How Turkey Went From 'Zero Problems' to Zero Friends

And lost its leverage everywhere.

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.

By blowing the regional status quo into oblivion, the Arab Spring forced Turkey out of this policy of non-interference. Ankara has struggled with the notion that it could not bend the region to its will: In Libya, before it ended up helping unseat Qaddafi, Turkey argued that the West had no business intervening against him. In Syria, it has broken completely with Assad, embroiling itself in a conflict that shows no sign of ending. And in Egypt, of course, it is setting itself on a collision course with the most populous state in the Arab world.

The extent to which Turkey has since ditched its softly-softly approach to the region has been surprising. One of the commandments of "zero problems" was what Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to as "equidistance" -- that is, the refusal to take sides in regional disputes. This was always something of a myth, particularly when it came to the Israeli-Palestine dispute, where the government seldom missed a chance to bolster its regional and Islamic credentials by slighting the Israelis. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, equidistance appears to have gone into the gutter.

It's not only in Egypt where Turkey is now seen as a partisan actor, rather than a neutral problem-solver. In Iraq, it has openly defied Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, accusing it of fomenting sectarian strife and going behind its back to negotiate oil deals with the Kurdish Regional Government, which administers the country's north. In Syria, it has lent unqualified support to the anti-regime rebels, letting them operate freely on its soil, turning a blind eye to their atrocities, and reportedly criticizing the United States for branding the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist group.

The former Turkish diplomat said that Ankara was right to support the demise of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, but deplored the ham-fisted way that it went about it. "Turkey was right to side with the people against the dictator, but it could have stopped there," he said. "By burning all bridges with the regime, Turkey lost its leverage with Assad." And when the international community, wary as the rebels' ranks swelled with jihadists, shied away from lending further support, "Turkey, to use a football term, found itself offside."

Erdogan is struggling with a new array of foreign policy challenges in other parts of the world, too. Turkey's image in the West took a beating this summer with the protests in Gezi Park. Erdogan's decision to put down the demonstrations with riot police, tear gas and water cannons undermined his relationship with the European Union: In late June, in the midst of the post-Gezi crackdown, Brussels decided to postpone a new round of accession talks with Ankara until October. Erdogan himself, meanwhile, has come under scathing criticism in the American press.

Turkey has done virtually nothing to undo the damage. Instead, officials have accused Western countries of orchestrating the protests and various "dark forces" -- including what Erdogan cryptically calls the international "interest rate lobby" -- of bankrolling them. The prime minister's new top advisor, Yigit Bulut, has no qualms about calling the European Union "a loser headed for a wholesale collapse" while Egemen Bagis, the very minister responsible for the accession talks, quipped, "If we have to, we could tell them, 'Get lost'."

While Turkey's foreign policy struggles in the Middle East may have been inevitable, its isolation elsewhere seems self-inflicted. Today, the country risks returning to the mindset of the 1990s, when tensions abounded with Arab and European countries, conspiracy theories poisoned the political debate, and Turks  -- convinced they were a country under siege -- repeated faithfully, "The Turk has no friend but the Turk." Erdogan, it seems, has taken his country from "zero problems" to international headaches as far as the eye can see.



Foggy Bottom Review

The clock is ticking on the State Department's grand strategy review. Can John Kerry match his predecessor's record on the QDDR?

When he was a senator, he loved it so much that he thought it should be mandatory. But as secretary of state, will he be so sure?

I am referring, of course, to Secretary of State John Kerry and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, or QDDR.

A bit of history is in order. The QDDR is the grand strategic review of how America conducts its diplomacy and development through the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The QDDR mimics the congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, through which the Pentagon assesses its key strategies, programs, and resources every four years.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, eager to put the State Department on more equal footing with the Department of Defense, announced the first-ever QDDR in July 2009. Clinton, who had grown familiar with the QDR process as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that the QDDR would be the very epitome of "smart power," and would "help make our diplomacy and development work more agile, responsive, and complimentary."

Clinton recognized, as did many of her predecessors, that the architecture of America's diplomacy was more retro than modern, and the QDDR offered the promise of pushing through major reforms and presenting a policy vision without needing to get legislation approved.

