Eissenstat: Libya and Turkey

Howard Eissenstat writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

Libya and Turkey: Ankara’s foreign policy goes off key

For a while, at least, Turkey seemed to be riding high as a wave of protests swept from Tunisia to Egypt to a half dozen other states in the Middle East and North Africa. After a few days of uncomfortable silence as protests were met with violence in Egypt, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan called on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to heed the will of his people and, using language meant to underline Turkey’s role as a regional leader, spoke in explicitly religious language to do so. The speech met with positive media coverage, both regionally and in the West, and Turkey’s image was burnished. Without giving too much thought about what the “Turkish model” might actually be, a lot of commentators suggested it might be a path for the region to take.

Of course, Erdoğan’s challenge to Mubarak was a relatively easy call. Mubarak was a rival to Erdoğan’s in his attempt to reframe Turkey as a regional powerhouse and the two were at odds over both Iran and Gaza. Moreover, Mubarak’s fall represented further proof that U.S. influence in the region was in decline and that the time was ripe for a more aggressive Turkish regional policy based on both shared values (democratic, Islamic, and anti-imperial) and a shared desire for economic development (preferably with Turkish companies leading the way). As Turkish Foreign Minister’s recent speech at Ahmet Davutoğlu at the al Jazeera Conference in Doha, this is how Turkey hopes to present itself within the region.
Libya, however, has proved to be a challenge and highlights some of the limitations of Turkish foreign policy. There are two reasons for this difficulty.

First, unlike Egypt, Turkey had been actively engaging with Libya for some time. Before the crisis, Turkey had tens of thousands of workers in Libya (in a remarkable demonstration of its military and technical prowess, it repatriated twenty thousand citizens in a matter of days). It also has billions of dollars of investment (much of it by businesses closely aligned to Erdoğan’s own party, Justice and Development or AKP) which it risks losing if the Gaddafi regime falls. Just as important, however, is that while the fall of the Mubarak regime seemed to fit the AKP’s assumptions about declining Western power in the region, events in Libya risked reinforcing American and European influence.

With only the barest lip service to democratic values, Turkey has made clear its opposition to international action in support of the revolution in Libya. It used its effective veto to stifle discussions within NATO and Erdoğan publicly and loudly criticized the unanimously approved UN Security Council sanctions on Libya imposed on February 26. It has made its continued opposition to international intervention clear, arguing that sanctions will only bring more pain to the Libyan people. To its credit, Turkey has indeed been at the forefront of sending humanitarian aid to Libya.

Nonetheless, Turkish statements regarding Libya have taken on a surreal quality given the brutality of Gaddafi’s forces as they roll back the revolution: there is little point in speaking Libyans “embracing each other,” as Gaddafi’s troops, some of them mercenaries, brutally make war on the Libyan people. Moreover, Turkey’s regional isolation seems to only increase as the Arab League voted, on March 12, to also support a no-fly zone for Libya. The next twenty-four hours will tell whether Turkey will change its position within NATO given the Security Council resolution this evening (March 17). To date, however, it has shown no inclination to do so.

Clearly, in this case, Turkey’s commitment to democracy in the region has been trumped by other concerns. Economics is one part of it. Turkish businesses are already preparing to return to Libya. But economics isn’t the whole story. Just as important is the sense among the AKP’s inner circle that all Western intervention is ill-intentioned. Turkey’s leaders make clear that they see any EU or NATO involvement in Libya as nothing less than a variant form of imperialism. More broadly, however, Turkey wants any resolution to be a regional one: the AKP’s commitment to democracy in the Middle East is significantly weaker than its concern that Turkey takes the lead in forging a new regional order.

There are echoes of an earlier crisis in current events. In the wake of the stolen elections in Iran in 2009, Turkey was among the first to congratulate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his re-election and made clear that it recognized the elections as valid. Turkish media sources close to the ruling AKP dismissed the popular protests as Western machinations. At the time, Turkey seemed isolated, both from its Western allies and from most of the region. But Ahmadinejad was able consolidate power and Turkish-Iranian regional and economic ties have only blossomed since then. In Iran, the AKP gambled on authoritarian continuity and it paid off.

