With no positive agenda, Turkey became frustratingly trying
“I cannot tell you how popular we felt in Europe until 2010. In the past, we would have to encourage people to come listen to Turkish presidents or prime ministers. But when it was heard that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was coming to town, we had hundreds of applications to come and listen to him. We hired the biggest ball room in the city’s biggest hotel,” one Turkish diplomat recently told me.
“Now Turkey is extremely unpopular. We cannot get our messages across to politicians, as saying something positive about Turkey is politically costly,” several European diplomats have told me.
In 2008, the U.S.’s former envoy to Turkey, Marc Parris, described Ahmet Davutoğlu, then Erdoğan’s advisor, to “Turkey’s Henry Kissinger.” In 2011 Erdoğan made it to the cover of Time.
Turkey’s popularity grew in proportion to the positive agenda it created around itself. Previously, before Erdoğan came to power, Turkey knocked on the door of the West with a negative agenda. Either it was complaining about the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) activities in the West or those of the Kurds within Iraq. It complained about the Greeks and the Greek Cypriot lobby, or the Armenian lobby. Whenever Europe knocked on Turkey’s door, there was a rather negative agenda: Human rights violations, minority rights, democratic deficiencies, etc.
In the 2000s Turkey’s democratic reforms inside and its policy outside based on reconciliation and solving problems put it much more in tune with Western values and policy. That made the country popular in the West to the degree that Erdoğan was among the few leaders who U.S. President Barack Obama talked to on the phone frequently.
What went wrong? The answer is on the cover of that Time magazine in 2011.
“Turkey’s pro-Islamic leader has built his (secular, democratic, Western-friendly) nation into a regional powerhouse,” it was written on the cover, left to the picture of Erdoğan. “But can his example save the Arab Spring?” was written to the right.
All three attributes within the brackets - secular, democratic, Western-friendly - have become questionable for Turkey in 2016 (and actually long before). The answer to the question on the Time cover became quite clear by (and long before) 2016. Not only was Erdoğan not able to save the Arab Spring, the Arab Spring in fact became his big failure.
The democratic backpedalling domestically and Turkey’s deviating policies in the Middle East started to close the bridge with the West. Instead of bridging differences via engagement and dialogue, the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu duo chose contention. Constant bashing by Erdoğan and constant lecturing by Davutoğlu lost them even the most understanding allies in the West.
More importantly, this duo thought they could advance their interests and agenda in the Middle East, and Syria specifically, in the absence of support from key regional and international players. Big mistake.
All of this is the making of the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu duo. But that does not justify the disproportionate Turkey-bashing in the West. From the United States to Germany, the West’s key players also have their hands dirty when it comes to the Middle East and Syria. The entire Western front has collapsed before Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad was wise enough to release all the Islamists in his prisons and prepare the ground for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to strengthen so that Western powers would see a lesser evil in his regime, ultimately preferring to live with him rather than a radical Islamic regime.
The difference is that the West was quick to see that al-Assad would not lose the war and decided to leave Syria in the hands of Russia and Iran. Turkey, however, thought he could be defeated if “opposition forces” were given enough support, despite Russian and Iranian objections. That mistaken policy allowed the West to wash its hands of Syrian dirt and put all the blame on Turkey. If you listen to some of the Western media, you would think that ISIL and the Syrian mess is nothing but Turkey’s making.
The plane crisis with Russia of November 2015 ended up being a blessing, as it caused Turkey to realize it was set on a wrong course.
With ice broken with Russia, improved relations with Iran, dialogue channels open with Washington, and an intensified war against ISIL, Turkey will become a more constructive interlocutor.
But it will still take more effort for Turkey to stop being attributed with a negative agenda. For that, it should make sure not to highjack its bilateral ties through the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) extradition issues.