Turkey’s proactive foreign and economic policy towards the Middle East under the conservative right-wing Justice and Development Party (JDP) government has been a target of criticism since 2002. The proponents of the policy often refute criticism by invoking Turkey’s ‘historical ties’, ‘cultural proximity’ to the Middle East, Turkey’s ‘bridge role’, and its ‘role model’ regarding the region. A little digging of the history of Turkey’s right-wing policymakers, however, shows another dimension of this ‘proactive’ policy. It is the expansion of Turkey’s sphere of influence as a paternalistic former imperial ‘older brother’ by reviving the Ottoman past. This desire pleases Turkey’s conservative right-wing movement’s plea to become a paternalistic protector and, subsequently, a leader of the Middle East against the West. The JDP, which claiming itself as the representative of this conservative line of thinking, has been repeating the policy of former right-wing parties, which had come to power as single party governments and had determined Turkey’s foreign policy without any domestic challenge. Two examples from history are illustrative.
The Democrat Party government (1950–1960), as the first representative of the conservative right wing in multiparty political life in Turkey, adopted an aggressive pro-Western foreign policy towards the ‘Third World’. Its pro-USA position at the Bandung Conference in 1955 was the succinct example of this policy. Turkey’s position regarding Middle Eastern countries in this independent group was double-paternalistic. In 1955, angered by the Egyptian–Syrian alliance, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes stated that “those in the Middle East who think that they are protecting their interests by being neutral should know that they owe their independence to the Freedom Front”. He continued, “whatever policies are adopted by the ruling policymakers of certain Arab states today, historical and moral connections between Arabs and Turks have a long history. These feelings will awaken one day”.(1) In this peculiar political articulation, where Turkey’s role as a Cold War frontier state overlapped with its role as a former imperial ‘brother’, Middle Eastern people were represented as those oppressed by their regimes. Turkey would wait patiently until they ‘woke up’, although the right-wing government tried to awaken them by itself once. In 1958, PM Menderes almost launched a unilateral military intervention in Iraq to restore the toppled monarchy, though it was stopped by USA–British intervention.
An additional example from the 1980s was another conservative single party right-wing government that was in power for a prolonged period (1983–1991). The Motherland Party, led by former political Islamist Turgut Özal, like Menderes, overlapped Turkey’s Western and Middle Eastern roles in 1983: “our ties with the Western world and our increasing relations with the Middle Eastern and Arab countries are complementary to each other”; and added, “our common historical and cultural heritage prompt us to pay special attention to the Islamic world.” (2) This window of opportunity was created by the new USA strategy, which was known in Turkey as forming a ‘green line’ consisting of Muslim-populated countries against the red ‘Evil Empire’. During this decade, Turkey not only became one of the branches of the Rapid Deployment Force of the USA to increase the capability of US intervention in the Middle East; also, the share of the Saudi capital in the Turkish banking system increased through institutions such as Al Baraka Turk (Özal’s brother was one of the board members) and Faisal Finance, which funded more than 50 Islamist publishing houses, journals, and newspapers. The Middle East was a focal point of the ‘Greater Turkey’ from ‘the Adriatic to the Chinese Wall’. In fact, the expression of ‘neo-Ottomanism’ was initially used for the Özal period, long before the JDP.
A look at the JDP’s foreign policy towards the Middle East from the prism of history highlights that Turkey’s conservative right-wing governments have had the objective of increasing their political and economic sphere of influence in the Middle East through a paternalistic attitude, which naturalizes the subordination of the Middle Eastern geography, history, and people to the former Imperial brother. It is also not a coincidence that the right wing government pursued this policy by integrating it with the USA strategy in the Middle East. Furthermore, Turkey’s right wing governments’ desire to become ‘influential’ over the Middle East through reviving the Ottoman history seems to be consistent throughout the decades. Perhaps a future coalition government in Turkey, where conservative right-wing’s imperial desires are put under control, would mean one less actor with eyes on the Middle East, which has already had enough of the kind.
Melek Fırat and Ömer Kürkcüoğlu, ‘Orta Doğu ile İlişkiler’, in Baskın Oran, ed., Türk Dış Politikası: Kurtuluş Savaşından Bugüne Olgular, Belgeler, Yorumlar 1919-1980 Volume I, (İstanbul: İletişim, 2013, 18th edition)
Hasan Köni, ‘Saudi Influence on Islamic Institutions in Turkey Beginning in the 1970s’, Middle East Journal, vol. 60, no.1 (2012)
(1) Milliyet, 27 February 1955, p. 7.
(2) TBMM Zabıt Ceridesi, Dönem: 17, Cilt: 1, İçtima: 10, (19 December 1983), p. 83.