The Region: Historical ironies
By BARRY RUBIN
History is ironic. Finally, the European Union may be about to give Turkey the prize it has sought for a half-century: a promise of full membership in that organization and thus in Europe. Yet the prize is being given to an Islamic, partly Islamist, party rather than the secular nationalists who have long striven for that goal.
If in December the EU finally assures Turkey of eventual admission and sets a timetable, the ruling party will benefit in consolidating a more Islamic Turkey. In short, after many years of stalling Turkish membership for fear of having an Islamic-oriented state inside Europe, the EU is actually promoting that outcome.
A second irony is the results of Europe's "democratization" program in Turkey. Of course, Turkey was already a democracy but the EU demanded as a membership price further moves in that direction. Laws were revised expanding citizen rights, while the military's power was reduced. This lowered the army's ability to act as guardian of a secular republic, removing a major constraint on the government's Islamicizing program.
The other lost restraint is the failure of the opposition. The Islamic government gained a two-thirds parliamentary majority with less than one-third of the vote. Four major political parties fell just under the minimum number of votes needed to gain seats, leaving only one opposition party represented.
But the five more secular parties have failed to unite or even cooperate minimally against a dire threat to their interests and way of life. If this situation continues for another year, the ruling Justice and Development Party will probably elect the next president and be even more entrenched for a long stay in power.
Another factor helping the incumbents is the improvement of the economy which, under the previous government, reached its lowest point in decades.
A third irony is the unintended result of a pro-Turkey US policy. For years, when the EU was cold on Turkish membership and harshly critical of that country, Washington championed Turkey's right to enter the EU. Now, however, it is clear that success is damaging US-Turkey relations and strengthening those in Turkey most hostile to US interests.
Turkey refused to join the war against Saddam Hussein last year due to a desire to avoid confrontation and distance itself from the EU mainstream, as well as a nationalist reaction against letting large numbers of US troops onto Turkish soil. What is now happening constitutes a "Europeanization" of Turkish thinking. Today, the Turkish government is more concerned with pleasing Paris rather than Washington.
According to dominant EU thought today, real enemies do not exist in the world, at least not ones that cannot be moderated by diplomacy, trade, and dialogue. There is little sympathy for Israel, European identity is to be set by distinguishing itself from the US, and France is largely in the driver's seat. These are all simplifications, of course, but are also all ideas gaining growing influence in Turkey.
Five or 10 years ago, Turkey's concept of the Middle East was as a place of dangerous foes who wanted to subvert Turkey through supporting a Kurdish rebellion or an Islamist orientation. Cooperation with the US and Israel was needed to combat threats from Syria, Iran, and Iraq.
Today, Turkey has intimidated Syria into normal relations. While the Turks are worried about Iraq's instability, by deposing Saddam Hussein the US eased their problem on that front. And Turkey's Islamic government is striving for good relations with Iran's Islamist regime.
As for Israel, not much has actually happened so far to end that bilateral alliance. The Turkish prime minister's nasty remarks are not so different from his predecessor's; and it is hardly surprising that Turkey must cut back on its military expenditure (though funds have been shifted to the EU to ensure support for Turkish membership).
Especially significant, though ironic, is the affair in which the Turkish foreign minister leaked to an anti-Israel journalist a nonsensical story that Israel was plotting to establish a Kurdish state in northern Iraq.
Once published in an American magazine, this story was then replayed in Turkey along with other anti-Israel demagoguery.
There is, though, a limit to how far the Islamic government wants to go in creating a crisis with Israel. Trade is too important to disrupt. There is also an irony here, though, since the massive deal under which Israel was to import water from Turkey is now jeopardized. Why should Israel spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a project designed in large part to reward Turkey for its friendship?
What can alter the course of events? Perhaps the Turks will get tired of a government that does not represent the thinking of the great majority of them, possibly a charismatic opposition leader will arise, or cooperation by the other parties might happen.
Most intriguingly of all, perhaps there will be a revolt against Paris, a change of government in Germany, or a new French president in a couple of years who would modify EU policies. Already, however, the center of gravity for Turkey's foreign connections has shifted to Europe.
The writer is director, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center; editor, Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA); journal editor, Turkish Studies.