No adventurism expected under FM Davutoğlu

The appointment of Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu as foreign minister can hardly have come as a surprise to diplomats in Ankara. The talk of the town for weeks has basically come true.

Deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, were also telling their foreign interlocutors during this time that this appointment was imminent. Davutoğlu is not an unknown quantity, of course. His views, which have always had an academic perspective due to his training, have always attracted attention and been found interesting, even if one does not agree with him on all points. Especially in matters that have to do with the Middle East. His links in the region have also landed him in controversial situations on quite a few occasions. Davutoğlu’s close ties with Hamas are a case in point. He was the one said to be behind the unexpected visit to Ankara by Hamas’ leader in exile Khaled Mashal just days after this organization swept the Palestinian elections in 2006.

His continuing links with Hamas have led some to question how he is going to deal with Israel as foreign minister now. There is, however, the fact that Davutoğlu was also one of the key figures behind the indirect talks between Israel and Syria, which ended abruptly after the latest operation by the Israeli defense forces against Gaza. One might have thought that his connections to Hamas might also have been problematic in terms of ties with Washington. But Davutoğlu was in Washington recently, on what he himself termed to be a highly successful visit, which was aimed at establishing early bridges with the Obama administration.

At any rate, any coolness that might prevail between Ankara and Washington under his tenure is more likely to be because of the Armenian genocide issue rather that his contacts with elements in the Middle East, considered by the Americans to be unsavory. If anything, there is more talk in diplomatic circles that these contacts might even bring some advantages, given that the Obama administration is opting for the dialogue approach, rather than the ostracism and vilification approach of the Bush administration, as far as some of these elements are concerned. Naturally enough, there is great excitement in the Arab world over Davutoğlu’s appointment. This is basically seen as the continuation of what is believed to be the Erdoğan government’s pro-Arab and anti-Israeli approach to the region. But the rapid normalization of ties with Israel after Erdoğan’s now-famous Davos outburst against Israeli President Shimon Peres belies this expectation. If anything, Davutoğlu is going to have to tread cautiously vis a vis the Middle East given this perception. The ties he will have to conduct with Washington will also see to that.

What Davutoğlu is not known for dwelling on extensively are Turkey’s relations with the EU. This is not because he is a novice in terms of these relations. He is more than aware of the facts and figures and the intricacies involved. It is just that his personal interests have rested elsewhere. Government spokesman Cemil Çiçek, however, made it clear in his first press conference after last week’s Cabinet reshuffle that the EU remained one of the government’s top priorities. This will mean that Davutoğlu will have to get more involved with this subject, especially at a time when the widespread belief in Europe is that the AKP government has lost interest in the EU dimension.

The first challenge that Davutoğlu faces, however, has to do with the Caucasus and the delicate process of rapprochement under way with Armenia. He will have to continue with this process while also trying to regain some of the confidence in Turkey lost by Azerbaijan. This will require all his talents of diplomatic juggling. There is a belief that Davutoğlu is essentially an ideologue and strategist. He has been attributed with being the father of what is termed "Neo-Ottomanism." He has always vehemently denied this, and it is not quite clear what is meant by this tem anyway.

If it means increasing Turkey’s influence in the old geography of the Ottoman Empire, and the Middle East in particular, this is under way anyway due to objective reasons and not in any revanchist or irredentist way. The interest in the region in his appointment also attests to the fact that there is not much aversion to more involvement by Turkey in key regional issues. Broadly speaking, the fact is that Turkey’s foreign policy is more likely to veer toward Ankara’s traditional cautious middle of the road line under Davutoğlu, rather than moving in an adventurist direction as suggested by some of Erdoğan’s recent outbursts.

The general feeling among observers is that Erdoğan has learned by now that foreign policy administration is a complex matter best left to the professionals, even if he has made his dislike for professional diplomats apparent in the recent past. His Davos outburst brought him little in the end. As for his highly controversial opposition to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO secretary-general, this turned into a debacle for Turkey. One can expect him to follow Davutoğlu’s advice before taking the leap on important foreign policy issues from now on.
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