Turkey: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

A few interesting Turkey headlines are floating around the news today. First, there’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit and accompanying announcement that President Barack Obama will make a stopover in Ankara in April. Both stories play to the “Turkey as essential mediator” meme that I’ve done my part in amplifying.

Interestingly enough, the Obama visit will bookend his European tour, and the White House has taken pains to distinguish it from his “search for a Muslim capital” schtick. That should provoke some tea-leaf reading about whether the visit is meant to signal American support for Turkey’s E.U. candidacy, since it suggests that Obama sees Turkey’s place as much in Europe as in the Middle East.

Then there’s this Sabrina Tavernise piece in the IHT that spotlights an archival document from the Ottoman Empire that corroborates historical accounts of the Armenian genocide. The document has been the subject of a media blackout in Turkey, playing to the “Turkey as brittle tantrum-thrower” meme that I’ve also done my part in amplifying. The ongoing Cyprus conflict, which has poisoned EU-NATO cooperation, is another example.

There’s an obvious tension between the two memes. On the one hand, the more essential Turkey becomes, the more leverage it will wield on the issues where it has chosen a brittle ice shelf as the ground it must defend. On the other, the more it conditions cooperation with the West on lip service to its brittle pride, the less essential it will become. In fact, the simple fact that the Obama administration is willing to talk to Syria and Iran already reduces the need for Turkey as a go-between for anything but perhaps the initial feelers. And even there, it’s not as if Wahsington has no other back channels to Damascus and Tehran.

Finally, Yigal Schliefer at Instanbul Calling directs our attention to the recent warming of relations between Turkey and Sudan, and the uncomfortable position that will put Anakara in, especially in light of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s very outspoken opposition to Israel’s recent Gaza operation. That plays to the “Turkey as compromised middle power” meme that ultimately characterizes most nations trying to extend their influence beyond their immediate backyard.

But it’s also a result of Turkey’s charm offensive to win African support for Ankara’s successful bid for a non-permanent UNSC seat, putting it somewhere in between meme one and meme two. Here’s Schliefer:

Turkey spent a lot of political capital to make sure it got itsprestigious temporary seat on the Security Council. But playing aleading role in helping a leader accused of everything just short ofgenocide escape arrest may not be how Ankara envisioned itself making amark on the council.

It will be interesting to see how Turkey plays this one. It could just be an inevitable result of the famous “zero problems” approach to foreign policy: When you try to be everyone’s friend, you sometimes wind up being nobody’s friend, especially when push comes to shove and you’re forced to pick a side. In any case, after having spent most of the past two years cheerleading Turkey’s skillful diplomacy, I find myself a bit less impressed these days. But