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Turkey’s Grand Miscalculation on Libya

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  March 6, 2011 04:07 PM

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In an unexpected move, the Turkish government has expressed opposition to proposals for economic sanctions and any type of military intervention by the international community against Moammar Khadafy and his supporters. This response to the Libyan uprising stands in sharp contrast with Turkey’s strong condemnation of Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian uprising last month, and embrace of the Tunisian revolution in January as a model for the region.

Turkey has justified its stand by arguing that sanctions will hurt the Libyan people, and that no one in Libya wants military intervention. This is simply not true. International pressure on Khadafy can help reduce the suffering of Libyans by expediting his departure. Lack of intervention will only prolong the current bloodshed and the escalating human crisis in Libya. Furthermore, contrary to what Turkey has argued, the people who are fighting against Khadafy have explicitly asked for international help.

Turkey's position on Libya should be of particular interest because of its potential role as a bridge between Libya and the West. Turkey is sensitive to sanctions, given its experience with neighborhood effects in Iraq in the 1990s and Iran today, and opposed in principle to Western militarily interference in its region by NATO. But Turkey has the potential to mobilize a regional coalition of Middle Eastern nations to take the lead in creative diplomatic initiatives for ending the bloodshed in Libya — and should be encouraged to do so by the West. Turkey could be the key to a peaceful solution, but its current reluctance to condemn Khadafy undermines international and regional efforts to end the crisis.

Turkey’s odd position on Libya is rooted in its large investments in the country and close personal contacts of Prime Minister Erdogan with Moammar Khadafy. In addition to the well-publicized "human rights" award that Erdogan received from Khadafy, there are more pressing national economic interests at play. Over the past ten years Turks have won almost all lucrative construction contracts in Libya. Consequently, as many as 30,000 Turkish citizens were working and doing business in Libya at the time of the uprisings.

Clearly Turkish leaders were mindful of Turkey’s investments when they formulated Ankara’s stand toward the Libyan uprisings. But if they think that by opposing international pressure on Moammar Khadafy they have a better chance of salvaging these contracts, they have made a grave miscalculation. The revolt is gaining momentum day by day and it seems overwhelmingly likely that Khadafy will be defeated. The people of Libya are carefully watching the reaction of the international community to their ordeal and will remember who helped them and who did not.

The best of Turkish diplomacy and efficiency was seen as Turkey transported the vast majority of these citizens in the country’s largest evacuation effort of all time. In addition, 20 other nations, including the United States, requested and received help from the Turkish military that was conducting the operations. Unfortunately, the best of Turkish diplomacy towards Libya ended with the evacuation. The plausible hesitance to criticize Khadafy as long as Turkish citizens were in harms way, became palpable silence towards a regime whose time has come to go.

When Turkey sided with the pro-democracy movements throughout the Middle East less than a month ago — proclaiming that "Turkey is playing a role that can upturn all the stones in the region and that can change the course of history" — Erdogan showcased his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) pursuit of "foreign policy with character." The fact that the Turkish Prime Minister was the first world leader to call for Mubarak to step down at a time that other leaders, including President Obama, were hedging there bets, showed that Turkey could potentially lead the way in encouraging democracy in other Muslim countries based on its own experiences and lessons.

Unfortunately Erdogan’s embrace of Khadafy calls into question Turkey’s sincerity and credibility as a regional leader. As seen from the region, Turkey's strategy of diplomatic and economic engagement has been a welcome one. With its non-sectarian and pragmatic focus, Ankara offers the greatest economic incentives to find a political and sustainable as opposed to violent solutions to the problems of the Middle East today. On the whole, the Turks have been embraced by the region because they have been both pragmatic and principled — but their behavior now is calling those principles into question.

If the behavior of Iranian government after the 1979 revolution and the Kuwaiti government after it was liberated from Iraqi occupation in 1991 can shed light on how a post-Khadafy government will behave in Libya, then Turkey would be better off to reconsider its position. In both cases the new governments in power politicized their foreign trade and contract awarding procedures. Nations that were perceived to have been friendly during the struggle were rewarded with profitable contracts while those perceived to have been hostile were ignored. If Turkey does not join the countries that are putting more and more pressure on Moammar Khadafy, it risks losing not only its hard earned credibility in the region as a champion of democracy but also its access to the Libyan economy after Khadafy is defeated.

Turkish leaders must realize that the United States and European countries have also had large economic investments in Libya in recent years. They are also very mindful of the future of these investments, but they have concluded that these interests will be best served by siding with the uprising. Soon we will find out who was right and who made a grand miscalculation.

Nader Habibi is the Henry J. Leir Professor of the Economics of the Middle East and Joshua W. Walker is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies. They are the co-authors of the forthcoming "What is Driving Turkey’s Reengagement with the Arab World?"

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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