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Larrabee and Lesser, on Turkey's double burden

F. Stephen Larrabee and Ian O. Lesser: Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty

In 2003, scholars F. Stephen Larrabee and Ian Lesser teamed up to publish Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty, an extensive survey into the strategic and security issues facing Turkey in the new millennium. In 2007 Larrabee takes another look at Turkish foreign policy in an article in Foreign Affairs.

Unlike the champions of "strategic depth", the authors believe (in Age of Uncertainty) that engagement in the Middle East could spell problems for Turkey's relationship with Europe and the United States. "The deeper its involvement in the Middle East," they write, "the more problems this poses for Turkey's Western orientation and identity."

In the same breath, however, they emphasise Turkey's potential as a strategic liaison between the US and the Muslim world.

"The war on terrorism and the U.S. desire to bolster moderate voices in the Muslim world, have reinforced Turkey's strategic importance to the United States."


F. Stephen Larrabee

The authors also examine the notion of Turkey as a "bridge" between the West and the Muslim world. In doing so, they stress Turkey's double burden: that of its Ottoman past and its secularist, Western-oriented present.

"Arab nationalism emerged in large part from the struggle against Ottoman rule, a reality that has left its mark on the outlook of secular nationalists across the region. Arab opinion, especially in Egypt and to a lesser extent elsewhere, tends to regard Turkey as a former colonial power whose regional aspirations should be treated with suspicion. At the same time, Islamists around the Middle East tend to reject the Western orientation of modern Turkey and are understandably hostile to the strongly secular character of the Atatürkist tradition. Some Arab modernizers, notably Bourghiba in Tunisia, have found the Turkish model attractive. But, in general, Turkey and Turkish regional policy have been regarded with suspicion. This tradition has been reinforced by Ankara's membership in NATO and its Cold War alignment with Washington at a time when Turkey's Arab neighbours were either non-aligned or aligned with the Warsaw Pact."

"The civilization to which Atatürk and his successors have aspired was centered in the West. The Arab Middle East, by contrast, has symbolized Oriental backwardness for generations of Turkish elites."

All this, say Larrabee and Lesser, could make greater Turkish engagement in the Middle East somewhat more difficult – but it will not stop it.

"The Middle East will nonetheless continue to be a leading area of activism in Turkey's external policy. Turkish policy toward the region will likely be more assertive, less cautious, and less multilateral in character than elsewhere."


Ian Lesser

Turkey, they conclude, "will be neither a bridge nor a barrier in relation to the Middle East but rather an increasingly capable and independent actor – a more significant and possibly more difficult regional ally."

Writing in the July / August 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, Larrabee is more sanguine in his analysis, however.

"Turkey's recent focus on the Middle East […] does not mean that Turkey is about to turn its back on the West. Nor is the shift evidence of the "creeping Islamization" of Turkish foreign policy, as some critics claim. Turkey's new activism is a response to structural changes in its security environment since the end of the Cold War. And, if managed properly, it could be an opportunity for Washington and its Western allies to use Turkey as a bridge to the Middle East."

In the same piece that Larrabee also raises one of the most pressing issues in Turkey's policy vis-à-vis the Middle East: its future relationship with the Kurdish administration of Northern Iraq

"Ankara also needs to accept that a durable solution cannot be imposed by external forces; it can only come about as a result of an accommodation between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. This does not mean Ankara must recognize or accept an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, but it will need to open a dialogue with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership."

Over the past few months, Ankara has done just that – with positive effects.

Having come to terms the new Iraqi constitution, which establishes a federal structure in Iraq, Turkey has engaged with Kurdish authorities in Northern Iraq to crack down on cross-border attacks by the PKK. In mid-March, Turkey hosted Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, who went on to reassure Turks that an independent Kurdish state in Iraq was "impossible". Later that month, President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish head of state in more than 30 years to visit Iraq. During the trip Gul broke an old taboo by referring to the Kurdish administration of Northern Iraq as "Kurdistan" (the region's official name in the Iraqi constitution).

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