I knew catching up with old friends in Istanbul after a gap of some two or three years was going to be fun — sitting in my favourite cafe by the Bosphorous, watching the ships pass by, sipping raki and slowly letting it fire up the spirit and exhilarate the mind, while talking politics, about God, life… It is only when you come here to this city of heart’s desires that you realise the Turks have a point in insisting that Istanbul is indeed the centre of the world. But this time around, I am getting a sense they are getting their sums wrong.
I’ve never seen such prosperity in Turkey. Turks are living it up. The economy is doing splendidly well. The leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given Turkey the political stability that eluded this country for decades and the Turkish genius is finally unbound. The civilian authority reigns supreme in a way as it should be in a real democracy. Erdogan has carved his name in golden letters in the annals of Turkish history and politics. There can be no two opinions here.
Even my militantly secularist friends, especially the female companions who would pour out their visceral distaste for Islamism, grudgingly admit today that Erdogan has delivered. Three years back they would have quarrelled with me if I said a fine word giving expression to my seamless admiration for Erdogan.
But Turkey is getting things horribly wrong in its foreign policy. The curious thing is that Erdogan’s foreign policy lacks a national consensus and yet this politician who is an ardent democrat is nonchalantly pressing ahead. The intellectuals I met are aghast that Turkey is reclaiming its Ottoman legacy and is needlessly getting entangled in the Muslim Middle East.
Yesterday, there was a passionate debate in the Turkish parliament over Erdogan’s Syria policy. I am told that not only the Kemalists but also the ultra-nationalists and even the Kurdish party from the eastern region of Turkey were critical that Turkey is interfering in Syria and it is going to provoke a vicious backlash. But FM Ahmet Davitoglu came up with a spirited defence. He said something like, ‘Turkey owns, leads, serves the new Middle East’.
Haven’t I heard this bravado before? Yes, I used to hear this in the cocktail circuit in Ankara during the tragic Bosnian war. Turkey used to fancy that it was going to ‘own, lead and serve’ the new Balkans. Pray, what happened? Funnily, the Balkans and Central Europe aren’t Turkey’s backyards by any reckoning. They are not even America’s. If newspaper reports are to be believed, they are probably going to be China’s backyard. Not 6 or 10, but sixteen heads of governments travelled to Warsaw
from far and wide in the Balkans and Central Europe to greet Premier Wen Jiabao. Yes, these were ‘New Europeans’ who were supposed to be America’s vassals.
Isn’t Turkey following the footsteps of the US — getting bogged down in quagmires some place else where angels fear to tread, and somewhere along the line losing the plot? I feel sorry for this country and its gifted people. When things have been going so brilliantly well, Erdogan has lost his way.
Turkey needs a decade of peace so that it can continue to grow in this way and be a rich country, and Erdogan can complete his ambitious agenda of democratisation and political reform. Instead, he is needlessly asking for trouble, and is risking the spillover of chaos and bloodshed onto his land. This hubris won’t do any good. Mr. Erdogan, watch out: The Chinese are coming! Not only the Balkans but the New Middle East will also be theirs unless you get the plot right.