Despite to the costs of its reputation among its Western allies, Turkey may still come out a winner in the Libyan crisis. It seems increasingly likely that any international response to Gaddafi will be too little too late. The Libyan opposition is fragmented and in retreat. Even if sanctions continue and the no fly zone is a success, Gaddafi, oil rich and with no scruples to speak of, may stubborn his way to survival. If he does, Turkey’s gamble will have paid off in significant ways.

Even so, the costs will be steep. Even if Gaddafi retains control, it is likely that sanctions will continue for as long as he is in power. Turkish investments there were will go to waste regardless.

More importantly, Turkish regional power, under the AKP, has expanded almost exclusively through “soft power”: the strength of Turkish technical know-how, the prestige of its universities, the strength and diversity of its economy. But a key element of that soft power has been the image of the AKP as a model for blending Islamic sensibilities with democratic ideals. That image has, sadly, seemed increasingly tarnished both at home and abroad in the past five years. And Turkey’s double-talk on Libya only serves to highlight how weak its commitment to democracy in the region really is.

Howard Eissenstat
Department of History
St. Lawrence University

20 Responses

  1. “More broadly, however, Turkey wants any resolution to be a regional one: the AKP’s commitment to democracy in the Middle East is significantly weaker than its concern that Turkey takes the lead in forging a new regional order.”

    At least Turkey lives there! You think the U.S. is trying to help the rebels in Libya? Why aren’t they putting a no-fly zone up over Bahrain, which is using our Appache helicopters on their people?

    The U.S. wants someone they can deal with reigning in Libya. They’ve already burned their bridges with Gaddaffi.

    They didn’t put a no-fly zone up over Gaza or Lebanon did they? Why not?

  2. I don’t accept Mr Eissenstat’s analysis.

    The case in Egypt (as in Tunisia or even in Iran after the election) was popular, unarmed uprising. In Libya from the first day it seemed as a armed rebellion, some sort of civil war. It seems that Libyan military has been cracked and different factions has decided to fight it out. It seemed that opposition side was stronger at the beginning but now it seems that the Qaddafi side has the stronger side.

    I think more than anything else, the Libyan situation demonstrates the hypocrisy of western powers and the Arab league. We have US and NATO in Afghanistan and Pakistan using air and ground military force to put down armed opposition to its presence.

    At the same time we have US/Europe tacit apporval for Saudi and Bahrain despots to use military against unarmed civilians.

    With that as a background, US/Europe is questioning the rights of Libyan government in using arms against internal armed opposition.

    It seems to me that Mr Eissenstat is putting a western spin on the reality, I would expect the people of the region to see Turkey as force of reason and US/Europe to be seen as colonial power interested in oil.

  3. The word “brutally” is never used with regard to the US, is it? Despite it being far more appropriate, by several orders of magnitude.

  4. Turkey is merely pursuing its own interests, what’s wrong with that, is that not what all countries do ?

    I’m sure Erdogan would rather Turkey not be a member of NATO, along with the vast majority of Turks. It is only the vanity of Istanbul elites and the military who prevent him from leaving. Eventually the military will see the advantages of Turkey being an independent sovereign state.

    The worst thing Turkey could do is to join the EU. The only EU citizens who want Turkey as a member are the chattering classes & US poodles. Why would Turkey give up that much sovereignty to be ruled by a bunch of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. The only Turks who would benefit would be the Istanbul elites, that’s why they crave for it.

    Turkey can be of far more “use” to everyone as an independent, quasi-neutral sovereign state. It doesn’t have to be a full member of institutions, with the EU it could have a wide ranging FTA, with NATO it could have an inter-operability arrangement like Australia has.

    If Turkey can break free of the grandiose vanities of Attaturk, then it can achieve the advantages available from its location, having a foot in all camps, a finger in every pie.

