"Hittites With iPods"
Op-Ed, Agence Global
June 7, 2010
Author: Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Dubai Initiative
BEIRUT -- Just as Iran emerged as a more significant regional power after the Iraq war events since 2003, Turkey -- in the past two years -- has emerged as a more dynamic, respected and powerful regional player, and events of the past week off the Gaza coast have only accelerated this process. The third non-Arab power in the Middle East -- Israel -- seems to be moving in the opposite direction, generating increasingly vocal international criticisms and demands for investigations into its behavior, while many of its leaders are canceling trips abroad for fear of being indicted for war crimes.
Of these three countries, Turkey strikes me as the most interesting and important, because its growing prominence includes a combination of respect, credibility and democratic legitimacy that Iran and Israel do not fully share. Much international media and political analysis speaks incorrectly of Turkey and Iran as either hegemons or role models for the rest of the Middle East. They are neither, because non-Arab states -- even Muslim-majority ones -- cannot expect to define how power is exercised, relations configured, interests defined, or identity expressed in the Arab world.
Turkey, though, now enjoys greater respect and appreciation around the region, because it approaches most closely that cherished goal that has eluded every Arab country and Iran since the age of independence dawned nearly a century ago: genuine nationalism, combined with democratic governance, and expressing Islamic values, in a context of clear modernity and secularism. Turkey is Hittites with iPods -- a strong national identity anchored in ancient traditions in the land, yet combined with modern values and behavior that accentuate its power, efficacy and impact on others in the neighborhood.
The Israeli attack last Monday on a Turkish ship in the humanitarian aid convoy heading for Gaza, which resulted in eight Turks killed, heightened the strains between Israel and Turkey that has been building during the past year -- largely due to Turkey's disapproval of Israel's war and then siege of Gaza. Turkey criticized Israel's policies towards the Palestinians while also mediating seriously between Israel and Syria. In other words, it conducted a mature, nuanced foreign policy that avoided simplistic, black-and-white, "you're with us or against us" attitude. Rather, it patiently maneuvered itself into situations where it could serve its own national interests while also playing a constructive role in the region.
The latest example of this was the Turkish-Brazilian mediation with Iran on the latter's nuclear industry, succeeding where the United States, Europeans and relevant UN agencies had not been able to convince Iran to agree on an arrangement to send low-grade enriched uranium abroad for conversion into fuel for a nuclear research reactor. The development of a stronger regional diplomatic role for Turkey, allowing it to operate with credibility and integrity among Israelis, Arabs, Iranians and Western powers, reflected a brand of self-confident national assertion that in turn was anchored in that combination of attributes that Turkey alone enjoys in the entire Middle East: genuine nationalism, stable and strong statehood, economic and military power, democratic and constitutional governance, public secularism, and private Islamism.
It also operated regionally in a manner that sought to protect its own legitimate national strategic interests, without appearing to be aggressive or predatory to its neighbors. This is significant because of the historical mixed feelings in the Arab world about the four centuries of Ottoman control of key parts of this region. A remarkable feat of the current Justice and Development Party that rules Turkey has been its successful repositioning of Turkey among its skeptical and suspicious Arab neighbors. As my colleague and friend Dr. Tarek Yousef, dean of the Dubai School of Government noted the other day, "this government in Turkey in the past three years has erased hundreds of years of Arab suspicion of the Turks, an amazing achievement that should not be overlooked."
Turkey's strong and repeated public criticism of Israeli policies reached a new peak after this week's Israeli attack against Turkish ships and nationals in international waters. Turkey's government will now enjoy greater respect and accolades from Arab public opinion, but like the stronger Iran of recent years it will not be able to translate this heightened appreciation into any kind of greater direct impact on the region -- which is not one of its stated goals, in any case.
Many international analysts or commentators are wrongly looking to Iran and Turkey as potential new hegemons or role models in the Arab-majority Middle East region, but these are the wrong attributes or roles to look for. No Arab country shows the inclination to adopt Turkish-style secular, republican, and democratic constitutionalism, or the ability to adopt Iranian-style technological prowess and political defiance of the West. Turkey and Iran, in their different ways, are noteworthy because they practice genuinely sovereign decision- and policy-making -- something that eludes, but should entice, the Arab world.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
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