Guest Column: Good-bye, New Middle East

Much has happened since those Oslo days when Peres penned his vision of regional free trade and joint infrastructure projects.

By
July 2, 2010 15:55
4 minute read.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan 311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Amid the wreckage of the New Middle East once envisaged by Shimon Peres, Turkey once stood out as a dim hope that someday something might change. As the Oslo process unraveled and peace with Jordan and Egypt remained cold, Turkey was an authentically Muslim country that befriended Israel and even viewed it as a strategic partner. Snuggling up to Israel was part and parcel of Turkish aspirations to be a part of the West, just as was its membership in NATO and its angling to join the European Union.

The strategy was working. Turkey has enjoyed democratic government (albeit with brief interruptions from the army), and its economy was following the path of the Asian tigers. If Turkey hadn’t caught the world’s attention like China, India and Brazil, its average annual GDP growth of nearly 7 percent in the five years before the global finance crisis hit in 2008 certainly put it into their league.

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Partnership with Israel wasn’t an essential part of Turkey’s development, but it was a natural one. The respectable countries of the world community maintain at least cordial relations with Israel even if they don’t always like its actions, like the raid on the Mavi Marmara. Trade between Israel and Turkey reached $3.3 billion in 2008, Israeli tourists flocked to Antalya and there was a brisk export market for Israeli arms.

Cynical pragmatism – the kind that puts national or religious solidarity and ethical qualms in the backseat and lets commercial considerations do the driving – usually doesn’t get good press. China is lambasted for ignoring the Iranian nuclear threat out of business interests. Europe is slammed for putting its thirst for Arab oil ahead of Israel’s needs, although this country itself has certainly in its day done business with unsavory countries out of economic necessity.

Yet this kind of cravenness usually makes for successful statecraft and even more successful economics. That’s why Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reaction to the flotilla affair is more than a nasty disagreement about Israel’s treatment of the Mavi Marmara’s activists or Gaza’s Palestinians. If he were a pragmatist bent on advancing Turkey economically and politically, he would have held his nose, mumbled some diplomatic regrets and gotten back to business.

The evidence is still equivocal, but it looks increasingly as if Erdogan plans to take his country down the path of Islam, picking up the political, social and economic baggage it needs as he ploddingly moves along. If he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) aren’t leading a Khomeini-style revolution, that’s because Turkey’s strategic location between Europe and the Middle East, its NATO membership and the distinct lack of enthusiasm on the part of Turks for religious extremism require him to proceed cautiously.

THUS, TURKEY hasn’t officially given up on joining the EU. Indeed, Erdogan has embarked on a reform campaign to bring his country up to EU standards. But he can’t possibly imagine that his Islamist prejudices, of which the outsized rhetoric against Israel is a critical part, won’t create doubts among Europeans about a future marriage. Even when it was practicing Islam-lite pre-Erdogan, the EU had cold feet. Now, Turkey’s leaders are not only talking solidarity with fellow Muslims but talking with Bashar Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Khaled Mashaal, the kind of Muslims who talk in terms of struggle with and resistance to the West.

It is hard to see how creeping Islamism won’t begin to affect economic policy as well. It may have already started last month when Erdogan unveiled plans to develop a free trade and visa-free travel zone with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. “We want to increase foreign trade volume to $1 trillion US in 2023. We want to do it with our neighbors and friendly countries and especially with Islamic countries,” the state minister for foreign trade, Zafer Caglayan, declared at a trade fair shortly afterward. It would be interesting to ask him, “On what basis?”

A lot has happened since those early, heady days of Oslo when Peres penned his vision of a New Middle East of free trade and joint infrastructure projects. Not only has the peace process collapsed, but the rise of economic powers as far afield geographically and culturally as China, India and Brazil has put paid to any notions that capitalist-inspired economic dynamism is a Western monopoly, or that globalization is a game stacked in favor of Americans and Europeans.

And then, there is the Middle East. With the exception of Israel and Turkey, two of the region’s outsiders, it never came close to producing a single globally competitive economy based on innovation or productivity. Yet, those are the kind of economies Erdogan aspires to link to. They have a combined GDP less than a fifth the size of Turkey’s and conduct little trade among themselves. If Ankara’s new business associates aren’t quite exemplars of Islamic economies (for that, have a look at Iran or Saudi Arabia after eliminating the impact of their oil reserves), they are to one degree or another examples of what happens when a society can’t or won’t adopt Western economic models. They are failed mélanges of state and crony capitalism propped up by corrupt, hidebound and (in Syria’s case) repressive governments.

There may yet be an Islamic version of Europe’s Christian Democrats, but it hasn’t yet emerged, not even in Turkey after 90 years of ideological secularism imposed by Kemal Ataturk. And, if Turkey can’t do it, the rest of the Middle East, which has barely begun the process, certainly won’t either. For Israel, it means our economic future lies anywhere else.

The writer is a financial commentator.


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