The temptation of ideology

The temptation of ideology

If you are an observer of Turkish foreign policy, do yourself a favor and read the long interview in yesterday’s Hürriyet Daily News with Ambassador Murat Özçelik. He was Turkey’s special representative in Iraq from 2007 to 2011 and then served as an ambassador to Baghdad. He was one of the key architects of some of the key successes of Turkish foreign policy during the Justice and Development Party (AKP) era, such as rapprochement with Iraqi Kurdistan. And now, speaking to Hürriyet’s veteran foreign correspondent Cansu Çamlıbel, Ambassador Özçelik explained, in a sense, what went wrong with regard to Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East in the past three years.

Özçelik’s main criticism is Turkey is now a “bystander” in Iraq, with little chances to help ending the disastrous civil war. This, he argues, is partly a making of Ankara passionately taking sides by showing an “ideological approach” to matters of the Middle East, with a pro-Islamist and pro-Sunni bias.

But it would be wrong to think “ideological approach” dominated Turkish foreign policy right away in 2002, the year when the AKP came to power. Rather, Özçelik marks 2010 as “the breaking point for foreign policy,” when the AKP’s previously more pragmatic and embracive attitude was replaced by the “ideological approach.” He says:

“When they [the AKP] entered the fray with the ideology of Neo-Ottomanism, one of the things professionals like me observed was that Turkey has an influence on the Islamic world. That is true. So that you can increase your economic, political and social influences in that hinterland and follow policies from which Turkey can benefit. As diplomats, our view on the secular system was that we can regain the power of the Ottomans under modern ideas, such as egalitarianism and being neutral to sects.

[So] this ideological approach was not like this before 2010-2011. Until then, do you know what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used to say? ‘We are Muslims; we are neither Sunni, nor Shia.’ He used to send amiable messages to Shias during Ashura. But now nobody falls for it, I assure you.”

Özçelik did not comment on Syria, but that was the main crucible, and the test case, of “the ideological” approach. Before the Syrian civil war, Ankara was a capital that took pride in “being able to talk to every single actor” in the Middle East. Then, as the ruthless murders of the Bashar al-Assad regime became apparent, Ankara did the right thing by condemning the regime and supporting the Syrian opposition, as its Western allies also did. The mistake, however, was not to see the trouble with the extremists that began to grow within the opposition. Ankara insisted in seeing things in a black-and-white approach until it was too late.

If there was one important actor in Turkey that saw the problem with the “ideological approach,” it was President Abdullah Gül, who silently warned the government against it. Had he had the chance to become prime minister after Erdogan, he could have restored Turkey’s pre-2010 pragmatism and moderatism.

But Gül will not be Turkey’s new prime minister, despite overwhelming public support in society. It seems certain Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will have that job. Hopefully speaking, he can perhaps initiate a similar restoration, by recalling the good old days when he called for “zero problems with neighbors” and “talking to all actors.” That was, after all, not the policy of the much-despised Kemalist “mon chers,” but Davutoğlu himself.