The Wikileaks release of diplomatic cables has unearthed some great moments in US diplomacy. High affairs of state? Not always. Hillary Clinton’s belief that Argentine president Cristina Kirchner was so nervy and anxious that she must be on medication and could US diplomats please verify that fact? – is an example of sexist stereotyping and prurient snooping worthy of the old FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover himself. Yet by far the most interesting aspect of the Wikileaks bundle released so far though, has been the pattern of behaviour that has been revealed Yes, US diplomacy during the Bush era did fit the stereotype of the blundering global bully dimly aware, if at all, of the concerns of other countries with which it was engaged. The cables on Turkey, which comprise the second largest share of the Wikileaks revelations are a perfect example of (a) the Bush era of blustering and paranoia and (b) the contrasting way the Obama administration goes in pursuit of the same ends.
To get the full flavour of what the Turkey cables contain, some background is needed, Since 2003, Turkey has gradually emerged from decades as a reliably obedient Western ally, to a point where its powerhouse economy and canny diplomacy are now making it a major player in the Middle East and on the global stage. Some are calling it the Brazil of Europe, and the resurgence has been a long time coming. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WW1, Kemal Ataturk had sought to refocus and modernize Turkey along Western lines, and he deftly used the military to promote and protect to that secular project against (a) internal Islamist forces, and (b) to suppress Kurdish separatism. Finally though, Kemalism ran out of gas as a political force in 2003 with the election of an Islamic government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The key player in this evolution has been Erdogan’s former chief advisor and current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu – who explicitly set out the blueprint for Turkey’s resurgence in his book Strategic Depth in 2001. That foreign policy tilts subtly westwards at times in order to re-assure Turkey’s military and its secular society, while it steadily pursues an independent course with its Islamic neighbours in the region. So yes, Turkey still says it wants to join the European Union, but this is now seen as less of a serious bid and more of a token concession to Kemalism. Its critics see “neo-Ottoman” designs in Davutoglu’s current engagement with Iran, Iraq and Syria and over the issue of Palestine. Eventually, some analysts see Turkey becoming the leader of the so called Intermarium states of Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region (eg Bulgaria, Rumania, Moldova, Georgia, the Ukraine etc ) situated between Europe and Russia, and functioning as a counterweight to both. By 2050, China, India, Brazil and Turkey are seen as the new global powers.
So how did the Bush administration react to its former secular and dependent ally becoming an independent Islamic state? Very, very badly. This 2005 cable about the Erdogan government is almost hilariously bemused and hostile to…hell, Erdogan’s in power and there’s no political alternative in sight, worthy of US backing. For example:
Main opposition left-of-center CHP amounts to no more than a bunch of elitist ankle-biters.
Grudgingly, the cable depicts Erdorgan as having one or two assets:
With his semi-pro soccer player’s swagger and phalanx of sycophantic advisors, he may have seemed a strong candidate for European leader of the year. A regional leader to be reckoned with for a decade to come. The man who won Turkey the beginning of accession negotiations with the EU. Who broke loose three decades of frozen Turkish policy on Cyprus. Who drove major human rights reforms through parliament and through constitutional amendments. Whose rhetorical skill, while etched with populist victimhood, is redolent with traditional and religious allusions that resonate deeply in the heartland, deeply in the anonymous exurban sprawls. Who remains the highly popular tribune of the people, without a viable or discernible political rival…outside his own ruling AKP.
Love that dismissive ‘semi-pro soccer player’s swagger and phalanx of sycophantic advisors’…Take out the soccer reference and it could be a description of George W. Bush. Moving on, the cable sees murkiness and muddle in Turkey’s conscious attempt at balancing its aspirations to join the EU (which to Turkey’s ongoing annoyance, continues to function as a Christian club) with its own nationalist and religious goals. Throughout the diplomats see complexity and subtlety and project their own confusion upon it:
Some see the process as the way to marginalize the Turkish military and what remains of the arid “secularism” of Kemalism. We have also run into the rarely openly-spoken, but widespread belief among adherents of the Turk-Islam synthesis that Turkey’s role is to spread Islam in Europe…..
