“If you are no longer interested in having an empire, we’ll take it,” I said, speaking recently in Istanbul to a group of U.S. congressmen and women who expressed ample frustration and, in the case of Syria, a clear disinterest in the affairs of the Middle East.
I have been observing with some amusement on recent trips to the United States how diametrically opposed Turkish and American appetites about the Middle East have grown. Since the onset of the Iraq war, and more noticeably with the Obama administration, the American public has come to see our region as a “burden.” In Washington, the route to democracy in Egypt and Libya has dampened the initial excitement about the Arab Spring. Regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, the main U.S. policy goal is “keep out of the headlines.” To American eyes, current Israeli and Palestinian leadership look too capricious to even bother with a peace process and everyone I meet in Washington talks about Syria as “a mess,” suggesting that the best course is to stay out.
Not in Turkey. In fact, throughout the history of the modern Turkish republic, the appetite to delve into the Arab affairs has never been greater. Turkish diplomats and leaders are shuttling back and forth among regional centers and Turkey is deeply embroiled in the politics of Syria and Iraq. Ankara has lifted visa restrictions for most Arab countries, and trade with the Middle East has skyrocketed to roughly a third of Turkish exports today. Turks are in the process of building bridges with Iraqi Kurdistan –once regarded as the archenemy – and the Islamist ruling AK Party in Ankara regards the resurgence of Islamist parties in the post-dictatorship Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya as nothing but a strategic gain for Turkey.
In fact, once destined to enter the European Union, Ankara has diverted much of its focus to the Middle East and is more interested in regional leadership than haranguing for the last seat in an unfriendly – and to Turks, sinking – Europe.
Turkish self-confidence is high these days – perhaps higher than ever in the history of the modern republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.