Istanbul, Turkey—Late last month, when news broke that Israeli commandos had killed nine Turkish nationals onboard a Gaza-bound flotilla, no one here knew for sure exactly how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would respond. But Turks could be confident of one thing: Whatever Erdogan did, it was going to be dramatic. Tayyip, as Turks call him, is an emotive leader known for unleashing verbal tornadoes. In January 2009, at Davos, he had famously exploded at Israeli President Shimon Peres, hissing, “You know how to kill very well!” before storming off the dais. Now, confronting one of the biggest foreign policy crises of his seven years as Turkish prime minister, Erdogan was expected by his constituents to raise hell on the international stage. And that was precisely what he did—denouncing Israel as “a lying machine,” demanding that it “has to pay the bill for the blood that has been shed by the martyrs,” and gratuitously instructing Israelis in Hebrew, “Thou shalt not kill.” He then proceeded to cap this performance with a striking policy gesture: Last week, Turkey was one of just two Security Council members to vote against a new round of sanctions on Iran.
Erdogan’s response may not have surprised Turks, but, to the West, it was a cold shock. Isn’t Turkey one of America’s quietest, most dependable allies? Isn’t it the one Muslim country that doesn’t hate Israel? Where, exactly, does this newfound national swagger come from?
The most obvious answer is Erdogan, a populist former mayor of Istanbul who has made the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) into the dominant force in Turkish politics. Not surprisingly, Erdogan is beloved by many religious Turks and reviled by the country’s secular elite, which views him as demagogic, crass, and embarrassing. (“Barbar!” a friend had exclaimed watching Erdogan at Davos, using the Turkish word for “barbarian.” She said this with a wink, knowing full well that, for centuries, Turks had been called just that.) Erdogan has chipped away at the influence of the country’s military, which had wielded enormous power over Turkish politics since the Ataturk era. While Turkey was known as a friend of Israel during recent decades, the relationship was arguably more of an alliance between two militaries than an alliance between two peoples. Lately, as Turkey has become more democratic and the military has retreated somewhat from politics, Erdogan has been able to bring Turkey’s foreign policy into sync with the views of its population. (A BBC World Service poll found that, as of last December, only 6 percent of Turks held “mainly positive” views of Israel’s influence, while 77 percent held “mainly negative” views.)
Yet, even as Erdogan has consolidated his political supremacy, he also faces two crucial upcoming tests. There are the 2011 elections, in which the AKP will face off against (among others) the Felicity Party, a more hard-line Islamist party aligned with the organization that sponsored the Gaza flotilla. Part of Erdogan’s response to the flotilla deaths can be understood as an attempt to triangulate against this threat from the right. More immediately, Turks will vote in September on a proposal to reform the constitution. The referendum is crucially important to the AKP, since it would allow the party to exercise more control over the judiciary. Erdogan needs to energize his base in advance of the vote. He seems to be betting that his post-flotilla theatrics will help.
But is Erdogan really the driving force behind Turkey’s shift—or merely a vessel for the ideas of a man who, unlike the flashy prime minister, doesn’t get a lot of press in the West? Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, is the Kissinger to Erdogan’s Nixon: an academic with a grand theory of how his country ought to conduct itself on the world stage. And this theory-which is probably best described as neo-Ottoman—is upending nearly a century of Turkish foreign policy thinking.
Slight and bookish, his mouse-like face frequently frozen in a sly, smug smile, the 51-year-old Davutoglu was born in the pious Anatolian city of Konya, attended a German high school in Istanbul and Bogazici University (a prestigious public college where classes are taught in English), then went on to become a professor of international relations. While Turkish academics commonly seek extra training in Europe and America, Davutoglu spent years as an assistant professor at Malaysia’s International Islamic University. At home, he found himself part of a rising class of religious intellectuals—young, aspirational scholars who had come from conservative Islamic backgrounds but were swimming in Western ideas. And so, Davutoglu’s influences ranged from the realpolitik of Zbigniew Brzezinski to the Islamic political philosophy of the eleventh-century Seljuk vizier Nizam Ul Mulk.
After World War I, Turkey, its Middle Eastern empire destroyed, shifted away from the Arab world. It eventually latched on to the United States, which needed Turkey’s borders as a buffer against the Soviet Union. Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize Israel in 1949, entered NATO in 1952, and generally followed America’s lead like a grateful lieutenant over the coming decades. But, as the cold war drew to a close, many Turkish intellectuals recognized that their country would need a new foreign policy; and Davutoglu was perhaps one of the first to articulate an overarching revision of the status quo. The doctrine—laid out in his nearly 600-page tome Strategic Depth, published in 2001—was called “zero problems with neighbors.” Turkey, he argued, needed to engage not only the West, but also the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, and the Balkans.
At its inception, the AKP lacked a coherent foreign policy. Seeking to strike out independently from the army, it embraced Davutoglu’s ideas and encouraged him to enter politics, first as an ambassador and then, in 2009, as foreign minister. These days, both Erdogan and the country’s president, Abdullah Gul, do what he says on foreign affairs. They call Davutoglu “hocam,” which means “my teacher” or “my mentor.”
Admittedly, Davutoglu does not refer to his strategy as neo-Ottoman; that term has its roots in the diplomacy of a previous Turkish leader, Turgut Ozal, who, in the 1980s, also urged a re-engagement with the Arab world and beyond. And there is some debate among observers as to whether the foreign minister’s ideas are truly imperialist. What is beyond doubt, however, is that Davutoglu wants Turkey to enjoy significant influence in the Middle East—Ankara recently eased visa requirements with many countries in the region and, just days ago, initiated a free-trade zone with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan—and that his worldview, as put into practice by the boisterous Erdogan, carries real appeal for many Turkish voters. The day after Erdogan’s 2009 confrontation with Peres, I heard shopkeepers on my street chanting, “Kasimpasa, Kasimpasa!” which refers to the tough, blue-collar neighborhood in Istanbul where Erdogan grew up. Elites and members of the military may wince at Erdogan’s style or wish for a return to a more proWestern orientation. But the reality is that Turkey changed course a long time ago.
Suzy Hansen is a writer living in Instanbul.