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[Dominique Moisi] The nemesis of Turkish power

PARIS ― A few days ago, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoan told Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab television network, that he would use his warships to prevent Israeli commandos from again boarding Gaza-bound ships, as they did last year. And in a speech in Cairo, he declared support for the United Nations’ recognition of a Palestinian state “an obligation.”

So, will a “Turkish Summer” be the first, if not the main, strategic result of the “Arab Spring”? Is the Middle East faced with a neo-Ottoman Turkey’s irresistible rise to regional power? And could the world be witnessing the “Orientalization” of Turkey?

The Arab revolutions, following on the European Union’s resounding “No, Yes, But” to Turkey’s membership bid, have reinforced among Turks the attraction of the Orient while liberating their mix of nationalistic and religious impulses. Indeed, Erdogan makes more references to God in his public statements nowadays than he ever did in the past.

Over the last few years, the Western world has been asking itself, with a mixture of guilt and apprehension, “Who lost Turkey”? But is Turkey, enthralled by its economic and diplomatic successes, now running the risk of losing itself?

Turkey’s government was no better at anticipating the changes in the Arab world than were local regimes and Western powers. At the end of 2010, Erdogan was the (last) recipient of a human-rights prize granted by Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Gadhafi. Turkey has also tried, desperately at times, to maintain good relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, despite the Syrian government’s abominable behavior.

Turkey’s position was, to say the least, perceived badly by the “Arab street.” A major reason for Turkey’s tougher position towards Israel, one suspects, is Erdogan’s attempt to rebalance the country’s regional image.

Despite its difficulty in grasping the reality and depth of the Arab revolutionary process, Turkey is nonetheless more than ever a key player in the region. It may not be a model in the strict sense of the term, but it is at least a source of inspiration throughout the region, even though much of its record is ambiguous in both essence and performance.

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, the “exoticism” of the Ottoman Empire was used as a mirror to project Europeans’ own shortcomings and insecurities. In France, one spoke of “Turqueries,” such as in Moliere’s play “The Bourgeois Gentilhomme.”

Today, it is the Arab world that tends to use Turkey the way that Europe did in the past. This time, however, it is modernity, not exoticism, that is the source of fascination. But, because of its secular tradition (now being challenged by the current regime), its non-Arab identity, its behavior towards its Kurdish minority, and the ambivalence of the Ottoman legacy, Turkey is as much a counter-model as a model. It is a mirror in which the Arab world projects its fears, as well as its hopes.

At a strategic level, Turkey is correct in thinking that the Arab revolutionary process has weakened its direct rivals. Iran, for example, is on the verge of losing the faithful junior partner that it had in Syria. But what will happen if Turkey has to live next to a nuclear-armed Iran? Will it have to get the bomb, too?

Likewise, while Egypt is in the midst of a messy revolution, and must give priority to internal change, it also intends to regain a more visible and influential role within the Palestinian national movement(s) and in the region as a whole. The “Middle Empire” of the Middle East will no longer remain a sleeping giant.

Of course, Turkey is less destabilized than its Arab rivals and partners by a revolutionary process that does not directly challenge it. After all, Turkey is already a functioning democracy. Turkey is also much less worried about its future than Israel is. Compared with the small Jewish state, Turkey has an expanding population and a deep awareness of its historical, religious, and cultural affinities with its neighbors. These important assets make Turkey an “indispensable nation” in the region.

So, what threatens Turkey today is Turkey itself. Turkey is not “Asian” only in terms of economic energy and rapid growth: it is also Asian in a more political sense, with the rising temptation of a form of “Oriental despotism.” Indeed, for many years, domestic critics of Erdogan’s government have been denouncing what they describe as the “Putinization” of the regime.

Turkey, not the European Union, is currently making its presence felt in the world. But the course of history may change rapidly. In reality, Turkey needs Europe as much as Europe needs Turkey. Europe is for Turkey “a principle of moderation” and an enticement to remain democratic. Turkey is for Europe, beyond its demography, “a principle of energy” and a cure for pessimism ― even if, as Erdogan is showing, self-confidence can easily turn into hubris.

By Dominique Moisi 

Dominique Moisi is the author of “The Geopolitics of Emotion.” ― Ed.

(Project Syndicate)