The failure of Turkey in managing crises

The rational actor in the game of craftsmanship in conducting state diplomacy was replaced by zealotry and the abrupt and arbitrary application of an ideology that is mostly imposed at the highest level by the nation’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose penchant for erratic and impulsive behavior has gained a worldwide recognition.

Erdogan’s pointed messages, often amplified by his “yes men” advisers, have been channeled down to the bureaucracy, overruling invaluable projections, predictions and analyses by the veteran staff in the civil service, especially in the risk-averse Turkish Foreign Ministry. Most often than not, the policy practitioners at the field, particularly career diplomats, and others in the bureaucracy are frustrated by the significantly weakened role of providing an array of options to the top leadership.

The lack of enthusiasm on the part of many ambassadors who have been posted abroad in following Erdogan’s hostile narrative and justifying his “make-no-sense” statements has resulted in a growing chorus of diplomats who are simply disillusioned in the foreign policy establishment. The retired ones must be thankful that they remain outside the service during this rough patch. The downside of this backslide is that Turkey has been robbed off its capability to handle a surging crisis like the one it has with a belligerent Russia.

Turkey has never been so sidelined, isolated and insulated from much of the world as it is today. Erdogan and his overzealous Islamist brethren in the government have made a huge mess of Turkey’s foreign policy with practically every major partner when they formulated their talking points based on latent ideology and long-harbored hate and antagonism. They follow a path of a sinister campaign to expand a hostile brand of political Islamism overseas and for that they do not hesitate to abuse the backbone of the foreign policy establishment as a conduit to cater for only Islamists at home and abroad.

There are too many examples to cite here but suffice to say that we have enough states now that are skeptical of Turkey’s initiatives and overtures. The leadership in most of the Gulf and the Middle East despise Erdogan and his Islamist project. The North African nations refuse to engage deeply with the current Turkish leadership for the fear of entanglement in Ankara’s disruptive political Islamist drive. Many in Central Asia, South East Asia and the Balkans are suspicious of Turkish Islamist rulers’ real motivations with respect to their own Muslim communities.

Again, because of this poisonous ideology, the traditional ties with our allies in Europe and the US have been relegated to a contractual and transactional relationship at the working level. NATO’s solidarity with Turkey has more to do with protection of the alliance’s deterrence and credibility rather than a blanket endorsement of Erdogan. Of course, NATO leaders do not want to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Unfortunately, in the meantime, rights and freedoms remain the casualty of the strategic brinkmanship game.

For the US, the value of the geographical position of Turkey simply outweighs the promotion of values in freedoms, the rule of law and democracy. For Europe, Turkey serves not only as a huge consumer market to tap into but also a frontline state to prevent refugees from flocking to their door so that they do not have to deal with the fallout of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and others. Hence, criticisms of Turkey’s shortcoming on rights and freedoms have been simply toned down to please Erdogan and his associates. It is worth recalling that the West also decided to look the other way when the all-powerful generals used to quash democratic aspirations and cracked down on rights during the Cold War.

After falling out with one-time close friend Russian President Vladimir Putin and having his hopes dashed of coming closer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in a self-instigated rivalry with the Transatlantic alliance, the mercurial Erdogan decided to reach out to NATO once again to seek a safe haven. Russia, China and Iran all seemed to have ganged up on Erdogan, who was naturally left at the mercy of the Western allies, who are set to milk his weaknesses to the end. Yet, if only for tactical purposes, the Turkish Islamist elites will pretend to be a more moderate bunch now as they did before between 2003-2010 to curry favors with the EU and the US. They will also tout themselves as useful partners in the battle against terrorism when in fact they adopt a minimalistic approach especially on the home front against extremist groups.

These dramatic swings in Turkish foreign policy are the hallmark of Erdogan’s leadership and will be a notorious legacy long after he is gone. History will judge how the US has failed terribly at the crunch by overlooking negative human rights trends, bad governance and the Islamist rulers’ cozying up with extremist groups in its ally Turkey. Washington was simply absent when it was needed to make a difference with policy actions that would likely have prevented arbitrary detentions, the persecution of opponents, a crackdown on the media, the right to dissent and the suspension of the rule of law in Turkey. The US has opted to limit its grievances to uttering words about “being concerned,” which has no teeth whatsoever.

Regardless of how Turkey’s partners and allies react, Erdogan’s dominance over the Turkish government’s decision-making processes leaves ample room for mistakes in the future and will haunt the US and the EU as well. As soon as he feels he is out of the jam in the current debacle with Russia, Erdogan will return to his usual diatribes and his anti-US and anti-Western narrative. Since he has proved time and again that his behavior is volatile and not reliable, Erdogan’s current posturing on perceived cooperation with Western allies is on shaky ground at best and cannot be taken for granted. The fact that he has openly threated the EU with opening up borders and letting refugees storm Europe shows he could renege on the recent refugee deal at any time.

Despite the fact he has long harbored ambitions to become a respected Muslim leader in the world, especially among Islamic nations, Erdogan’s hopes were crushed when the exposé on 2013 major corruption scandal revealed his family’s involvements in a multi-billion-dollar scheme. His cravings for recognition were not fulfilled when Turkey ended up with frayed ties with its immediate neighbors and beyond. His standing has eroded rapidly in Africa, the Gulf, the Balkans, Central Asia and South East Asia.

The US and the EU provided a lifeline to Erdogan in his difficult time when his cooperation was needed to save fuel costs for American fighter jets that are bombing terrorist targets in Turkey’s neighborhood and to keep refugees at bay by turning Turkey into an open prison for desperate immigrants. Even though this is complete hypocrisy and goes against the West’s declared commitment to fostering democracy and promoting human rights, realpolitik ruled at the expense of universal values, rights and freedoms. This is hardly surprising, given the track record of the West.

The real trouble lies in the debilitated capacity of the Turkish government to manage crises and defuse tensions. Russia is a prime example of that for the moment but there have been others in the past such as Egypt and Israel. The Islamist rulers and especially Erdogan make everything in the foreign policy front into a personal issue by trying to gain political credit for domestic consumption for his core Islamist base. He does enjoy locking horns with other countries’ leaders.

Through the escalation of the war of words with Putin despite an urgent plea by NATO allies to not drag this issue further, Erdogan tried to show he is tough when so many national interests are at stake as well as the credibility of NATO. He is deliberately ratcheting up rhetoric in response to vitriolic attacks from Putin, who seems to have burnt all bridges with Turkey. In the Egyptian case, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi never returned the favor despite Erdogan bashing him for the last two years, but that has not stopped Erdogan from using Sisi as a punching bag whenever he thinks it convenient.

In a country where all the play is done at the highest level by Erdogan and his associates, there is no room for containment, damage control or crisis management. This is the major threat to Turkey’s vital national interests before anything else.