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A Bit Closer to The Axis of Evil?

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] You might have heard the breaking news: The Turkish government is set to redefine its official list of “countries considered threats to national security.” And one of the countries that will not be on that list anymore is – lo and behold – the Islamic Republic of Iran. But what does this mean? Is Turkey now a bit closer to the famous “axis of evil”? Apparently, that is what some people think. At least the dozens of comments that kept pouring into the mailboxes of the Daily News since yesterday were saying exactly that. I heard the usual criticisms and alarmisms about Turkey’s worrying “shift to Islamism,” and her regrettable descent into “darkness.” Yet I really see no such thing in this matter – and let me explain to you why. Enemies everywhere First of all, the countries that will be excluded from the “threats to national security” list include not just Iran, but also Greece, Russia and Iraq. And the last time I checked, the first two among these were not shariah-thumping, women-stoning Islamist theocracies. Better relations with Athens and Moscow, in other words, hardly look like an Islamist scheme. It only sounds good. Better relations with the third country on the list, Iraq, also sounds comforting, for it shows that Turkey’s decades-old Kurdophobia is passing. The trouble with Iraq since 2003 arose mainly from the Turkish aversion to Iraqi Kurdistan – which is euphemistically called here “northern Iraq,” simply to avoid the K-word. Some hotheads in Ankara even wanted to bomb and occupy the autonomous region to pre-empt Kurdish separatism at home. But the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government has been more dovish and dialogue-oriented on that front – as it has been in most other places. Thanks to that approach, Turkey has established good relations and cooperation with Iraqi Kurds in the past two years. That’s why, it seems, Iraq ceased to be a “threat to national security” — something that I, as a Turk, can only be happy with. In fact, this whole change in the national security paradigm looks quite positive to me. The old paradigm was based on a paranoid mindset that saw the world as full of enemies. This was the basis of not just foreign policy but also “national education.” I, like every other Turkish kid, learned in school that we are a country “surrounded by seas from three sides, and by enemies from four sides.” Every single neighbor was involved in a plot to occupy or “divide” our beloved motherland. In the perilous context of the Cold War, these fears were perhaps partly realistic. But they were also useful propaganda for the authoritarian regime at home. The political system was dominated by the military, which needed constant fear to justify its grip on society. The more Turks feared, the more they would hesitate to democratize. So, it is not an accident that the recent ascendance of civilian power in domestic politics coincides with a less paranoid and less militarist attitude in foreign policy. The new civilian elite simply thinks within a more civil mindset. “What makes your borders safe is not the number of your tanks,” says Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. “What makes them safe is the volume of mutual trade and investment with your neighbors.” The improved relations between Iran and Turkey should be seen within this context. Although Prime Minister Erdoğan has added some emotional expressions of Muslim solidarity to it as topping – which was a mistake – the Ankara-Tehran rapprochement is mainly a pragmatic policy based on national interests. In response, you can tell me how horrible the Iranian regime is, and what a big shame for Turkey to be its friend. Well, I am no fan of that regime either. But I also wonder why we don’t hear the same criticism when it comes to America’s decades-long friendship with Saudi Arabia or Egypt – both of which are really neither more democratic nor more humane than Iran. If “realpolitik” works for America, in other words, why should it not work for Turkey as well? A history lesson As for Iran’s controversial nuclear program, I share the concerns of the international community. The Turkish government does so, too. But the question is how to respond to that challenge. The U.N. Security Council obviously opted for sanctions. Israel and some of her best friends in the U.S. are much bolder, with a clear and present desire for a “pre-emptive” attack. That’s where Ankara begs to differ. And she does so out of a lesson from recent history. It was only seven years ago when the U.S. descended on another Muslim neighbor of Turkey with another “weapons of mass destruction” hype. Ankara insisted that such a “pre-emptive” war would be neither rightful nor helpful. But Washington needed no advice and only asked for Turks to be a “loyal ally” by joining the campaign. Turkey kindly said, “No.” And, well, she turned out to be right. The Iraq War proved to be a disaster, and Turks realized that they did the right thing by standing aside. Today, the same Turks are hearing the same drums of war that they heard seven years ago. And they are asking that popular American question: Will they ever learn?
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