Turkey has had a rough go of it for the last few months. Just this past May, Prime Minister Erdogan visited Washington, D.C. for a visit with President Obama. The trip was meant to highlight Turkey’s increasing geostrategic and economic importance. An Oval Office meeting, Rose Garden joint appearance, meetings with Congressional leadership and working dinner between the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister on one side, President Obama and Secretary Kerry on the other. Home run visit, right?
Not really. The trip revealed Turkey’s biggest problem – hubris (ironically, the worst sin in Ancient Greece). Turkey is full of tantalizing potential. Its geography, demographics, the size of its economy and military, its experiences with secularism, democracy and Islam had Western policy and business elites enamored with a country that could serve as a bridge between East and West – politically, economically and culturally. But being a “bridge” was never the Erdogan government’s end game.
Those enamored with Turkey were so tickled with its potential that they willfully ignored internal developments that should have raised red flags. Turkish popular cultural – e.g., the hit movie and television series Valley of the Wolves – displayed enough anti-Semitism for the rupture with Israel to have been predicted. The treatment of journalists, the restructuring on the economy in favor of AKP followers and suck-ups, the status of women’s rights, and the majoritarian rhetoric of Erdogan should have made Washington’s Turcophiles worry about the Gezi Park movement. Most importantly, the obsession with the Ottoman past – dubbed “Ottomania” by Turkey watchers – should have all concerned what Turkey’s true foreign policy ambitions are, and whether they are a reliable bridge or even ally.
The feeling of Turkish exceptionalism on display during Erdogan’s May US visit now seems like ancient history. Since then, Turkey has suffered setbacks on nearly every front. In a series of pieces, we’ll take a look at how Turkey’s hubris – and the enabling of this hubris by its fans in the West – keep Turkey from realizing its potential and from playing the best possible role it can in global politics. Prime Minister Erdogan is often portrayed as an Ottoman Sultan/Emperor. Only a few months after what should have been a high point, some are now shouting: The Emperor has no clothes!