    Then only, perhaps, can the people of Turkey look back into history and offer true regrets for their past.

    • While I also disagree with the analysis I am dumbfounded by your comment about ataturks vanities. What does that mean? Do you have any idea that todays strong economy depends on the education investment and state building of that period? Islamists are only usurping the natural growth of a vibrant society that turned into a lackluster democracy. In reality the real strength of the turkish bourgeoisie still lies in istanbul.

      • “Usurping”? Turkey’s discredited elites, overthrown in 2000, were moving down the same neoliberal, US-stooge direction as all the European countries that have had economic meltdowns in recent years, the ones that Rumsfeld famously called “The New Europe”, plus Blair’s UK.

        Why then does Turkey alone prosper with a populist government that – thanks to harsh criticism by its citizens – finally stood up to the US?

        Maybe the people of a country work harder and behave more responsibly when they actually believe their opinions matter, not just the oligarchy of their local branch of Wall Street. Latin America is in a period of relative good health, a decade after its neoliberal Uncle Tom elites began to be driven from power.

        These days nearly all the successful countries are ones that don’t obey America.

        • Dear Super,

          I really doubt you have any idea what you are talking about. I am from the country and for your information Erdogan is not a socialist. He is not Chavez or Morales. He has enriched his cronies in the last decade while finding legal and illegal ways of suppressing people who defined themselves as secular. There has been a university rector who committed suicide in prison. There are hundreds of people in prison for the last 3 years awaiting a trial that cannot begin.

          You think Turkish economic success is thanks to this government? No. It is due to inflow of capital from the Gulf region following 9/11, a cheap but disciplined labor force with very little rights.

          Turkey should not submit to the US, but democracy and individual rights cannot be overlooked in the name of anti-imperialism. If it served his interests be sure Erdogan would be sucking up to Pentagon on a daily basis.

    • Anyone who underestimates the AKP or tries to put them into a neat ideological box does so at their peril.

      I can’t see them pulling out of NATO. Being a NATO member has several benefits to the AKP. Not least is the political capital to be gained from effectively stalling an action like the no-fly zone. Erdogan is a past master of the grandstanding gesture and he has many proteges in the party.

      As to the EU–the leadership of the AKP has never really had any intention to join the EU in my opinion. However the accession process has been very useful to them in many ways and I would expect them to keep it alive.

      For one it has aided in weakening the military and eliminating it from having any real political role. The never-ending and constantly expanding ‘Ergenekon’ investigation will likely finish off the rump of the military/ultra nat opposition.

    • If there was no “Ataturk” for Turkey, US would be in Turkey before Iraq or Afghanistan. Turkey is a model and economically advanced country among all other muslim countries on the world, not just muslim but also for many others. This is just because of what Ataturk brought with his revolution. I do not agree that it is for advantage of Turkey to break free of the grandiose vanities of Ataturk.

  5. I would be curious to know how Prof Eissenstat applies this analysis to Turkish policy vis-a-vis Bahrain. Publicly, at least, it sounds like its taking a similar line (Muslim unity), and I take it that this is a way of defending the status quo. But, I wonder what kind of outcome Turkey is looking for in the Gulf, and what it is willing to do to get it.

  6. I do not agree with this analysis, and certainly not with its conclusion that commitment to democracy is weak in the region. What a blatant lie. Turkey is a model state for the whole Arab and islamic world and will continue to be so. Turkeys democracy and secularism is better than Israels in many ways. Even if the rebels win, Turkey will win in Libya.

  7. Turkey is looking out for its interests, using soft power, and recognizing inflamed violence as a destabilizer. Would that all nations behave that way.

  8. The fear of Western imperialism is well-founded, particularly when the intervention is in an oil state. How can any Arab hear the words “no fly zone” and not shudder, thinking of Iraq?

