A Feature interview with Turkish Professor Tugrul Keskin
By Abdennour Toumi
Professor Tugrul Keskin is Professor-Director of the Center for Global Governance at Shanghai University, China. Keskin was the Graduate Director at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Maltepe University, Istanbul, Turkey.
He taught previously at the Department of International and Global Studies and as an affiliated faculty of Black Studies, Sociology and the Center for Turkish Studies at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon.
He served as the Middle East Studies Coordinator at PSU for six years. His research and teaching interests include International and Global Studies, Social and Political Theory, African Society and Politics, Sociology of Human Rights, Islamic Movements and Sociology of Middle East.
Previously, Dr. Keskin taught as an Instructor of Sociology and African Studies at Virginia Tech University, VA and taught as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at James Madison and Radford Universities. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Virginia Tech, VA with graduate certificate degrees in African Studies, Social and Political Thought, and International Research and Development.
He is the founder and moderator of the Sociology of Islam mailing list, the founder and editor of the Sociology of Islam Journal-BRILL, and regional editor of Critical Sociology-SAGE (Middle East and North Africa). His current research involves Artificial Intelligence and International Relations, China and the Middle East, and the U.S. Foreign Policy and Think-Tanks in the Post-Cold War Era.
U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East: From American Missionaries to the Islamic State. Palgrave, 2018. HYPERLINK “https://www.routledge.com/US-Foreign-Policy-in-the-Middle-East-From-American-Missionaries-to-the/Gresh-Keskin/p/book/9780815347149” https://www.routledge.com/US-Foreign-Policy-in-the-Middle-East-From-American-Missionaries-to-the/Gresh-Keskin/p/book/9780815347149
Rethinking China-Middle East Relations in the Age of Neoliberalism. Brill, 2019 Mojtaba Mahdavi and Tugrul Keskin.
In the light of the ongoing the U.S.-Turkey diplomatic tensions, The Arab Daily News’ MENA correspondent Abdennour Toumi spoke with Professor Tugrul Keskin and got his analysis and insights on the complex relations between Ankara and Washington.
- The Arab Daily News: Since 2002, the U.S. foreign policy toward Turkey has not changed on imperatives or determinants from either Democrat Presidents (rhetorical-Realpolitik foreign policy) or Republican Presidents (aggressive foreign policy).
- What went wrong?
Professor Keskin: I think you ask the main question about the relations between the United States and Turkey. Turkish policy makers did not see or understand the transformation in the U.S. foreign policy, which changed substantially in the mid-80s. The Turkish government and policy makers thought, and still believe, that Turkey still holds geo-strategic importance in the U.S. foreign policy objectives; however, this is not the case in the post-Cold War era.
[We] live in a different world than the 50s. Economy, society and politics have changed globally since the mid-80s. Turkey missed these changes…
– The Arab Daily News: The July 2016 failed coup has made the relationship between the two capitals electric, if not toxic. How could Washington polish its image with the Turkish leaders and people? President Trump was elected in November 2016.
Professor Keskin: I think it is very complicated and difficult to polish or change the U.S. foreign policy image with the Turkish leaders and people in the short term. What the United States has been doing in the Middle East or globally is based on the U.S. national security interests, which are based on the post-Cold War era of the U.S. foreign policy objectives.
One of the most important U.S. foreign policy objectives in this era is a containment of China and the creation of a global alliance against the increasing trend of the Chinese influence in the world. So far, the United States has failed to create this global alliance; in the meantime, [we] started to see an increasing trend of ethno-nationalist Kurdish politics in the Middle East since the late 80s.
The United States sees this rising trend of Kurdish nationalism as an opportunity for its own national interests in order to realign regional politics against Iran, Iraq and Syria, but there will be unintended consequences of this policy for Turkish territorial integrity.
The largest Kurdish population in the Middle East lives in Turkey, approximately 9 to 14 million people, and most of them speak the same dialect, as do Iraqi and Syrian Kurds.
The U.S. support for this ethno-nationalism to contain specific objectives, such as weakening Iran, dividing Iraq and Syria is through destabilization of the region by using the Kurds. Iran is an important factor in the U.S. foreign policy because the Persian Gulf provides more than 60% of Chinese oil needs, China has a solid relationship and strategic alliance with Iran. Turkey did not understand this geo-strategic and geo-political chess game, and it is paying the price.
– The Arab Daily News: Could the arrest of Pastor Brunson in Turkey be interpreted as a pressure card for Ankara in its legal fight for the extradition of the leader of the Gülen Movement?
