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Turkey’s ‘neo-Gaullism’

Turkey has endeavored to make itself a central player in the unfolding Middle East upheaval, leading one observer to comment that the country is displaying a “new self-confidence bordering on hubris."

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Inter Press Service

In the course of 24 hours earlier this week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met a top envoy from Libya, dispatched a senior Turkish official to Tripoli and traveled to Bahrain and Syria, all struggling to survive the pro- democracy Arab spring.

It was a typical performance for Turkey's top diplomat. From Libya to Iran, from Gaza to Afghanistan, Turkey has thrust itself into crises that have frustrated more powerful nations. So far, however, Ankara's most concrete diplomatic achievement has been to free four New York Times journalists from the custody of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last month.

A foreign policy on steroids is a hallmark of the Justice and Development (AK) party that has governed Turkey since 2002. But the party's Islamic roots may have less to do with the new orientation than nationalism and economic self- interest.

What Turkish officials have dubbed "neo-Ottomanism" is closer to "neo-Gaullism", says Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey programme at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Turkey's role reflects not so much the country's desire to improve relations with Muslim neighbours as it does "Turkish national pride and a sense of grandeur," Taspinar said. "There is a new self-confidence bordering on hubris."

Several factors have contributed to this self-confidence. Turkey, which refused to allow U.S. ground troops to invade Iraq from Turkish soil, benefited from the perception that it had chosen wisely, yet has managed to restore close ties with Baghdad and even with the autonomous government in Iraqi Kurdistan.

French and German opposition to rapid Turkish accession to the European Union pushed Turkey toward the Middle East, Russia and Asia – a shift that seems prescient now given Europe's economic problems and Turkey's nine-percent annual growth. Turkish per capita GDP has quintupled to about 10,000 dollars since the AKP came to power, meeting the party's chief domestic goal.

Sclerotic Arab regimes, combined with U.S. setbacks, left a diplomatic vacuum in the Middle East. Turkey's harsh condemnation of Israel's massive offensive against Gaza two years ago burnished Ankara's credentials among Arabs.

However, it infuriated Israel and undermined Turkey's potential as a mediator between Israel and the Arabs. Relations with Israel deteriorated to nearly a breaking point last summer after Israel attacked a Turkish-registered ship attempting to break the blockade of Gaza, killing nine activists including a dual Turkish-American citizen.

Turkish officials say they came close to brokering an Israeli-Syrian deal in 2008 and might have succeeded if not for Israel's offensive in Gaza.

The Turks also bristle at criticism of their efforts last year to broker a confidence-building deal with Iran that would have traded 1,200 kilogrammes of Iranian low-enriched uranium for fuel for a Tehran research reactor that makes medical isotopes. By the time Tehran agreed to what had initially been a U.S. proposal, it had amassed a larger stockpile of LEU and the U.N. Security Council was about to pass a new sanctions resolution.

The U.S. and its diplomatic partners, while rejecting the "Tehran declaration" mediated by Turkey and Brazil, agreed to talks with Iran in Istanbul earlier this year but no progress was made.

The latest challenge to Turkish diplomacy – the pro- democracy wave in the Arab world – has spurred more activity but also led to a certain amount of hedging. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was among the first foreign leaders to call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down.

But Turkey has waffled on Libya – where Turkey has billions in construction contracts – and called for a ceasefire that could leave Gaddafi in place. Turkey is also ambivalent about Syria, a crucial ally in curbing a nagging Kurdish rebellion.

The Turkish performance is undermining Arab goodwill.

An op-ed by Gamal Sultan in the Egyptian newspaper Al- Mesryoon on Tuesday called Turkey "shameful and opportunistic" for refusing to condemn Gaddafi's "massacres against his people" and hesitating about supporting a no-fly zone against Gaddafi's forces.

"Erdogan gained a lot on the political and human levels in the Arab world, when he adopted a courageous position toward the Israeli blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip," Sultan wrote. "Now however, Erdogan is losing this credit due to his position in favor of Gaddafi and his gangster sons. … Is the Libyan blood in Misrata not as precious as the Palestinian blood in Gaza?"

The Obama administration has a more positive view of recent Turkish diplomacy.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition that he not be named, told IPS that "despite last year's sharp differences over resolution 1929 and Iran, we have worked well with the Turks in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they continue to play a very valuable role, and in Libya, where they are actively involved in implementing resolution 1973 and pushing for a rapid transition of power."

Turkey has proven to be a valuable U.S. ally in Afghanistan, where its 1,700 troops act as peacekeepers in Kabul and Turkish provincial reconstruction teams have built 80 schools and nearly 50 hospitals. Unlike other NATO members, Turkey has vowed to keep a presence in Afghanistan for the long term.

Turkey is also taking a prominent role in efforts to create an international context for a peace agreement in Afghanistan. A meeting in Istanbul last June produced a preliminary declaration. The top U.N. envoy in Kabul, Staffan de Mistura, would like to build on this at another conference in Turkey later this year of Afghan neighbours and other key players.

Asked why Ankara has taken on so many difficult diplomatic tasks with so little assurance of success, a Turkish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IPS this week, "You get burned when you are touching hot objects but someone has to do it."

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