Neo-Ottoman Silliness

Friday, July 2, 2010

As I discussed in my previous post, on Saturday night the Turkish military carried out a raid against what it described as PKK bases in northern Iraq. According to one source, at least one civilian has been injured.

In this (Turkish-language) column appearing in the Turkish newspaper Radikal, Murat Yetkin reports that the US government green-lighted both last night's raid and future Turkish incursions into northern Iraqi air space, providing that a) no civilians are injured (see above), and b) that there is no engaging the Peshmerga forces of Iraqi Kurd leader Mesut Barzani.

Yetkin says that one of his (anonymous) sources tells him that the US gov's green-lighting of Turkish incursions into Iraq was relayed to Tayyip Erdogan ahead of his meeting with Barack Obama in Toronto on June 27, whereas another source reports that it has been at least three weeks since this permission was issued.

In any case, the timing related by either of these sources would fit in with recent developments in Turkey suggesting a more aggressive Turkish stance against the PKK outside Turkey's borders (in my previous post I mention recent arrests in Syria of suspected PKK supporters), as well as supporting recent rumors (which I referred to in my post four days ago--scroll down to bottom) of imminent Turkish plans to launch a "major offensive" against the PKK in Iraq in the face of a series of recent attacks against Turkish soldiers. 
These events and the diplomatic maneuverings (particularly with respect to recently improved relations with Syria) involved in setting them up should cast a new light on recent yammerings about the Turkish government's supposed desire to "look east."  
For some reason, whenever non-western countries where people speak less common languages are involved, people tend to employ grandiose and abstract theories to explain policies which are, in most cases, simply based upon how a government perceives both its own political interests and the interests of the country it represents.

Lately, one of the most noticeable examples of this is "neo-Ottomanism," the current flavor of the week for describing Turkey, which is being peddled here, and in many, many other places recently. The problem with stuff like this is that, rather than looking closely at why a country's leaders would consider it important to pursue certain policies (i.e., their interpretations of national and political interests, as well as personal ones, in some cases), this type of analysis reduces policymaking to "identity"-oriented gobbledy-gook. People buy this because it's easier to "understand" Turkey (or Russia, or China, or Japan, or the "Islamic world") through abstract concepts than through the hard work of learning details and developing comparative and relational approaches to discussing the issues at hand.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has taken a hard stand against Israel and has sought to improve relations with Syria for a number of reasons, but especially these three, in no particular order: a) bashing Israel is good domestic politics at a time when the AKP's popularity has been weakening; b) Erdogan, I think, genuinely feels morally outraged at Israeli policies towards Gaza; and c) his government believes that, in the context of an increasingly independent northern Iraqi statelet backed by the United States, Turkey's needs the support of regional powers with respect to the Kurdish issue.

But rather than get our fingers dirty by looking at things like the US government's policies towards the Kurds and northern Iraq (like this)--policies which might shake up our complacent fantasies about America's supposed lack of imperial interests in the region--it's just plain easier to assign grandiose identity-based motivations to policies, especially when they seem to be at variance with US objectives like supporting Israel no matter what.

Rather than talk about Turkey's "turn to the east" or "neo-Ottomanism," let's talk about things the US and Europe are doing which contribute to the policies that we're talking about with this abstract shorthand. No, it's not all about the US and Europe (as I said, there are internal political factors and, sometimes, personal ones at stake as well), but our government's actions are a component of the thinking going into these policies and should be acknowledged.

I don't mean to imply that Erdogan and his cohort have no interest in using identity as a political tool--governments do these things. But I do believe that most governments pursue certain policies because they believe they will bring specific benefits, and not because these policies fit with a certain identity-based template.

In too many cases, we're the ones who are coming up with the template, then randomly trying to fit the actions of other governments into them. But as I said, doing this is easier than actually learning stuff.

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