Last November, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Tripoli to receive the annual Al-Gadhafi International Prize for Human Rights. For over two decades, the blood-soaked dictator has awarded the honor to a collection of rogues, blameless victims and genuine (though, as their acceptance of the prize indicates, morally fickle) do-gooders. Past recipients include Fidel Castro, “the victim children of Bosnia & Herzegovina” and Nelson Mandela.
Given Erdogan’s campaign to simultaneously rile the West and endear himself to the Arab “street” something that the tyrant of Tripoli obviously appreciated the Turkish prime minister was the obvious choice for 2010. Eruptions like Erdogan’s 2009 blow-up at Davos (“When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill,” he snapped at Shimon Peres) and his obscene exploitation of the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident have boosted his popularity throughout the Arab and Muslim world, which seems to be a crucial component of his Justice and Development (AKP) Party’s Eastern-focused foreign policy.
Erdogan never hesitates to moralize about the policies of Europe, the United States or Israel, the constant theme being that these powers are hypocritical. “Those who are chanting for global nuclear disarmament should first start in their own countries,” he has said about Western pressure on Iran to curtail its nuclear program. Yet Erdogan is selective in his outrage. He was noticeably silent when his friend Gadhafi pledged to “cleanse Libya house by house.” Indeed, turning a blind eye to mass killing has become de rigueur for the Turkish premier. In 2009 he defended Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, by stating that “a Muslim cannot commit genocide.” Tell that to the Armenians.
Erdogan called NATO intervention in Libya “unthinkable” and “absurd,” attributed Western concern about the deteriorating situation there to “calculations” over oil, and alleged that the “real plan” being advanced is actually an old-fashioned “imperial carve-up.” Only last week, when the military effort was placed under NATO command and Gadhafi’s ouster became more likely, did Turkey, which highly values its membership in the military alliance, quietly lend its cooperation.
Erdogan’s pretensions to leadership of ordinary Muslims are once again being tested now that Bashar Assad has taken to slaughtering his own people en masse next door in Syria.
Erdogan has provided cover for Assad, informing him by phone last week of his continued support, but also gently requesting that the dictator implement economic reforms (as if such tinkering would quell Syrians’ foundational grievances toward their sclerotic and brutal regime). Meanwhile, Erdogan has the gall to claim that the protests sweeping the region are attributable to Turkey’s democratic model a model that he has been gradually undermining.
“Which country were they inspired by?” he recently asked the Turkish parliament (hint: probably not the regime whose imperial predecessor ruled over the Arab world for four centuries).
Last week, at the annual German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum, I asked Turkish Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis about his government’s indifference toward Assad’s crackdown.
He said that Syria is a “very important and friendly country” and that “most of the people in that large geography [of the Middle East] are looking up to Turkey and they want to have similar democratic reforms that Turkey has been conducting, in her approach to become a member of EU.” He then turned the issue on its head, however, and in what has become emblematic of Turkish diplomatic rhetoric under the AKP, cast Turkey as victim.
“So on one side, we see EU member states who are encouraging the modernization, the demand for human rights in the greater Middle East and North Africa,” he told me. “On the other side, they’re not really treating the source of inspiration of those demands, which is Turkey, with the dignity that she deserves.”
Get it? All this stagnation in the Muslim world is to be heaped on the shoulders of Europe, which has slowed Turkey’s EU accession by refusing to overlook the disturbing direction Turkey has taken under the AKP. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 138 out of 178 countries for press freedom. Nearly 70 journalists are in prison and hundreds face prosecution there today. Hundreds of Kurdish politicians are also in the dock. Hundreds of academics, civil society activists and businessmen have been languishing in jail for years as accused conspirators in the infamous “Ergenekon” affair. When the American envoy to Ankara criticized these moves, Erdogan sneered that he was a “rookie ambassador.”
To be sure, Turkey before the AKP was hardly a beacon of democracy. And Turkey has reason to seek better relations with its neighbor Syria. Just over 10 years ago, Damascus’ sponsorship of a Kurdish terrorist group nearly brought the two nations to war. This enmity derived from the Assad regime’s anxiety about the erstwhile Western tilt of its neighbor. But now that the moderately Islamist AKP is in power, relations have improved dramatically.
In 2003, Turkey refused to cooperate in the American-led assault on Iraq, which boosted Ankara in Assad’s eyes. In 2009, the two nations completed their first joint military exercise and reopened their borders. Trade doubled from $800 million in 2006 to $1.6 billion in 2009.
But the rapprochement has not led to the sort of liberalization in Syria that Bagis suggests it would, and Turkey has been content to condone the depredations of its repressive neighbor.
Just imagine what the AKP reaction would be to an unprovoked, murderous American or Israeli attack on a mosque, which is exactly what Assad perpetrated last week.
No country, especially one with pretensions to being a regional power, can be expected to have a foreign policy that is at all times the product of an absolute and unblemished moral code. America’s intervening in Libya while it largely ignores regime crackdowns in allied nations like Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia is demonstrative of this fact. Yet given the baleful turn Turkey has taken on the world stage in recent years, one can’t help but suspect that the fundamental problems with its foreign policy lay in the AKP’s principles more than in its practices.
James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague and a contributing editor to The New Republic in Washington.