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Zero Problems with Dictators?

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
I have been a supporter of the “zero problems with neighbors” strategy of Turkey’s visionary Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. I still am. This new approach saved Turkey from its decades-old paranoia toward the outside world, which was considered as a collection of enemies. It replaced the militarism of the past century with a soft power idea, based on diplomacy, trade and people-to-people dialogue. It replaced barbed wires and landmines with open borders and visa-free travel. It helped both our neighbors and us.
Yet there was one little catch in this “zero problems” strategy: some of our neighbors, and other countries in the region that we wanted to get closer to, are dictatorships. So, we ran into the risk of making friends with regimes that crack down on their own people. The complicated spring This problem first surfaced in the summer of 2009, when the authoritarian regime in Tehran wiped out the Green Movement, the opposition, in brutal ways. At that time, Western powers denounced this brutality, yet there was every reason to distrust their sincerity, for they had never denounced the regimes in Riyadh and Cairo, which were less democratic then Tehran but much more helpful to Western interests. So, Ankara’s non-Western, independent line was a bit understandable. But it also was a warning sign indicating that Ankara, too, was entering a field called realpolitik, which could blind it to moral principles for the sake of “national interests.” Then came the real litmus test, The “Arab Spring” of this year. The first two episodes of this historic saga were easy. The secularist dictatorship in Tunis fell quickly, without the need for any outside power, including Turkey, to do something. After that came the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which challenged the decades-old dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. This was a regime that really did not like Turkey’s growing role in the Middle East, and had a tense relation with the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government in Ankara. So, we soon saw Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan at his best: He openly called on Mubarak to “listen to the will of his people” and accept the yearning for democracy. It was the right thing to say, and the right side of history to stand on. But then things started to get complicated, as the Arab Spring got complicated. In Libya, Gadhafi proved to be more resilient, mad and brutal then his bygone colleagues in Tunis and Egypt. Turkey was initially, and understandably, interested in the security of the 25,000 Turks who work in Libya and the successful operation to bring them home. After that, though, Ankara got restrained by Turkey’s business interests in Libya, which demanded a wait-and-see approach to the conflict between Gadhafi and the rebels, and a lenient attitude toward the former. The answer to what is the best way to take Libya out of its current civil war is still unclear. But it is also unclear whether Turkey really has stood up for the humanitarian principles that it cherishes so much in its foreign policy rhetoric. Syria matters Besides Libya, another test for Turkey is unfolding in the very case-study of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy: Syria. The Assad regime there is cracking down on opposition movements these days, as security forces are opening fire on the crowds and killing unarmed civilians. Bashar al-Assad might be a nicer person than his father, but the character of the regime seems not to have changed much, and the methods it uses against its own people are simply cruel. So, with friends like these, what will Turkey do? This is not a question Ankara seems to have pondered a lot. Until recently, after all, we ourselves were a county questioned by human rights violations, such as torture, and we loved the refuge of all dictatorships, “we don’t let anybody interfere in our internal affairs.” But if we really claim to be an “advanced democracy,” as the prime minister says, we can no longer use that argument neither for ourselves nor for other countries in the region. This does not mean Ankara has to mirror the traditional American way of dealing with undesired dictators, isolate them, or, more preferably, bomb them. Davutoğlu has been arguing that a better way to advance democracy in the Middle East is to engage with the authoritarian regimes in question, and help them gradually open up. That is a good argument indeed, and we can say that such a “soft power” approach has been successfully applied by Turkey in previous years. But there will be times when soft power will not work, and you might need to stand up more vocally against a dictatorial regime shedding innocent blood. How Turkey will be able to take that moral stance without harming its national interests is the next big question that policy makers in Ankara need to think about. Otherwise, we will be yet another mundane actor with very mundane motives.
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