The Davutoglu I Know

September 15, 2014

Ahmet Davutoğlu, the new Turkish Prime Minister, is a memorable man for better or worse. I will never forget the first time I met him. It was 2003 and I was an impressionable Fulbright scholar studying in Ankara living in the college dorms of the Middle East Technical University. My closest Turkish friend, a fellow international relations researcher, invited me home to an iftar, or breaking of the fast, during Ramazan, which happened to coincide with Thanksgiving that year. As I missed my own family, my friend introduced me to his father, a founding member of the newly incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) and uncle, then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, who later became President. As the only non-Turk at this traditional family celebration, everyone I talked to—including the two politicians—kept referring to “Ahmet Hocam” or “My Professor Ahmet” anytime I mentioned my interest in Turkish international relations.

After the iftar, I asked my friend how I could meet this “Ahmet Hocam.” Within a week, I was brought to an impromptu counseling session held for the professor’s closest disciples by one of his former students. The man was Ahmet Davutoğlu, today Turkey’s new Prime Minister. I had no idea what to expect from the man many were already dubbing “Turkey’s Kissinger.” He was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor and even Erdoğan called him “Ahmet Hocam.” I was nervous about meeting him given all I had heard about him. My anxiety was only compounded by the difficulty of discussing international relations concepts in Turkish, a language I had been studying for just four months.

Davutoğlu strolled into the room and greeted each of us with a knowing smile and nod, but took particular interest in me as the only foreigner. We spoke in English before he turned his attention to the group and launched into a series of lectures late into the evening, in Turkish, on the history of the world and Turkey’s rightful place in it. He made no exception for me; although he let me ask questions in English, he responded in Turkish and treated me as one of his own from that point onward. He seemed to take particular pride in an American’s learning Turkish with an appreciation for the culture, religion, and traditions of the country. While I had trouble grasping every nuance, the main concepts were clear. There was unmistakable conviction and energy behind his critiques of the Muslim world and the Turkish Republic’s place in it, as well as his experiences as a professor of international relations in Malaysia.

Several years later, I invited Ahmet Hocam to keynote a conference at Princeton University. He gladly accepted the invitation in person when we spoke, but various assistants tried repeatedly to prevent him from participating. Little did I know, my conference coincided with the eve of the public announcement that he would become the country’s new Foreign Minister. Davutoğlu agreed despite their protestations. After laying out his grand vision for a Turkey with “strategic depth” and “zero problems with neighbors,” he held court for close to two hours in a public, town hall-style setting answering questions before joining the invited guests for dinner. We held the conference dinner at Woodrow Wilson’s old home where he regaled the participants with an alternative history had the League of Nations been more effectual, strongly implying that Turkey’s historic role should be recognized with a new permanent seat on the UN Security Council. By the end of the night he was affectionately nicknamed “Super Ahmet” for his uncanny resemblance to Nintendo’s beloved Super Mario Brothers and his superhuman travel schedule.

After the formal proceedings were finished, Ahmet Hocam held another of his famous private discussion groups with his closest students, whom I had invited as part of the symposium. When they found out he would be in Princeton, his former students flocked to him. Once again, I was the only foreigner in the room. His mastery of Ottoman and early Muslim history always impressed me, but I respected him most for his fierce loyalty to his students. Indeed, he seemed to revel in the challenging and sometimes outright hostile questions with which I would pepper him along the way, knowing they came from a place of curiosity rather than malice. His trademark “you are so young, you will see one day my student” responses were good-natured and always accompanied by an avuncular twinkle in his eye.

When Davutoğlu became Turkey’s Foreign Minister, the world lauded the arrival of the scholar-turned-practitioner. For a time, Davutoğlu seemed to be in danger of overshadowing his boss, which could easily have ended his career. However, his exceptional loyalty and work ethic kept him close to Erdoğan even as he was pulled in many different directions because of cabinet dynamics and his official travel schedule and duties. Today these very same qualities have been used against him as Washington and other world capitals try to make sense of Turkey’s new Prime Minister. Several narratives and perspectives have been offered up, Some portray him as little more than an Erdoğan loyalist with ideological and perhaps even dangerous pan-Islamic ideas about how to reshape the world.

Davutoğlu’s meteoric rise from professor of international relations to one of the most powerful politicians on the world stage attracts equal amounts of admiration and envy. His past writings on Muslim suffering at the hand of European imperialists from Bosnia to Malaysia to Anatolia have moved increasingly into public view for scrutiny. More students than Davutoğlu could have ever had are coming out of the woodwork to parse every word he has ever written. As an odd and ironic consequence, everyone following Turkish affairs has now become his student. And he has become everyone’s professor, but without the very human and personal connection that endeared him to his students. It is inevitable I guess, but sad nonetheless.