Professor Keskin: Pastor Brunson versus Fethullah Gülen is an absurd case. Their political weight is totally different. I do not think the United States fully supported the military coup, but if the coup was successful, the Washingtonian elite in D.C could not have been happier because the United States prefers the Gülen movement over the AKParty; it does not mean the AKP is an anti-American political party.
The AKP is a neo-liberal party with Islamic tendencies. Thus, the Gülen movement is definitely behind the failed military coup. This sinister network of the Gülen has been infiltrating the government bureaucracy since the late 80s, but the real infiltration started during the AKP governance. They know each other more than [we] know them. Also, there are still many Gülen followers working with the AKParty.
Turkey has been changing since the AKP came to power in 2002. The AKParty used to be supported by the Washingtonian elite or American “deep state” against the secular Turkish bureaucracy. The AKP was supported by Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Morton Abramowitz, Henri Barkey and many other influential Jewish politicians between 2002 and 2010. As a result of this strategic alliance between the AKP and the Jewish groups/the U.S. deep state, the old secular Turkish bureaucracy was eliminated, and was replaced with nativist pro-Islamist mid-level bureaucrats, in this stance the AKP grasped the power and has been a repressing opposition…
For instance, the Fethullah Gülen movement used to be a bodyguard of the AKParty between 2002 and 2010. Both the AKP and the Gülen movement were supported by the Washingtonian elite in D.C, who created the Ergenekon trial and eliminated the “deep state apparatuses.” But this Ergenekon network is not a deep state in Turkey. The deep state in Turkey contains groups of people from high-level diplomats and businessmen from TÜSIAD, some academicians, some high-level military officials, some journalists and bureaucrats from the high-level Judiciary system.
Actually, the real deep state in Turkey’s collaboration with the AKParty and the Gülen movement agreed to eliminate Ergenekon network. the AKP, the Fethullah Gülen movement and the Turkish deep state worked together to get rid of these people.
The honeymoon between the AKParty, the Gülen movement and the real Turkish deep state was over after the elimination of this Ergenekon network, because they all have different interests and objectives. Also, let’s not forget, power and money corrupt political groups who have never been in power before. Therefore, [we] started to see corruption, oppression and nepotism in the Turkish bureaucracy, universities and businesses sector, etc…
The Pastor Brunson’s case is the iceberg of a bigger problem, and I do not think Pastor Brunson is as important as he has been portrayed in the media. He is a punchbag between the United States and Turkey. There are more important people than Pastor Brunson. Why haven’t they been arrested? Because both sides (the U.S. and Turkey) are playing a game for further negotiation.
– The Arab Daily News: Washington doesn’t seem responsive to the Fethullah Gülen extradition. If the tension continues, how could Washington avoid cutting diplomatic relations ties with Ankara?
Professor Keskin: Please remember, the United States has not appointed an ambassador to Ankara; it has arrested a government employee from Halkbank, Hakan Atilla, has frozen two Turkish ministers’ assets in the United States and has armed and trained pro-PKK groups in Northern Syria. These are not friendly “strategic” policies!
Do you think Fethullah Gülen will be extradited from the United States to Turkey? I don’t think so. The tension will continue until both sides are satisfied. Also, let’s not forget: the issue between Erdoğan/AKP and the U.S. political elite is not personal — it is about strategic interests. If they agree to work together, both parties will go back to their honeymoon.
– The Arab Daily News: Knowing the region is full of contradiction: Don’t you think the ongoing war of communiqués via the media between Ankara and Washington could breakthrough the Syrian dossier that would create a communication channel with Tehran?
Professor Keskin: Turkey made a mistake in Syria. We should not forget how the Syrian civil war started. Under former Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Ahmet Davudoğlu, the AKP pro-Islamic political elite saw an opportunity in Syria and tried to overthrow Assad by using radical Islamic groups as a proxy war against the BAAS (al-Ba’ath) regime.
This policy also was supported financially and politically by the U.S. intelligence circles.
Turkey and the United States negotiated and created a strategic partnership against Assad in Syria in late 2011; however, both countries have different interests and objectives in the post-Assad era. The AKParty support for the Muslim brotherhood movement in Syria and the U.S. support for Kurdish groups and other Islamic groups conflicted with both sides’ interests. Nevertheless, other political actors stepped in. Iran and Russia have played a vital role supporting Assad’s Syria; under the current circumstances, Turkey cannot go back to Iran and offer a collaboration on the Kurdish issue, but not on the territorial integrity of Syria under the Assad’s regime.
Turkish-Iranian rapprochement is also based on Washington’s negotiation with Iran.
