Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Leak in Review

It's been three days since the Wikileaks diplomatic cables release and it's hard to imagine things going back to the way they were before. How could they now that we know that diplomats say one thing in public and different, much blunter things, in private; that the Arab states, from Egypt to the Gulf, are itching for the United States to take out Iran's nuclear program; that Israeli officials believe Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan "hates" their country; and that the Turkish leader may have eight secret bank accounts in Switzerland (OK, on that count, maybe there is something to these leaks after all).

On the Turkey front, at least, despite the advance hype, there was little earth shattering material in the leaked cables. After taking a look at what was released so far, the Hurriyet Daily News was able to come up with this vapid observation: "U.S. diplomats in Turkey have been deeply interested in the politics of the country, according to United States State Department cables made public by whistleblower site WikiLeaks." As analyst Semih Idiz wrote in the same paper:
The documents now may provide interesting and entertaining reading on Turkey, and may be very upsetting for some people in the government, but they are not of “historic” caliber.

As for the frank and direct language in the cables, this may be something of a novelty for the layman, but the language in the diplomatic dispatches from Turkish embassies abroad – or any embassy for that matter - is probably not much different.

What these leaked cables have done, on the other hand, is confirm what has been talked about or speculated about on the basis of factual information or “educated guessing” among diplomats and diplomatic observers in Ankara for some time.
Still, digging through the Turkey-related cables does yield some illuminating and instructive material. One thing they make clear is the difficulty Washington initially had in understanding Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Former Ambassador Eric Edelman's cables from the AKP's early years, in particular, while getting some things right also seriously misread Erdogan and rely on dubious sources for their information, such as a conspiracy-theory loving pollster who predicts the AKP's imminent demise.

Things seem to improve as time goes by, though. Most recent Ambassador to Ankara James Jeffrey's early 2010 cable about the "new" Turkish foreign policy was sharp, perceptive and more attuned to the nuances of Turkish politics, offering up some very interesting criticisms of Turkey's current foreign policy. From the cable, which is worth reading in full:
Despite their success and relative power, the Turks really can't compete on equal terms with either the US or regional "leaders" (EU in the Balkans, Russia in the Caucasus/Black Sea, Saudis, Egyptians and even Iranians in the ME). With Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources, to cut themselves in on the action the Turks have to "cheat" by finding an underdog (this also plays to Erdogan's own worldview), a Siladjcic, Mish'al, or Ahmadinejad, who will be happy to have the Turks take up his cause. The Turks then attempt to ram through revisions to at least the reigning "Western" position to the favor of their guy. Given, again, the questioning of Western policy and motives by much of the Turkish public and the AKP, such an approach provides a relatively low cost and popular tool to demonstrate influence, power, and the "we're back" slogan.
There are also some interesting items dealing with the Turkey-Israel relationship, which give an indication of how Erdogan might be looking at Israel as a political (and possibly strategic) liability and how he is recalibrating Turkey's regional strategic posture vis-a-vis the country. In another cable by Jeffrey, from October of 2009, the ambassador writes about the cancellation of the Anatolian Eagle military exercises after Erdogan barred Israel's participation only "hours" before the exercises were to start. Although Erdogan's action has previously been described as the result of his not wanting to take the domestic political risk of being seen as having played host to the same air force that bombed Gaza only a few months before, Jeffrey provides a different explanation:
With an Israeli strike - across Turkish airspace - against targets in Iran a possibility, Erdogan decided he could not afford the political risk of being accused of training the forces which would carry out such a raid.
In another cable, this one from early 2010, the ambassador lays out some of Turkey's worries about getting involved with Washington's new missile defense plan (which eventually became the one approved at the recent NATO summit in Lisbon). Something similar plays out here:
Erdogan is concerned that Turkey's participation might later give Israel protection from an Iranian counter-strike.
In fact, as the years go by, Iran starts to increasingly dominate the material in the cables leaked so far. Along with the material coming out of the rest of the Middle East, the leaks show how profoundly out of step Turkey is with most of its allies and neighbors regarding the urgency of forcefully dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue and in terms of being concerned about what others see as Tehran's "destabilizing" regional actions. At the same time, they also seem to highlight one of the built-in tensions in the Turkey-Iran relationship, which is Ankara's belief that its engagement with Tehran is moderating the Iranian regime and "isolating" it regionally, something which could eventually lead to tension between the two countries.

For example, in a cable from late 2009 that describes a somewhat testy meeting between Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Gordon accuses the Turks of not being tough enough on the Iranian. The Turkish FM counters that Ankara is providing an alternative vision for the region and, as a result, the Turks "limit Iranian influence in the region." In another cable, from an early 2010 meeting between the State Department's Nicholas Burns and the Turkish MFA's Feridun Siniroglu, the issue of Syria comes up. In this case the cable reports:
Sinirlioglu contended Turkey's diplomatic efforts are beginning to pull Syria out of Iran's orbit. He said a shared hatred for Saddam had been the original impetus for their unlikely alliance. "Now, their interests are diverging." Once again pitching Israel-Syria proximity talks, Sinirlioglu contended Israel's acceptance of Turkey as a mediator could break Syria free of Tehran's influence and further isolate Iran.
For now, it doesn't seem like it's the leaks themselves that will do any harm to Turkey's relations with some of the countries involved. In the case of the US, the leaked cables won't create bad chemistry -- they only confirm and help us further understand the bad chemistry that existed before the leaks. But the leaks' domestic ramifications in Turkey -- particularly the material charging Erdogan and other AKP members with corruption, something the opposition has already started using against the government -- could ultimately prove damaging to Turkish-US relations.

With general elections coming up, it's likely that Erdogan and the AKP will try to stir up an anti-American backlash to the leaks as a way of diverting attention away from the damaging material inside them. In fact, that might have already started: in a strongly-worded speech he gave today, Erdogan undiplomatically suggested his lawyers might sue some of the American diplomats responsible for writing the leaked cables. “This is the United States’ problem, not ours... Those who have slandered us will be crushed under these claims, will be finished and will disappear,” the HDN reported the Turkish PM as saying at an Ankara municipal ceremony. Other AKP officials, meanwhile, are portraying the leaks as part of an Israeli plot to weaken and corner Turkey.

So much for Wikileaks heralding the arrival of a new day.

1 comment:

Nomad said...

The whole wikileaks crisis and the controversy it sparked has calmed for a bit- and it really didn't catch fire until Assange announced he had the "goods"- meaning "the bads" on a financial institution. (to be released at the start of next year) I found it all very fascinating in so many ways but especially the reaction.
Here was my initial take:

And then a longer analysis on what factors were involved.


What I suppose I found most p[athetic was the ignorance so many Americans- and especially their representatives- have about their constitutional rights, about the laws governing free speech and even the most basic principles of the laws, that is, a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.