The Arab uprisings seemed tailor-made for the "new Turkey" to exert its much-vaunted influence in the Middle East. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power almost nine years ago, Ankara has actively courted the region, cultivating warm relations with certain Arab countries, winning plaudits from Rabat to Ramadi for its principled stand on Gaza, and using its prestige to solve problems in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. A central focus of Turkey's so-called "zero problems" foreign policy has been a concerted effort to improve and expand relations with the countries to its south and east. Now, with millions of Arabs standing up and demanding their freedom, Turks are not the only ones to have held up the "Turkish model" -- the democratic development of a predominantly Muslim society in an officially secular political system -- as a possible way forward for the rest of the Middle East.
Yet five months into the turmoil buffeting the Arab world, it is hard to discern exactly if Turkey has a policy to deal with the change going on around it. Indeed, rather than a regional leader with a clear sense of purpose, Ankara has been downright clumsy in dealing with the Arab upheavals.
It didn't have to be this way. The Arab revolutions actually started out pretty well for Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was way ahead of other world leaders in demanding that Egypt's Hosni Mubarak heed the desires of his people and resign. Whether or not Ankara saw the writing on the wall quicker than most, the position was entirely in keeping with the Justice and Development Party's worldview -- and the role Erdogan and other principle party figures fashioned for themselves -- as promoters of democratic change at home and abroad. Of course, the difficult personal relationship between Erdogan and Mubarak made it easier for the Turkish leader to dump his counterpart in favor of the multitudes camped out in Tahrir Square. And there was a regional rivalry at play here, too: Ankara sensed that Cairo's influence was waning and wanted to fashion itself as a new Middle East powerbroker. It seemed that once again Erdogan and his team had insights into the politics of the region that seemed beyond the grasp of others -- most notably the Obama administration, which, hamstrung by Washington's strategic relationship with Mubarak, was far more cautious and circumspect than Ankara.
Then came Libya. Despite the brutality and chaos instigated by Muammar al-Qaddafi, Erdogan found it difficult to decisively cut ties with the Libyan leader: Not only was the Turkish prime minister a personal recipient of the al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, but with 30,000 Turks working on $1.5 billion worth of construction projects for the Libyan government, there was a clear economic imperative to maintaining good relations. Indeed, when NATO members began discussing in late February the prospect of a no-fly zone, Turkey -- an early member of the alliance -- objected. On Feb. 28, Erdogan pointedly told the Turkish-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, "NATO's intervention in Libya is out of the question. We are against such a thing." A few days later, the Turkish Foreign Ministry declared that foreign intervention on behalf of the Libyan opposition would rob the rebels of the satisfaction of bringing Qaddafi down on their own -- this at a time when the Interim Libyan National Council was practically begging for foreign support.