Not so long ago, Turkey seemed to have found the elusive formula for foreign policy success. Its newly-adopted philosophy, "zero problems with neighbors," won praise both at home and abroad as Ankara reengaged with the Middle East following a half century of estrangement. It expanded business and trade links with Arab states, as well as Iran, lifted visa restrictions with neighboring countries, and even helped mediate some of the region's toughest disputes, brokering talks between Syria and Israel, Fatah and Hamas, and Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Just a few years later, in the wake of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, that once-reliable formula is starting to look like alchemy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now burned his bridges with the military regime in Egypt, squabbled with Gulf monarchies for refusing to stand by deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, and started a war of words with Israel for having a hand in the coup that removed Morsy from power.
For a fleeting moment, Egypt was the centerpiece of Turkey's foreign policy in the Arab world. When Erdogan visited Cairo in September 2011, after the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, he arrived to a hero's welcome, feted not only as the first major world leader to call on him to step down but as a regional power broker. That has now all changed: Turkey and Egypt pulled their ambassadors from each country amidst the dispute, and Erdogan publicly slammed the new government in Cairo. "Either Bashar [al-Assad] or [Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi], there is no difference between them," he said last week. "I am saying that state terrorism is currently underway in Egypt."
This week, Erdogan dragged Israel into the dispute, saying that Israel was "behind" the coup in Cairo. The evidence for this perfidy, his office would later confirm, was a 2011 video of former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy discussing the Arab Spring.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman shot back at Erdogan on Wednesday, saying that "everyone who hears [Erdogan's] hateful words and incitement understands beyond a doubt that he follows in the footsteps of Goebbels." Not to be outdone, an Egyptian government spokesman slammed Erdogan as a "Western agent."
Such disputes have left Turkey watchers wondering if Erdogan's bombastic approach is undermining his effectiveness. "Turkey did the right thing" by deploring the Egyptian coup, a former high-ranking Turkish diplomat told me, but found itself "on the wrong side of the international community."
Ankara should have thrown its weight around well before the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, the diplomat added. "Turkey put too much emphasis on the success story of democracy in Egypt and did not see properly the wrong things that were being done by the Morsy regime."
The truth of the matter is that it was always only a matter of time before Turkey's heralded "zero problems" policy foundered. Having zero problems meant keeping your nose out of other countries' domestic affairs, and even cozying up to regional strongmen. That was possible so long as the regional status quo held: Turkey kept mum on post-election violence in Iran in 2009, for instance, and nurtured an alliance with Syria's Assad before the bloody revolt in that country. And in Libya, Erdogan had been only too happy to ignore Muammar al-Qaddafi's dismal human rights record, if that was the price to pay for Turkish businessmen to ink construction deals with his regime.