Unfortunately biased: The latest IISS strategic survey on Turkey

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) is one of the world’s leading think tanks focused on international security.

Its Annual Review of World Affairs is read by security community diplomats and foreign policymakers across the world. Its 2011 edition was just released and it is unfortunately biased. The nine-page section on Turkey is titled “Turkey’s Diminished Role,” an immediate indication of what to expect. On seeing this title, the question which springs to mind immediately is, is it fair to characterize Turkey as playing a less important part in world affairs in 2011? I raise this question even if we can possibly forgive this UK-based organization for adhering to a clear Western slant of world affairs. Many of this report’s analyses are clearly unfair. Here are some examples:

The Arab Spring

According to the IISS, Turkey was “caught unprepared” by the Arab Spring, which “should have been the AKP’s [Justice and Development Party] finest hour.” Instead, it claims, Turkey sided with the region’s ruling elites, with which it had extensive economic ties and alliances, and was late to support the “Arab street,” the sole exception being Egypt because of its threat to Turkey as a political leader in the Arab world.

In comparison, its assessment of the United States on the same issue is far more lenient: “The decision to help push President Hosni Mubarak out of office thus entailed real dilemmas for US policy” and Obama “justified his caution by insisting that real empowerment of the Egyptian people required less rather than more association with American aims.” Nor is there any mention of Hillary Clinton’s support for the Ali government in Tunisia and her constant reference to reforms and “stability” interests almost until the government fell and he fled the country. Moreover, the survey fails to note that the entire world was unprepared and caught by surprise by the Arab Spring, as Western governments grappled with balancing their long-term alliances and economic interests in the Middle East with the democratic aspirations of the people in the region. The EU in particular advocated and also preached stability and urged “reforms” on the part of repressive governments as they watched to see how events transpired. If advocacy for democracy were the only factor determining foreign policy, would any country engage in trade with China and Saudi Arabia? However, almost every government does, regardless of their lesser protestations of human rights violations.

It’s unreasonable to expect Turkey, which is located in the Middle East and has the Arab states as its neighbors, and a long economic relationship with several countries, to be any less bifurcated in its foreign policies. Had Turkey advocated revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia at the first sign of street demonstrations and had the street protests failed, resulting in more violence, it would have been censured by the West for causing instability in an already unstable region.

Diminished role?

Regardless of the missteps in reaching full democracy, and apart from Turkey’s support for a particular democratic movement at a particular time, the obvious popularity of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his tour of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, even when advocating a secular government in Egypt, is obvious. Given that economically, politically and culturally, Turkey has an obvious large role to play in the Middle East, and then labeling its role as “diminished” is inaccurate and misleading.

The IISS evaluation of Turkey domestically is likewise slanted and not reflective of reality. Here is one example: “Buoyed by a booming economy, the AKP won 49.9 percent of the popular vote.” Later it stated that “one of the main reasons” for the AKP’s victory was that “Turkey’s GDP grew by 8.9 percent in 2010” (actually it was 8.2 percent). It’s as if the AKP could not be popular on its own apart from the economy and ignores the Erdoğan government’s record of extending social services, such as available healthcare, to Turks. Moreover, the government gets no credit for contributing to its spectacular growth over the years, in contrast to Europe and the US. Turkey’s economic growth in 2010 was ranked 18th in the world, ahead of every European and Middle Eastern country by far. The best performance by a European country during the same year was Germany, ranked 100th, at 3.5 percent. Is this a country with a “diminished role”?

Denying Ergenekon

Regarding domestic politics, the report is similarly one-sided. The most egregious statement is the following: “By mid-2011, almost 300 people had been formally charged with membership in Ergenekon, although prosecutors had yet to produce convincing evidence that the organization even existed.” Is the writer, who leaves no doubt that s/he is one of those ardent Ergenekon deniers who continue to influence international public opinion, not aware that the charges are not even denied by the former chief of General Staff, retired Gen. Işık Koşaner? Or supported by Adm. Özden Örnek’s diaries? Or documented in several books, articles and news reports? Or the fact that these arrests are coming from the judiciary and not the government?

No credit for judicial reforms

Equally upsetting is the report’s giving credence to claims that the AKP was “politicizing the judicial system” and that its proposed constitutional amendments, approved by 58 percent of voters in a referendum, “appeared to reduce judicial impartiality by increasing political control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors.” It’s as if there is no history of the judiciary being a key part of the secular bloc in Turkey which closed down the predecessor parties of the AKP and almost shut down the AKP itself in 2008 (short just one vote) because of its initiative in Parliament to lift the headscarf ban. Nor does the writer on Turkey like readers to know that Turkey’s main opposition parties oppose and still oppose the constitutional amendments approved by voters even today as a new constitution is about to be debated in Parliament. Instead of giving some credit to the Erdoğan government for its democratizing efforts, it takes the identical position of its opposition parties, which have even nominated for Parliament people jailed for alleged coup plotting. Another jab at the government blames “another rise in violence in the long-running insurgency by the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK” on the AKP’s “abandonment of a strategy of engagement and conciliation.” At the very least, this issue is hardly as simple as it is made to appear and, at worst, gives ugly justification to the PKK’s killing of innocent civilians. Given the latest attacks by the PKK, this part of the report is embarrassing. In fact, opposition parties criticized the AKP government for its informal talks with Abdullah Öcalan.

Western and eastern alliances

Finally, there is the ever-present criticism that the AKP government is shedding its close alliance with the West, has lost interest in EU membership and is “less amenable to US pressure to take tougher measures against Iran.” It also claims that Turkey has “Ottoman nostalgia” which “erroneously” underlies its strategy regarding the Middle East, which could result in it being neither an alliance partner nor a regional power. The writer of the Turkey section completely ignores the fact that Erdoğan has a good relationship with the Obama administration and has signed a missile-defense agreement with the US, which Iran has criticized. But Turkey is not a satellite country of the US and has an independent foreign policy. After all, the Cold War has been over for two decades. In summary, Turkey deserves a more objective analysis from the IISS. The AKP government is not without its problems, such as the issues regarding press freedoms, as much a reflection of current law in Turkey as a long legacy of restrictions. But Turkey’s evaluation should be balanced and this report is not, giving Turkey little credit for its economic development, political stability and progressive reforms. The IISS should be apart from and above the polarization of Turkey’s political scene and its charismatic leader.

*Richard Peres is a writer living in İstanbul. His latest book, “The Day Turkey Stood Still,” will be published this winter.





30 October 2011, Sunday / RICHARD PERES*,