Listening to Davutoğlu the politician lay out his vision for the “new Turkey” reminds me not only of how far he has come since our first meeting, but also of the opportunities ahead. Contrary to simplistic caricatures of an anti-Western or anti-Semitic Muslim ideologue that some have applied, Davutoğlu remains an affable statesman with nationalist fervor and who applies the discipline of a scholar to find order in a chaotic region and world. The Turkey that Davutoğlu inherited as Foreign Minister was uniquely situated to bring its region together through the example of a functioning democracy in a Muslim-majority nation that sought to lead with its free-market economic integration and visa-liberalization. Unfortunately things have been flipped on their head. Turkey is increasingly isolated and domestically polarized. Many blame Davutoğlu personally for the failing of Turkish foreign policy, but these people should remember that few other officials and countries, including but not limited to the United States, can claim any real success in this troubled neighborhood.

Op-eds and commentaries in prominent U.S. media outlets have highlighted Davutoğlu’s pan-Islamist leanings and his outsized belief in Turkey’s rightful role as leader of the Muslim world, recalling the glory of the Ottoman centuries. However, these op-eds, some of them scathing, fail to capture the full picture of the Ahmet Davutoğlu I know, whose humanness—as a father, husband, and teacher—permeates all aspects of his personality. During our visits, before we could discuss the latest in U.S.-Turkish relations, Ahmet Hocam would always ask me about my family and tell me proudly about what his daughters were doing and what new procedure his wife, a doctor, had just completed. We often disagreed about international affairs and his assessment of Washington’s interests and motivations on any particular area of its engagement with Turkey. His views of the United States were colored by a tendency to give American decision makers too much credit for being strategic thinkers rather than understanding their deficiencies and limitations. He over-analyzed every conversation and situation, while his counterparts in Washington seemed to underestimate his creative approach to Turkish foreign policy, which was a clear departure from what Washington was used to. In addition, given his own supreme confidence in his and Turkey’s unique place in the world along with the highly centralized patronage of his “new Turkey,” he had a hard time understanding a global superpower’s president that was constrained by domestic politics or public opinion, especially in the case of the Syrian civil war. Therefore while we may disagree about what more Turkey could be doing to stop the “Islamic State,” including dealing with Turkish citizens that are supporters of the group, I never doubt his sincere desire to make his country a source of global envy and inspiration as a major regional power and exemplary Muslim-democracy.

Davutoğlu’s tenure as Foreign Minister will ultimately be judged less on his “zero problems with neighbors” policy, which was always aspirational, or his “strategic depth” policy which is still a work in progress, but by the self-confidence he helped inspire for a new generational of globally-minded Turks. Turkey’s diplomatic failings in Syria, Egypt, and Israel, where no Turkish ambassadors currently serve, or in Iraq where Turkish diplomatic personnel are still being held hostage, will occupy Davutoğlu’s major tasks as Prime Minister. The time for course correction is now as the entire world is focused on Turkey’s neighborhood due to the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. But only time will tell if he can “reset” Turkish foreign policy and set the ship back on course. In international affairs, Erdoğan has always instinctively trusted Davutoğlu both because of his insights and, equally, his loyalty. This trust will prove an asset for Prime Minister Davutoğlu, rather than a liability or limitation.

Davutoğlu draws his inspiration from the Ottoman era. Indeed, the former empire remains an applicable model for a modern Turkey that never reached its full potential in the twentieth century and just might in the twenty-first. Policies have failed, opportunities have been missed, but no one is a harsher critic than an academic. The Turks are much more self-reflective and self-critical in private than most people in Washington would ever guess. Now, as Turkey looks towards its centennial in 2023, by which time it hopes to be among the top ten economies in the world and a leading global power, Davutoğlu finds himself Prime Minister. As the world prepares to meet in New York for the United Nation’s General Assembly opening next week, everyone is focused on Turkey’s neighborhood in a way reminiscent of 2003, as Washington prepared to send troops into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. How Turkey manages its domestic and regional tensions will ultimately define Davutoğlu’s legacy. While many have already written him off as an Islamist much like they have throughout his career, something tells me that Davutoğlu may just surprise us all. At the very least, we owe Ahmet Hocam an ounce of his students’ respect.

 

Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and previously served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State.  He is a contributor to War on the Rocks and the views expressed are his own.

 

Photo credit: Chuck Hagel