Turkey's Influence in a Changing Middle East Is Limited

04/06/2011 02:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2011

For the last few years Turkey has been trying to sell itself as the re-shaper of the Middle East. But now that the region is reshaping itself in dramatic and unexpected ways, the late, lame and confusing responses of Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan's government show that Turkey's renewed activism in its Muslim neighbourhood has not gone very far.

No one knows how the Arab Spring will end -- but it's clear that with this awakening, the Arab people have nullified all of the narratives that others have used to describe them. Their endless tolerance and surrender to victimhood at the hands of their authoritarian rulers finally ran out. Many feel so desperate that they no longer care whether they lose their lives by taking to the streets. Since February, thousands have indeed paid the ultimate price, but with a purpose: they want change.

Turkey was surprised by this Arab uprising. For years now, Erdogan has tried to play to the Arab street like an Ottoman sultan. He has accused Israel of being a terrorist state murdering Palestinians, scoring points off an easy and unpopular target, especially when he stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos after a heated debate with the Israeli president over Gaza.

He has provoked controversy in other ways too, for instance he has said that a Muslim cannot commit genocide, and the situation in Darfur can't be considered one. Erdogan has even received a human rights award from Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

But he has always defended the status quo in the Arab region and never questioned the Muslim leadership in any of these countries. And although Erdogan was quick to call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down, he could not display such a muscular and forceful attitude toward the Libyan leader. Erdogan had a bad personal relationship with Mubarak, but Turkish firms have business deals in Libya worth more than 15 billion US dollars.

And Erdogan never once entered into a public discussion about the grave problems of misconduct, corruption, bribery, tribalism, unemployment and more in these countries -- which actually killed more Arab dreams than the Israelis.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly is a problem in search of a peaceful solution. But it's worth asking the question: is it really the biggest problem in the Middle East? The Arab Spring shows that Arab misrule is an even bigger and far more pervasive problem. And it's no secret that all these oppressive Arab leaders have abused the Palestinian issue to distract attention from their own misdeeds. They have exploited Palestinian victimhood and refused to take any responsibility for all failed attempts at peace with Israel.

When there is massive poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, no one really believes that Israel or foreign intervention is what's triggering these uprisings. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's speech last week demonstrates the emptiness of that argument. His people did not buy his claim that foreign conspirators are provoking events in Syria.

Erdogan said he will call Assad this week to ask about the reforms promised to the people. The Turkish prime minister claims his Middle East policy is a success based on his relationship with Assad, yet the Syrian leader is so far the only beneficiary of this relationship. Erdogan almost single-handedly ushered Assad from isolation back into the international community. His hosting of Syria-Israel proximity talks is a prime example. If a United States ambassador is in Damascus right now, one big reason is because of Turkey's support for Assad.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia nearly cut ties with Assad six years ago, when former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. Erdogan played a key role in mending the fences between the two leaders. Now King Abdullah refuses to support the Syrian Sunnis who want to bring down Assad, because he is afraid for his own regime. In any case, Turkey should remain removed from any attempt to intervene in Arab domestic affairs. Turks are not Arabs, and Erdogan's fantasy love affair with the Arab world may not last for long.

While many in the region point to World War II as the start of all problems in the Middle East because of the Jewish state's creation in 1948, the Arab Spring is actually all about the First World War. The Middle East is still trying to absorb the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey needs to turn away from the dead end fantasy that it the natural heir to the Ottoman imperial project. There is no hegemonic leadership role for Turkey to play in the region. As a leader, Erdogan should stay out of the individual dramas in the region. And he needs to understand that wherever uprisings take place, those are developments that the Arab people must work out for themselves.

In the modern era, Turkey will benefit tremendously from a democratic Arab world that focuses on improving education and economic development for its people. A democratized region will hopefully focus more on constructive thoughts than potential wars. But it's going to take time to get there.

The Erdogan government's priority now should be to determine its position toward a rapidly changing Middle East. Surely Israel-bashing will no longer work, unless Turkey chooses to play the role of provocateur to the region's radicals.

Erdogan knows that NATO won't expel its only Muslim nation, but Turkey's allies are carefully watching how Erdogan is using the religion card and portraying NATO members as imperial powers who only want to exploit the Arab world's energy resources.

Turkey is a strong and influential country in the region, but we should be cautious of an approach that sees Turkey taking a larger role as a model for the region and as a fixer for its various problems. Such a leadership role can only hurt Turkey's own national interests and make it fall tired fighting for others, while it has to save that energy to perfect its democracy and advance its economic prosperity.

When the Arab Spring runs its course, Turkey will be the loser if it keeps pretending to the West that it is the leader and spokesman for the Muslim Middle East. The Ottoman Empire ended long ago. The Arabs can speak for themselves. And so can the Turks.