Security Council, has been investigating Hariri's murder and is likely to hand up indictments soon. The tribunal was once expected to finger high-level Syrian officials, but it is now widely believed that the initial round of indictments will be lodged against Hezbollah, which for years has acted as an agent for Syria's interests in Lebanon. The next round will probably target Syria directly, though Syria has left it to Hezbollah to make dire threats over the prospects of indictments.

The triggering event for Hariri's sad surrender was the rapprochement of Saudi Arabia with Syria, with whom it had been on bitter terms since the Rafik Hariri murder. The Saudis wanted to enlist Syria in the effort to shape a new government in Baghdad and frustrate Iran's ambition of installing a compliant, Shiite-controlled regime. So King Abdullah paid a high-profile visit to Damascus in late August. Hariri, meanwhile, had long depended on the Saudis for support. Now he, too, very reluctantly traveled to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As David Schenker, a former official in George W. Bush's Pentagon who's now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says, "The Saudis sacrificed him and made him go kiss the ring of the man who probably killed his father." It's not easy to think of a more powerful and terrible illustration of the maxim that the strong do what they can, while the weak do what they must.

If Hariri and his March 14 coalition suddenly found themselves friendless, what does that say about Washington's role? The Bush administration had taken the Cedar Revolution, the spontaneous public uprising in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, as supreme confirmation of its policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East. Bush gave Lebanon's democratic forces unequivocal support, while treating Syria as an adjunct of the axis of evil. The policy, however, began to wane as the White House's own enthusiasm for the Freedom Agenda diminished after 2006; the war between Israel and Hezbollah that year further diminished the administration's influence in the region. Barack Obama's administration has given its full support to Lebanon's democratically elected government, but has also ended Syria's isolation. The administration has renewed diplomatic relations, while both special envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have met with senior Syrian officials. Just as Lebanon was an emblem of the Freedom Agenda, so Syria is a leading instance of Obama's "engagement" policy.

Is there a zero-sum relation between the two approaches? Schenker insists that there is, arguing that Obama has failed to put pressure on Syria to respect Lebanon's sovereignty, done little to halt the deterioration of the Hariri government, and allowed Syria to drift away from its commitments to the country. A State Department official who works on the region sharply disputes that view, arguing that the administration has in fact followed Bush policy quite closely in Lebanon and adding, "We have used our dialogue with Syria to impress upon them our concerns regionwide, and that includes Lebanon, and the Lebanese government is aware of that." Speaking fluent engagement-ese, this official observes that "having a conversation with a country is not a concession; it's a way of advancing our interests."

I'm not convinced that either policy has proved very effective. The Bush administration's diplomatic support in Lebanon meant little in the face of Hezbollah's growing strength, thanks to weapons, funds, and training from Iran as well as Syria. In any case support from a remote and loathed superpower is a coin of questionable value.

On the other hand, engagement only makes sense when it advances U.S. interests enough to justify possible unintended consequences -- not a clear balance in Syria. The Syrians are slippery customers who love to be courted, whether by Saudi Arabia, France, or America. "The Syrians like to make us believe they are winnable," says Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel and head of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. But in the end, he says, "Syrians don't deliver." There is a kind of symmetry between the naiveté of the Bush administration's controlling belief that it could sow the flowers of democracy in rocky Arab fields and the naiveté of Obama's belief that a new posture of respect and understanding could win over recalcitrant states and publics in the Middle East.

Indyk doesn't blame the Obama administration for "losing" Lebanon. It was not, after all, America's to win or lose. It is Lebanon's tragic destiny to be sacrificed in the hopes of achieving larger goals -- which themselves seem never to be attained. I asked Indyk what he would do if he were in the Obama administration. He said he couldn't think of anything, but would call if something occurred to him. I didn't hear back. Even Schenker said simply, "It's gotten to a very bad point." The Arab media is rife with rumors that Hariri will disown the tribunal, thus undermining the legitimacy of its findings, or that he will hold fast, provoking Hezbollah to bring down the government, in which it holds a strong minority position. Other accounts suggest the possibility of renewed civil war. Obama must, at a minimum, publicly state that he will hold Syria accountable for any bid to topple the Lebanese government, whether by the Syrians or their proxies in Hezbollah.

An entity as frail as Lebanon requires both attention and delicacy from outsiders. The delicacy part is harder. Washington and Paris, in a rare moment of entente in 2005, pushed for the establishment of the Hariri tribunal. At the time, with overwhelming signs of Syrian complicity in the murder and the spontaneous outpouring of anguished public feeling in Lebanon, the tribunal seemed like a moral imperative. Perhaps, though, it was a mistake. The goal then was to punish Syria; but Syria, after a season in the wilderness, is back in charge. The hope now is to deal a blow to Hezbollah's reputation with the first round of indictments. That may happen; but it's also possible that the indictments will give Hezbollah a means to establish domination of the Lebanese government. In that case, the tribunal will weaken the sovereignty it was intended to fortify.

The case of Lebanon vindicates no grand theory of statecraft. If anything, Lebanon just illustrates how hard it is for outsiders to fortify fragile states and how easy it is to do harm. It is a reminder, in case one needed it, that problems don't get solved in the Middle East; they just linger on, growing more interesting and complex and intractable. Poor, helpless Lebanon. The one time I was there, in 2008, I got pulled into a Shiite wedding in Beirut. The women were spilling out of their tight dresses. I thought: This is Shiism in Lebanon? What a great country! If there are any grounds for hope at all, perhaps they arise from Lebanon's endlessly tested genius for life, and for survival. 

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images