But it also required a gestation period just shy of most elephants', taking 17 months to complete. During those 17 months, hardly a week went by when outsiders weren't told that the QDDR would be arriving "soon." As Josh Rogin noted in these same pages, the QDDR was first planned for release in March 2010 and then April 2010 and then September 2010, before it was finally released in December of that year. The actual QDDR report was a sprawling, but largely reasonable, document, and its findings would have generated an even warmer welcome if they had been delivered without such a lengthy wait. The Pentagon usually takes about half as much time to conducts its QDR, so the repeated delays gave the impression that the State Department had bit off more than it could chew.

Now, the speculation has begun as to whether or not Kerry will conduct the second-ever QDDR. Most think he probably will, but no official announcement has been made. For his part, Kerry almost has to lead a QDDR or else face an embarrassing climb down from his prior positions.

When Kerry was still in the Senate in 2012, he joined Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) in introducing legislation that would have made the QDDR mandatory. Although the bill did not pass, it would be difficult for Kerry to explain why he insisted on a QDDR from Capitol Hill but resisted it from Foggy Bottom. Such evolutions do occur when officials move from one end of Constitution Ave. to the other, and views on issues like executive privilege and congressional consultation obviously change depending on where you sit. But killing the QDDR would be a particularly stark example nonetheless. Kerry may also feel pressure to complete a QDDR during his tenure because his predecessor did, and the secretary seems to feel a measure of rivalry with Clinton.

To live up to the "quadrennial" designation in its title, the next QDDR should be completed by around December 2014. (The Pentagon has largely adhered to the four year schedule, completing QDRs in 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2010.) But given that the original QDDR took 17 months to complete, Kerry will need to move soon if he hopes to keep the process roughly on track. The second QDDR should move more quickly than the first, but it will still take real time.

Moreover, Kerry will be conducting his review at a time when resources are tight. And although it doesn't take a lot of funding to carry out the QDDR, budget constraints can put a real crimp in grand strategies. The first QDDR called for adding 5,500 new foreign and civil service personnel, a suggestion that doesn't seem likely to fly in today's sequester-dampened budget environment.

So what should Kerry take on in the QDDR? Clinton stressed that the first QDDR was a bottom-up strategic review designed to provide both short-term and long-term blueprints that would guide strategy, resources, and personnel at both State and USAID. That standard is still a reasonable one.

But given the challenges presented by the Arab Spring and its aftermath, a number of key areas deserve particular attention. How, for example, has the United States, the longest and most vocal promoter (albeit an often uneven one) of democracy around the world come to be seen as the enemy of the average reform-minded person in the streets of Cairo? Is America's broken image in the region a function of badly managed public diplomacy or a direct result of years of misguided policy choices that have only selectively condemned autocracy?

Similarly, is it time to fundamentally rethink and review the State Department's role in directing security assistance around the globe? A look at the roughly $2 billion the United States has shelled out annually to Egypt since 1978 suggests it might be.

And in the wake of massive leaks by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning -- not to mention the death of Amb. Christopher Stevens in Libya -- it is clear that the United States has to bolster the physical and electronic security at U.S. installations around the globe. But the response can't just be more secrecy, more layers of classification, and higher embassy walls; U.S. diplomats are already too far removed from many of the societies in which they operate. The QDDR presents a perfect opportunity for a broad accounting of how the United States should balance risk and opportunity as it engages with the world.

Kerry's QDDR will need to look forward and envision the world as it will be in decades to come. As more and more urban centers outstrip entire countries in terms of population, how will the United States refocus its diplomacy on global megacities? How will it balance outreach between national officials and major players in local government?

The hard reality of dealing with climate change will also need to be front and center. House Republicans can still pretend that climate change doesn't exist, but the secretary of state doesn't have that luxury. How will the United States revamp its diplomatic and humanitarian relief operations to meet a world where increasingly severe weather resulting from climate change is spurring more volatile patterns of migration and potentially sparking political instability?

Kerry's advisers have been quick to make the case that the secretary sees himself in the model of notable predecessors at Foggy Bottom like George Marshall, James Baker and Henry Kissinger. Kerry may well see Middle East peace as potentially his grand diplomatic triumph, but getting the QDDR right is the kind of architectural triumph of foreign policy that has eluded most modern secretaries. The question is: will it elude Kerry?

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