The following commentary was sent to me by a good friend and smart observer of regional politics. He comments occasionally at QN under the moniker “J of Chalcedon”…
Here are five thoughts on the flotilla debacle, its gifts to Tayyip Erdogan, and Turkey’s ambitions for regional and international influence…
1) It allows him to take credit for something the Israelis will have forced on themselves, if the blockade is lifted, and to play the role of the world’s slumbering conscience if it isn’t. And since the relevant context is outrage over the deaths of Turks, it allows an opportunity to…
2) Tie a knot in the tongue of what is supposed to be a revitalized political opposition. The Israeli raid came hours after an attack that killed six Turkish troops; ordinarily this would have been the moment to lambast the government for a failed Kurdish peace initiative that has stalled and given way to renewed fighting. Instead, they’re cheering the decision to pull the ambassador from Tel Aviv and speculating in wooliest fashion about the timing of the two events. When you reduce the opposition to tracing your steps around the flag and muttering about conspiracy, you effectively have no opposition.
3) Soft power among leaderless Arabs? Make mine a double. Egypt’s decision to open the border, at least temporarily, only highlights embarrassing complicity in the blockade to begin with. And the position of the other Arab powers – silence, or cheerleading while Turkey pounds podiums in the Security Council – is little better. By one account, the ship in question was Istanbul municipal scrap, sold to an Islamist NGO and flagged to the Comoros. That it could be the vessel of Arab diplomatic ambition is the saddest, and most apt, measure of the those states’ ability to make any case other than the one for their disarray.
4) Turkey doesn’t get many chances to be righteously peeved on the big stage. The things that inspire the greatest indignation in the foreign ministry – think Kurds and PKK – tend to look self-inflicted to the rest of the world. How this one plays out will be interesting.
5) … And yet, there may be room for Turkey to transform itself from victim to villain. See Erdoğan’s remarks yesterday on the local implications of the crisis (don’t have English handy, but here’s a quick and dirty translation of an interesting bit):
“Let me say this openly and clearly: I’m not emotional; we’re not emotional. But it’s impossible to describe a humanity that’s bereft of emotion in the face of these events. It’s all a matter of managing emotions, and I believe we’ll do that successfully.
Regarding all our citizens, and particularly our Jewish citizens living in our country, I’d like to say this: they’re our citizens. We’ve never, up to now, gone and taken Israel’s approach toward our own citizens, whatever their religion or ethnicity, and we’re not going to. They’ve been entrusted to us. I want my people to act even more sensitively on this point. I want our people to know that, in the framework of their sensitivities, as a state we are and will be following up on every aspect of this incident. I believe care will be taken to show democratic reactions with dignity and self-possession in a manner befitting our nation. And that’s their most natural right. I respect that.”
As far as I know, no one had suggested that the AKP’s appeal to the bleacher seats of Muslim sensibility over the boat crisis would translate into a backlash against Turkish Jews. And it’s not clear how reassuring they – given Erdogan’s remarks about Jews being guests (i.e., foreigners) in Turkey at the time of Israel’s destruction of Gaza and the Davos tussle – are supposed to find this guarantee.
It does point out, though, the way that the AKP flirts – self-consciously – with the uglier strands of domestic sentiment while pressing its case for a broader Turkish international role. It’s hardly a new tack in national politics, and their handling of the US-brokered bid to bury the Armenian genocide question by normalizing relations with Armenia is exactly what any other Turkish government would have done. What remains to be seen is how they’ll balance that set of impulses with the rare opportunity to advance the flag on an international issue, from the unmapped territory of the moral high ground.