– The Arab Daily News: How do you read President Trump’s direct talks offer with the Iranian leaders? Meanwhile, he just announced the restoration of the sanctions on Iran; it sounds odd or is this just Trump’s diplomacy?!
Professor Keskin: This is not exactly President Trump’s diplomacy; there are other actors in Washington who are against Iran nuclear deal under Obama. They are in power with President Trump’s presidency. I don’t think it is fair to blame President Trump for every U.S. foreign policy decision. Foreign policy decision-making process is more complicated than ordinary people will be able to understand and it is based on long negotiation between different bureaucratic, political and military actors.
– The Arab Daily News: Turkey is the U.S. strategic ally in the region and a NATO member; one asks how could he impose trade sanctions on the country and its leaders? Or does President Trump look at diplomacy with a business mentality?
Professor Keskin: President Trump’s presidency is a result of the American white middle class.
Domestically, unhappy masses with the U.S. economy voted for President Trump. Some people think the U.S. president can change everything in domestic and foreign policies. This is not the case. There are rules and regulations, a complicated negotiation process for decision making, ethnic and interest lobbies…
Of course, President Trump’s approach is different than the approaches of former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but President Trump still needs foreign policy advisors and national security teams who are coming from bureaucracy, which is a different version of “deep state.” The U.S. foreign policy toward Turkey had changed long before President Trump came to power.
I don’t think people understand this.
– The Arab Daily News: Nonetheless, Ankara is willing to apply the reciprocity principal or like the Turks say: “Çalma elin kapsisini çalarlar kapini” and freeze all U.S. official assets and its trade relations with Washington. What’s going to happen to the Trump Tower in Istanbul?
Professor Keskin: I am not sure about this question, but Turkey cannot read the global changes and the U.S. foreign policy objectives. I doubt that even the AKParty cares about this. The AKP lives in a bubble…
– The Arab Daily News: Professor Keskin, as an expert on the U.S. foreign policy in MENA, and now on China foreign policy in the region, what is your evaluation of the two countries’ paradigm after the direct involvement of Russia in the Syrian civil war?
Professor Keskin: Traditional Chinese foreign policy is non-interventionist; however, this is slowly changing. On the other hand, China is not happy about the wars in Syria and Libya, but it did not intervene. Iran is a different story because Iran is directly related with China’s national security interests. And the United States knows this strategic partnership between China and Iran very well. If you look at the U.S. allies in MENA region, China is having non-political relations with Israel, Egypt and Pakistan. All of these countries today have solid economic relations with China.
For Turkey, the Chinese approach is very different and hesitant toward Turkey because of the Uyghur issue. Both sides do not trust each other, even though President R.T. Erdoğan appointed a new ambassador to Beijing who is a Kurdish Nationalist and not a career diplomat and President Erdoğan announced a China Action Plan, which is based on attracting Chinese investment to Turkey. Turkey however, harbored ETIM guerillas fighting in Syria and Iraq. China looks at this with suspicion.
– The Arab Daily News: What do you think about Ankara’s zero problem doctrine strategy with its southern neighbors and the prospect of the Syrian civil war and its complexity?
Professor Keskin: I don’t think utopian Islamists will understand international relations because they do not rationalize the foreign policy; instead, they believe in ideology. Ideologists will always lose in international relations, because [we] have multiple actors in foreign policy. That does not mean [we] should not have foundations and ethics of foreign policy. Zero problem foreign policy approach is a utopian ideology in International Relations. Dealing with the world politics is not the same as managing an apartment. Therefore, zero problem foreign policy should not be taken seriously by academicians.
- The Arab Daily News: Is this the consequence or the causality of the absence of a sincere political solution in Syria?
- Professor Keskin: As I have said, what is a sincere foreign policy while you are dealing with multiple actors and all of them have different objectives?
– The Arab Daily News: The growing war in Northern Syria in the so-called Rojava cantons, which is a geographical extension for the PKK by other means. Could this be translated as the bone of contention between Washington and Ankara over the Kurdish question in Turkey?
Professor Keskin: Certainly, this is the main issue between the United States and Turkey. And I don’t think it is a solvable issue, unless the United States changes its national security objectives/interests or Turkey accepts an independent Kurdish state, which is an existential threat to Turkey. Though, the Kurd fighters in Syria are not from Syria actually; they are from Turkey so Rojava is a fabricated term; this land and geography originally belonged to Arabs. But recently the region has been ‘kurdified’ (becoming Kurdish).
– The Arab Daily News: The ethnic-nationalism sentiment that is marching in Turkey and its southern neighboring countries is with the support of the United States to minorities’ nationalism in these countries?
