ANKARA (Hurriyet)–Official U.S. documents leaked Sunday and Monday not only have the potential of damaging ties between Turkey and the United States, but they offer a telling insight into Washington’s perception of Turkey’s government over the past eight years, the Turkish Hurriyet Daily reported.
The documents reveal how the U.S. describes the prominent leaders of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) – Abdullah Gul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu – while analyzing whether it has a hidden agenda that could “Islamize” the entire country accompanied by a “neo-Ottomanist foreign policy.”
Relying on the chronological order of leaked cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, one can see how this perception has shown differences over the eight years of the AKP and under different U.S. administrations.
The first cable cited by the WikiLeaks was sent in early 2004 by Eric Edelman, a former U.S. envoy to Turkey who hit the headlines a month ago for harshly criticizing the AKP government. As the title of his cable indicates – Erdoğan goes to Washington: How strong a leader in the face of strong challenges? – Edelman questioned the abilities of Erdogan and his party to run Turkey.
“Who are we dealing with?” asked Edelman in his cable, proving his administration’s failure to fully read Erdoğan and his party’s motives.
“Erdoğan has a strong pragmatic core,” he wrote. “It was this pragmatism that led him away from the radical Islamist milieu of his past, a point noted to us unhappily by his [radical] former spiritual leader Kemal Hoca.”
A clear failure in reading Erdoğan could be seen again in Edelman’s assessment that the party could lose power if it failed to overcome the challenges of 2004.
“Erdogan has traits which render him seriously vulnerable to miscalculating the political dynamic, especially in foreign affairs, and vulnerable to attacks by those who would disrupt his equilibrium. First overbearing pride. Second, unbridled ambition stemming from the belief God has anointed him to lead Turkey,” Edelman said, adding that the appointments of narrow-minded religious persons to critical posts were complicating the AKP’s ability to run the country.
Nearly a year after the aforementioned cable, Edelman’s note sent to Washington analyzed Erdogan and the AKP’s first two years in power.
“PM Erdogan and his ruling AKP seen to have a firm grip on power,” he said.
Recalling that Turkey could obtain the right to start full membership negotiations with the European Union under Erdogan’s rule in December 2004, Edelman ironically described the Turkish prime minister’s performance in Brussels.
“As PM Erdogan strode through the EU corridors of power Dec. 16-17 with his semi-pro soccer player’s swagger and phalanx of sycophantic advisers, he may have seemed a strong candidate for European leader of the year,” Edelman said.
“In short, Erdoğan looks unbeatable. But is he?” he asked.
“But there’s always a Monday morning and the debate on the ground here is not so neat. With euphoria at getting a date having faded in 48 hours, Erdoğan’s political survival and the difficulty of the tasks before him have become substantially clearer,” Edelman said.
Edelman said afterward that he thought some party officials approved of the membership bid just because it would help marginalize the military while others saw it as a tool “to take back Andalusia and avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683.”
This thinking parallels the logic behind the approach of Davutoglu and Gul, according to Edelman.
The U.S. official said Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul once described Davutoglu to him as “extremely dangerous” during a private conversation.
Another cable discussed how Gonultold U.S officials that Gul was still supporting Parliament’s disapproval of allowing Washington to use its territory before the Iraqi War in 2003.
Beyond daily politics, Edelman was also interested in Islam in Turkey, the documents show.
“The problem is compounded by the willingness of politicians such as Gül to play elusively with politicized Islam. Until Turkey ensures that the humanist strain in Islam prevails here, Islam in Turkey will remain a troubled, defensive force, hypocritical to an extreme degree and unwilling to adapt to the challenges of open society,” he said.
A silent rift between the two most senior members of the Turkish government, Gul and Erdogan, was dominating the political agenda in Turkey in early 2005, according to a cable sent by U.S. Embassy official Robert Deutsch in March of that year.
“Gul seems to be trying to undermine Erdoğan and take on more party control,” he said.
Though Gul was trying to portray himself as a moderate and modern politician, Deutsch said even some of Gul’s peers say “he has a far more ideologized anti-Western worldview than Erdogan.”
Expectations of AKP split
Later cables also suggested Erdogan and his party could face serious challenges at home and abroad and that AKP could be split.
A cable sent by Janice Weiner, a political counselor at the Ankara embassy in August 2005, said, “Despite media reports and opposition rumors of splits among PM Erdogan [and the] AKP’s 357 parliamentarians, the group remains intact – for now.”
Weiner, who titled her correspondence “Despite wishful thinking, AKP not crumbling yet,” reported that the AKP and Erdogan had no major opponent to their political influence in Turkish politics.
“Those not convinced of a nefarious AKP plan contend that more than four years in power have matured the party,” Weiner said in a 2007 cable. “Erdogan has had to moderate his message to balance factions within the AKP and lessen tensions with secularists threatened by AKP reforms.”
A few months after this cable, tensions came to a head between the government and the military, with the latter announcing April 27 that the presidential selection process could undermine the secular nature of the state – an obvious reference to Gul’s candidacy and the headscarf worn by his wife, Hayrunnisa Gul.
The military could have done more than simply make the April 27 announcement, Nancy McEldowney, deputy head of the mission, said in a cable after a meeting with Ergin Saygun, deputy Chief of General Staff.
“He claimed they easily could have sent tanks rolling in the streets if they had wanted to, but they did not,” her cable said.
Saygun also told the American diplomat that they had no problems with the AKP and that they were tasked to preserve the country’s secular order.
The comments, however, did not convince the U.S. Embassy, as another cable argued that the military was trying to discredit the AKP government via the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK’s, terrorist activities.
Turning point: Davutoglu becomes foreign minister
The appointment of Davutogu as foreign minister in 2008 was yet another crucial turning point in U.S.-Turkish relations, according to the leaked documents.
Citing developments in Turkish foreign policy, ex-Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey asked: “Does all this mean that the country is becoming more focused on the Islamist world and its Muslim tradition in its foreign policy? Absolutely. Does it mean that it is abandoning or wants to abandon its traditional Western orientation and willingness to cooperate with us? Absolutely not.”
In an obvious critical tone toward Davutoglu’s neo-Ottomanism, Jeffrey said Turkey was trying to post-modernize itself.
“The Balkans, Caucasus, and Middle East were all better off when under Ottoman control or influence; peace and progress prevailed,” Jeffrey said in summarizing his perception of Davutoglu’s thesis.
“Alas the region has been ravaged by division and war ever since. (He was too clever to explicitly blame all that on the imperialist Western powers, but came close). However, now Turkey is back, ready to lead – or even unite. (Davutoglu: ‘We will re-establish these (Ottoman) Balkans’). While this speech was given in the Balkans, most of its impact is in the Middle East. Davutoglu’s theory is that most of the regimes there are both undemocratic and illegitimate,” Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey also said Davutoglu’s ambitious foreign policy had not yet come to fruition.