If supported by Washington, could Ankara transform Mideast political dynamics away from reliance on force to resolve all disputes?
Turkey is emerging onto the regional stage as an independent actor as it simultaneously begins to face up to its Muslim roots and attempts to strengthen democracy at home – a tall but commendable order and perhaps a set of goals that can only be achieved in unison. Domestically, Turkey faces the sensitive challenges of recognizing Muslim roots without frightening modernizing sectors of the society concerned about civil rights, of strengthening traditionally weak civilian control over a traditionally uncontrollable and dictatorial military, and of integrating the Kurds politically while freeing them culturally. Difficult as these reforms may be, it is hard to see how Ankara can meet the international challenge of replacing client status toward the U.S. with genuine foreign policy independence unless it can unite Turkish society, and it is hard to see how Ankara can make the case that it deserves to have its new foreign policy of friendship toward all taken seriously unless it practices an analogous domestic policy of political inclusion of and cultural freedom for all social groups.
If these are inspiring times for Turks, Ankara’s new policy represents an historic opportunity for the U.S. to promote a moderate Mideast middle to serve as a buffer between the violence-prone forces currently setting the Mideast political agenda. The political coin currently carries questions on each side:
1.) Can Ankara explain its new foreign policy in a way that alleviates Washington tendencies to interpret any independent thinking as a threat?
2.) Can Washington find the maturity and vision to help Ankara in its very ambitious effort to find positive-sum solutions to Mideast conflicts?
Washington has demonstrated its inability to bring stability to the Mideast, and democracy can hardly be imposed from outside, but Washington might be able greatly to facilitate a home-grown process of cultivating both stability and democracy. With its roots in both Muslim and Western traditions, Turkey is well placed to be the catalyst of such a change.
The Mideast today is split by political fault lines separating the U.S. from Iran, Israelis from Palestinians, Israelis from those who support Palestinians, the West from jihadis. All these fault lines are characterized by the reliance by both sides on force as the primary means of resolving conflict, and nowhere is there a force counseling understanding, compromise, or—more important—the search for positive-sum solutions.
Some Mideast disputes will simply require hard compromises. In the Levant, for example, sufficient water simply does not exist, so both Israelis and Palestinians will have to accept the need to share what little there is and use less than they would like. Water, then, will require a compromise.
Other Mideast disputes, in contrast, are amenable to positive-sum solutions that hold the potential of providing real security benefits from diminishing tensions to both sides. The Iranian-Israeli nuclear dispute, for example, could be muted to mutual benefit through the incremental implementation of common standards for nuclear transparency and the regulation of nuclear arms.
As long as the political environment is bifurcated into two hostile, emotional, fearful camps with no party in the center counseling calm analysis of options, solutions are difficult to see. Ankara today is offering a way around this impasse. Those parties interested in solutions, rather than endless chaos, should jump at the chance. Those parties who indeed favor the chaos will increasingly find themselves on the defensive if Ankara finds a way to implement its optimistic rhetoric.