[Editor's note: the following article was originally published at National Review Online.]
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu grandiloquently proclaimed recently that, “If the world is on fire, Turkey is the firefighter. Turkey is assuming the leading role for stability in the Middle East.”
Such ambition is new for Ankara. In the 1990s, it contentedly fulfilled its NATO obligations and followed Washington’s lead. Starting about 1996, relations with Israel blossomed. In all, Turkish policy offered an attractive exception to the tyrannical, Islamist, and conspiracist mentality generally dominating Muslim peoples. That the country’s political leaders were corrupt and fumbling seemed of little consequence.
Those faults, however, proved extremely consequential, leading to the repudiation of long-established political parties and the victory of an Islamist party, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), in the elections of November 2002. By March 2003, in advance of the coming war in Iraq, the new government signaled that a new era had begun by refusing to permit American troops to traverse Turkish territory.
Over the next eight years, Turkish foreign policy become increasingly hostile to the West in general, the United States, France, Israel in particular, even as it warmed to governments in Syria, Iran, and Libya. This shift became particularly evident in May 2010, when Ankara both helped Tehran avoid sanctions for its nuclear program and injured Israel’s reputation with the Mavi Marmara-led flotilla.
But the full extent of Ankara’s Middle East ambitions emerged in early 2011, concurrent with the region’s far-reaching upheavals. Suddenly, Turks were ubiquitous. Their recent activities include:
Providing a model: The Turkish president,Abdullah Gül, holds that Turkey can have a “great and unbelievable positive effect” on the Middle East – and he has some takers. For example, Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s newly legalized Ennahda movement, has stated: “We are learning from the experience of Turkey, especially the peace that has been reached in the country between Islam and modernity.”
Offering an economic lifeline to Iran: Gül paid a state visit to Tehran in February, accompanied by a large group of businessmen, capping an evolution whereby, according to the Jamestown Foundation, “Turkey is becoming a major [economic] lifeline for Iran.” In addition, Gül praised the Iranian political system.
Obstructing foreign efforts in Libya: Starting on March 2, the Turkish government objected to any military intervention against Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi’s regime. “Foreign interventions, especially military interventions, only deepen the problem,” Davutoğlu put it on March 14, perhaps worrying about a similar intervention to protect Kurds in eastern Turkey. When military operations began onMarch 19, Turkish forces did not take part. Turkish opposition delayed NATO‘s engagement in Libya until March 31 and then freighted it with conditions.
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