Not to mention the spectre of “Neo-Ottomanism”. Erdogan is personally derided. Behind the scenes, Davutoglu is depicted in the cables as being ‘extremely dangerous.’ The US diplomats even assert that it is because of Erdrogan’s advisers [ie, Davutoglu] and his own isolation from reality that Turkey fails to grasp the purity of US actions in attacking towns like Fallujah in Iraq. As this unintentionally comic passage puts it:
Inside the party, Erdogan’s hunger for power reveals itself in a sharp authoritarian style and deep distrust of others: as a former spiritual advisor to Erdogan and his wife Emine put it, “Tayyip Bey believes in God…but doesn’t trust him.” In surrounding himself with an iron ring of sycophantic (but contemptuous) advisors, Erdogan has isolated himself from a flow of reliable information, which partially explains his failure to understand the context — or real facts — of the U.S. operations in Tel Afar, Fallujah, and elsewhere and his susceptibility to Islamist theories…Erdogan is pragmatic, but lacks vision…
Lacks a US vision, that is. A further cable in 2005, predicts Erdogan is “drawing the noose” around his then – Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu. With this memorable analysis:
Aksu’s Kurdish favoritism, reported ties to the heroin trade, well-known predilection for teenage girls, and his son’s open Mafia links make him a weak link in the Cabinet, one Erdogan knows the core institutions of the Turkish State could exploit at any time.
Two years later, Aksu was no longer the Interior Minister. Jump ahead now, to the tenor of diplomacy under the Obama administration. The worldview in this January 2010 cable seems decades beyond what we saw in the Bush era document. In this backgrounder to a visit to Turkey by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the US at least acknowledges the dilemma facing the Erdogan government when it comes to the positioning of US missile detection radar systems on Turkish soil :
During his meeting with President Obama [in 2009] PM Erdogan said that such a system must be implemented in a NATO context to diminish the political cost that his government will likely bear, both in terms of domestic politics and in Turkey’s relations with Iran. The ball is now in the court of the civilian leaders here to determine just “how much NATO” will be enough for them politically….Erdogan is concerned that Turkey’s participation might later give Israel protection from an Iranian counter-strike.
And furthermore :
It is important to make this point again (gently) with PM Erdogan, but also underscore that we value Turkey’s participation and will try to “NATOize” the system, if Turkey will tell us how much NATO would be enough. Behind all this, we fear, is a manifestation of both the Turkish government’s, and to some degree the Turkish public’s, growing distancing from the Atlanticist world view, now that most dangers for Turkey are gone. While Turks are not naive about Iran (see below), MD [missile deployment] places them in a pickle, forcing them to choose between the U.S./West and a Middle East “vocation” – which, while not necessarily includes coddling Iran, requires palpable space between Turkey and “the West.”
A degree of empathy with Turkey’s position is again evident when it comes to contemplating a military attack on Iran :
Turkey understands and partially shares U.S. and international concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but is hesitant to use harsh language in public statements, in part due to its dependence on Iran as an energy supplier and as a trade route to Central Asian markets. It has worked quietly with us to prevent some proliferation-sensitive shipments to and from Iran. Turkey’s top civilian and military officials may have come to the conclusion that a military strike against Iran would be more harmful for Turkey’s interests than Iran gaining a nuclear weapons capability; they believe international pressure against Iran only helps to strengthen Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners. PM Erdogan himself is a particularly vocal skeptic of the U.S. position.
Finally though, some things never change. Here from a February cable about the visit by Gates to the Turkish military leaders, we get this opportunity to witness how the modern US military-industrial complex operates, and uses trade-distorting sweeteners to advance its ends :
During his meeting with Gonul, SecDef advised that Turkey had opportunities to increase its military capabilities while gaining economic benefits by selecting U.S. companies in currently open tenders. First, Sikorsky, was prepared to guarantee that for every helicopter produced in Turkey and bought by Turkey, Sikorsky would produce a second helicopter in Turkey for export. SecDef explained that in addition to providing modern equipment for Turkey, this offer would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in export revenue.
Wikileaks – and the person who leaked the cables to them – can only be congratulated for opening this window on how the US thinks about the rest of the world, and how it goes about pursuing its self interest. One shudders to think about how able our diplomats and foreign affairs ministers are at coping in toxic environments like this.