Professor Keskin: Ethnic nationalism is an interesting phenomenon, like Tamils in Sri Lanka, Biafra conflict in Nigeria, Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and so on … They all want to have an independent state. This separatism creates underdevelopment and chaos. As a result, the state uses security in order to control the territory; hence, security apparatuses of any State dominate the state’s policy toward that region.
Actually, this is a trap, which produces a vicious cycle for the region. When the United States and other governments’ policy makers see this “opportunity” as a tool for foreign policy negotiation, an ethnic conflict becomes a commodity in the foreign policy. Do you think this is ethical? It is not, but what is an ethical foreign policy in International Relations?
– The Arab Daily News: Is the Kurdish project an extra-destabilization factor in the region?
Professor Keskin: Kurdish ethno-nationalism is definitely a major destabilizing factor in the Middle East more than any other issues, including the Palestinian question, and Kurds will continue to play a major role for the next few decades in the Middle East.
However, Kurds are also in the difficult position, because they live around the major civilizations and powerful states: Arabs, Turks and Iranians.
Today, Kurds are seen as a puppet of imperialism in the region; this is not a good image for the Kurdish people. Some Kurdish groups are playing a proxy war for the U.S. and Western interests in the Middle East; this reminds [one] of when the United States supported Central and Latin American para-military groups in the late 70s and ’80s.
– The Arab Daily News: Would the Kurdish proto-state enhance the relation between Ankara and Tehran?
Professor Keskin: Iran and Turkey used Kurdish cards against each other. Both countries’ senseless and ill-advised policy on the Kurdish issue created problems for their own interests. Instead of collaborating on the Kurdish issue, Iran uses pro-PKK groups against Turkey, and I am not sure why Iran does not understand that the Kurdish card will be a boomerang effect against Tehran. It is very similar to Hafez Assad’s ill-advised policy on the Kurdish issue in the 80s and ’90s.
The Syrian regime supported the PKK organization against Turkey, today, the same Kurdish group is fighting for independence in Syria to divide the country and collaborating with the United States. I think Turkish, Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi foreign policies are manipulated by other groups and actors. If Tehran and Ankara do not get closer to each other on the Kurdish issue, they will both pay the price of their bold policies.
– The Arab Daily News: Turkey is facing a serious finance challenge, how could this end? Are the Turkish government and people ready to face an Argentinean scenario?
Professor Keskin: Turkish economy has been restructured based on neo-liberal tendencies of hardcore capitalism since January 24, 1980. None of the elected governments in Turkey have opposed neo-liberalism, privatization and deregulation of the market. Traditional Turkish bourgeoisie represented by TÜSIAD, is the main beneficiary of these economic policies.
They have worked with every elected government since January 24, 1980, including military dictatorship between 1980-83. So, the AKParty is not different from them; they supported the AKP, but the AKP came to power with a strong support from the middle class level Anatolian conservative petite bourgeoisie, which is based on a short-term investment model, unlike TÜSIAD.
Anatolian conservative petite bourgeoisie is the main beneficiary of the AKParty’s neo-liberal policies. the privatization and the deregulation of the market profited to this conservative business network. They are not like big industrialists; their economic views and approach are based on government policies of privatization and financial support, hence, the ongoing economic crisis is not a surprise, this was expected.
– The Arab Daily News: Does the New Turkey (Yeni Turkiye) leadership style and foreign policy bother Washington and its natural ally in the region (Israel) hegemony in MENA?
Professor Keskin: I don’t think so, as I have said before, the Jewish lobby and Israel worked with the AKParty in the past. They might work again if Netanyahu loses the election or changes his ideological orientation. Israel and Turkey are natural allies in the Middle East, similar to Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s new leadership, Algeria, Morocco, the UAE and Qatar. Today, Israel is not a pragmatic state; it is an ideological State. When a State loses its pragmatism, then it starts to face social, political and economic problems.
Israel is facing these problems today so that Turkey.
– The Arab Daily News: What is next for Ankara?
Professor Keskin: Turkey has been transforming socially and demographically. As a result of this transition, people have been moving from rural areas to large cities since the early 80s, they have generated socially, politically conservative and economically neo-liberal base — the AKP is a result of this transformation. This is modernization with political and social side effects. Therefore, the AKP still receives more than 40% of the votes from those who moved to the urban areas.
Ankara’s next move depends on this transition and the AKParty’s future; however, Turkey’s future is tied to the AKP’s future, which is sailing without a destination.
– The Arab Daily News: Thank you Professor Keskin for your time.
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