The big question before Recep Tayyip Erdogan?s third successive electoral triumph on June 12 was whether the Turkish premier?s increasingly autocratic ways would strengthen his country or undermine it. In just three months, Erdogan appears to be turning away from the kind of cautious foreign policy he pursued in the past few years and is leading his country through a series of dangerous improvisations in the international arena.
At the same time, many Turks are worried about the quality of their democracy and the dangers faced by their developing yet volatile economy. At its apogee as a regional military and economic power, while its neighbors are shaken by revolution or economic woes, Ankara is jeopardizing the achievements of a decade.
It appears that Turkey?s relations with Israel are damaged irreparably. Both sides may share the blame, but it is also clear that Erdogan has done all he can to maintain the tension between the erstwhile allies. Before this, such was Ankara?s power that it managed to maintain good relations with Tel Aviv, Tehran and Damascus, without being ostracized by Arab and other Muslim countries for the partnership with Israel. By seeking to play a leading role in the Muslim world and trying to appear as the Palestinians? strongest ally, Erdogan has shaken his country?s relationship with the United States. (This is not the first time but things are different now: In 2003, Ankara prohibited the passage of part of the force that invaded Iraq, but the strength of Turkey?s alliance with Israel assured that Washington contained its fury).
In a new attempt at a trade-off, Turkey accepted the installation of part of the US anti-missile shield on its territory. The system is aimed against Iran, and is intended to help defend Israel. Turkey, however, in a bid to placate Iran, said that the information from the radar on its territory would not be shared with Israel. This was news to the US, which means the issue is far from closed.
The confusion is indicative of Turkey?s improvisations, which sometimes succeed and at others may prove an embarrassment. Erdogan?s warning to Israel that the Turkish navy will guarantee the safety of shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean, in addition to the threats against Cyprus, Israel and the US company exploring for natural gas off Cyprus, will oblige Turkey either to get involved in dangerous disputes or accept that it is bluffing.
This year?s Arab revolutions caught the Turks unprepared, as they did everyone else. What is interesting, though, is how easily Ankara changed tack. At first it tried to mediate with Bashir al Assad, but when the Syrian president persisted with his vain efforts to stifle the revolt, Turkey hosted the founding meeting of a major organization aimed at Assad?s overthrow. In Libya, Ankara opposed NATO?s involvement, but, after Gaddafi fell, Erdogan rushed to Tripoli to hail the revolution; he appeared at a public prayer meeting to show the crowd that he is a Muslim, one of them, not like French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British PM David Cameron whose victory lap, a day earlier, was overshadowed by the Turkish leader?s visit. In Egypt and Tunisia, as in Libya, there was strong popular support for Erdogan, but the political elites and the Muslim Brotherhood (in Egypt) made it clear that they were not keen on Turkish hegemony.
Turkey?s strength is based on the fact that it is a secular, democratic state with a Muslim population and a booming economy. In part, the nine years of Erdogan?s government have contributed to this: he met the challenges presented by Turkey?s deep state and, through major democratic reforms, he defeated it. Now, though, the genetically modified regime is imposing itself on all domestic fronts with an arrogant and underhand manner. At the same time, turmoil in the international economy and insecurity caused by Turkey?s new geostrategic fronts, are grave dangers to the Turkish economy. Erdogan is undermining all that he achieved at home and abroad. Only he knows why.