The historian inside me sometimes muscles down the analyst, and I tend to view political players as how history will judge them 10, 20 and 50 years from today.
Many politicians in today’s world might get front page coverage in daily newspapers, but will receive no more than passing mention in history books either because of no legacy, lack of charisma or minimal achievements when judged by a historian’s yardstick.
Nobody in the Palestinian Territories, for example, measures up to Yasser Arafat or George Habash. There are no Jamal Abdul Nassers in today’s world, no Anwar Sadats, no King Hussains, no Khomeinis, and even no Ariel Sharons.
Barack Obama is an exception to the rule and so is Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah – who, whether we love or hate them – have already marched into their nations’ history books, earning the status of living legends. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is another exception, and probably so is newly appointed Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
For years the professor turned politician served as the political mind behind Erdogan’s foreign policy, which he describes as ‘soft power,’ towards the Middle East, Europe, the Balkans and the Caucasus.
For years Turkey’s foreign policy has been reactive – reacting to regional developments rather than shaping them. Erdogan and Davutoglu changed that when the Justice and Development Party came to power seven years ago, transforming Turkey into an aggressive player – in a positive sense – making its presence felt practically everywhere.
Over the past few years Turkey has played the mediator between Russia and Georgia, between Israel and the Palestinians during the 2008 war on Gaza, between Israel and Syria, and more recently between Iraq and Syria. It has tried to turn pages in its troubled history with both the Kurds and the Armenians, under the urging of Davutoglu who used his influence to get President Abdullah Gul to make his groundbreaking visit to Armenia in 2008.
Many believe that the man was the ‘shadow foreign minister’ long before he took the job from his predecessor, Ali Babacan. Pragmatic and Islamic, the man is accredited with the re-birth of neo-Ottomanism, a term used by political scientists to label Erdogan’s strategy to re-establish his country’s influence in former districts of the Ottoman Empire.
Speaking to the Lebanese weekly Al Kifah Al Arabi this month, Davutoglu challenged the claim, although he is always proud of his Ottoman heritage, preferring, however, to characterise his strategy as a ‘zero-problem policy’ or ‘more friends, fewer enemies’ for Turkey.
Davutoglu best sums up the change sweeping through his country saying: “Turkey as an international player was previously seen as having strong muscles, a weak stomach, heart problems and fair-to-middling brain power. In other words it had a powerful army but a weak economy, lacked self-confidence and was not good at strategic thinking”. That today, thanks to Erdogan and Davutoglu, is a thing of the past.
And because of that, seculars and Kemalists are furious with Davutoglu, accusing him of steering Turkey into an Islamic orbit, minimising chances of membership in the EU. Davutoglu strongly rejects that, saying: “Turkey can be European in Europe and eastern in the East, because we are both.”
He sees absolutely no contradiction in being close to the US, Israel, Syria, Hamas and Iran simultaneously. Semih Idiz, a journalist for the Turkish daily Hurriyet, claims that it is an illusion to think that Turkey can balance a relationship between all players, a-la Erdogan and Davutoglu: writing: “What we have seen over the last one or two years is not strategic depth but total confusion in the minds of all concerned.”
Those close to the foreign minister and prime minister argue otherwise, claiming that only after reconciling with their Ottoman past – using it to strengthen themselves from within – can the Turks impose themselves on the new world order with ‘self-confidence’.
During a visit to Istanbul in 2007, I was invited to dinner with Professor Davutoglu nearly two years before becoming his country’s Foreign Minister. We spent the evening discussing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the EU’s 2004 decision to make Cyprus a full-fledged member, while Turkey’s membership application has been pending for years. We then shifted to the history of Syrian-Ottoman relations, which Davutoglu claimed, were not as bad as history books, film and television dramas have depicted them to be.
In recent months, I have watched Davutoglu grace the world stage with a foreign policy that is aggressive and soft, pragmatic and Islamic, earning him a reputation as the ‘Henry Kissinger of Turkey’. He comes across as a shrewd statesman, and a hardcore Turkish nationalist who will undoubtedly receive more than just a passing mention in Turkish history books 10 years from now.
Gulf News, 21 September 2009