  9. Professor Eissenstat touches on the key issue where I and some commenters differ with his otherwise excellent analysis, when he says:

    ” Just as important is the sense among the AKP’s inner circle that all Western intervention is ill-intentioned. Turkey’s leaders make clear that they see any EU or NATO involvement in Libya as nothing less than a variant form of imperialism.”

    This is a sense that many of us share!

    After watching US “humanitarian” intervention in Haiti, only the latest in a long history, one has to ask: when has the intervention of an imperial power ever helped those intervened upon? When has it failed to strengthen imperial control, and strengthen forces prone to collaboration with the imperial power? World War 2, where many progressives would have supported the Allied side, shows clearly that it is only countervailing power (China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam) that prevents the imperial power from accompanying its aid with control.

    Naomi Klein’s book “Disaster Capitalism” describes in detail how imperial powers make use of crises to their own advantage.

    Professor Eissenstat raises the issue: I believe it deserves much fuller, and serious consideration. This will not be the last time where the question of imperial “humanitarian” intervention arises.

  10. This was a very interesting piece to read. Unfortunately, the analysis is very naive, and the argument it presents lacks critical self-reflectivity about its advocacy for intervention.

    Their pretensions for being a ‘regional power broker’ aside, Erdogan and Davutoglu have been amazingly consistent in their approach to the crises in Egypt and Libya. In fact, the policy towards conflicts in Egypt and Libya is perhaps the most consistent moment of Erdogan’s foreign policy. But one has to be able to put himself/herself in Turkey’s position in order to appreciate that moment.

    AKP, here, is guided not by its neo-liberalism but by its nationalism. In the eyes of the many in Turkey, the possible intervention into Libyan conflict would be simply taking sides in an armed conflict, but domestic conflict nevertheless, initiated by defected generals.

    Turkey’s goal is to establish stability in the region, and in doing so, it’s goal is almost identical to that of the U.S. Erdogan cautioned Mubarek, because Mubarek’s attempts to cling to power were becoming the source if instability. Erdogan is critical of the military intervention into Libya, because such an intervention would almost certainly lead to further instability, conflict, and wars.

    Turkey’s business interests could explain how vocal Erdogan might become in regards to the intervention in Libya, but it cannot explain the substance of Turkey’s objection and criticism.

      • Turkey has a vital role in the Middle East as a regional leader who shares democracy with Islam. However this role can not make Turkey only a foregoing country. The sanctions which were taken by UN imposed are the indications of new variant form of imperialism. Of course this is just my opinion. But I am sure that too many people share the same idea with me…

  11. The article actually underlines some very important facts about the relationship between Turkey and Libya. Turkey will of course see it as an imperialist attack. When Israel was bombing Palestine with phosphorus bombs, UN was not able to do more than some condemnation reports but today, 20 aircrafts bombing Libya… If France, UN could have the courage against Israel to do the same, I would also support the attack today…The attack today basically summarizes the real meaning of imperializm. A best practice for imperialism.

  12. Eissenstat: Libya and Turkey piece has stood the test of time for several days and resulted in mostly intelligent feedback from the readers. If Eissenstat could have another try at this period of time, when Turkey has declared a clear stance about the issue, it would be worth listening to enabling his followers to better judge the credo of his thinking.

  13. Well about soft power, Erdogan may gain Turkish and nonArab Muslim popularity for his stance but in Libya it has made Turkey almost hated in that country, and although less visceral the reaction is the same among ordinary Arab who see Turkey delaying and now sabotaging military action against a madman bent on staying in power at any cost. Turkey is now standing in the way of a revolution, and it may repet the mistake in Syria. We expect this stance from Arab regimes which are trying to suppress their own revolutions, including in Egypt and Tunisia were they want to rescue as much of the old regime as possible, but seeing Turkey act like this and insits it has the moral highground when opposing the French airstrikes that saved Benghazi exposes the rhetoric about regional protector of civilians that was clear with Darfur adn Iran but not to genderal Arab public who have been more transfixed and emotionally involved in Libya which is part of a larger revolutionary pan-Arab narrative.

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