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Interview by H.E. Ahmet Davutoğlu published in The Australian Newspaper (Australia) on 21 January 2012


                                    World's a stage for Turkey

• From:The Australian
• January 21, 2012 12:00AM

AHMET Davutoglu - slim, dapper, courtly - is the architect of what some describe, and it's an overblown description, as Turkey's neo-Ottoman foreign policy. Davutoglu, a former academic and author of a stupendously long and influential tome on Turkey's strategic outlook, is now his country's Foreign Minister.

He greets me, not long before midnight, in the library of his residence in Ankara. Our interview has been postponed through the day, put back in the morning because the Speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, is in town and Davutoglu decided to spend time showing him the city. Then it was 8pm, then 10pm. Davutoglu is in demand. I am summoned to his house about 10.30pm to find him in an interview with Lebanese television. Most politicians would cancel an interview in such circumstances.

But Davutoglu resembles his friend Kevin Rudd in his voracious work habits and appetite for foreign policy dialogue. And he knows I've come to Ankara for the interview. There is a courtesy that leads him to honour the arrangement. So finally we convene over pomegranate juice in a library that features volumes by John Henry Newman and Lee Kuan Yew.

Davutoglu is a formidable figure on the world stage. Turkey's economy has been booming for a decade. Davutoglu has transformed that extra economic grunt into foreign policy influence, though the process is not without its critics and its problems.

But Turkey, liberated from Cold War constraints, is for the first time taking advantage of its strategic location, with land or sea borders with a dozen countries that draw it intimately into Europe, the Balkans and, of course, the Middle East. Most importantly, Ankara is seeking to project international leadership, especially as it attempts to influence the outcome of the Arab Spring.

This has led Ankara into fierce arguments with old friends such as the US and Israel, though it has kept relations with Washington fairly close. There is a case against Turkey in these disputes, but it is difficult not to see it as a beneficial influence on the Arab spring.

Davutoglu says the Turkish mindset has been transformed in the past decade, and the key to this is self-confidence: "In 2001 I said Turkey looks like a human being with strong muscles, an empty stomach, a feeble brain and an unhealthy heart. Strong muscles meant a strong army, an empty stomach meant a weak economy, a feeble brain was a lack of strategic vision and a weak heart was a complete absence of self-confidence."

Now, he says, on three of those four measures Turkey is transformed: "A strong army, yes, in our region that's very clear. And the empty stomach - we now have a strong economy and to have a strong economy you need a strategic vision (good brain)."

That relies in large part on self-confidence: "You don't see risks and threats everywhere. You see potentials and advantages. If you came to Turkey in the 1990s and asked about Russians, everyone would say they're our enemies because of communism." The same was true, for different reasons, of the Turkish view of Arabs, Greeks, Iranians: "Everywhere we saw threats around us."

Now, Davutoglu says, Turkey sees opportunity everywhere. One Turkish academic in Istanbul describes this to me as a paradigm change "from maximising security to maximising prosperity".

Davutoglu says this is also all dependent on Turkey's democratic credentials, which give it the confidence to project its values internationally. Critics, internal and external, and among them many overall supporters of the government, believe some of the gloss has come off the democratic polish with recent jailings of journalists and a question of procedure in the jailing of some military figures. The government maintains these prosecutions have been disinterested judicial processes.

Certainly Turkey, and particularly Davutoglu, are promoting democracy to the Arab world. Though Turks are not Arabs, Turkey is the nearest Muslim society to the Middle East that combines democracy and a robust economy.

"We can be more self-confident in our foreign policy because of our democracy," Davutoglu says. "We can tell to the Syrians, be democratic. A Tunisian minister was here asking our help in good governance. If our foreign policy were not so active people in the region would not see us as a model."

In contrast to most Western assessments, Davutoglu remains optimistic about the outcome of the Arab Spring, though he is not unrealistic about the distance Arab societies need to travel to reach real democracy: "One visible principle of democracy is that if a former president lives peacefully in his country after he loses office, then that country is a democracy. In the Arab world all the former presidents are either in exile or in prison, like Mubarak in Egypt, or in their graves like Gaddafi."

In the 90s, Davutoglu argues, the Arab world and the West made a mistake in choosing for the Middle East stability over democracy. Now there is a great chance to choose democracy, and if the voters get their first choice a little wrong then they can correct it in subsequent elections.

In any event he doesn't find the trend of voting altogether distressing: "Tunisia is a good example. A pro-Islamic party has a strong majority, but they shared the power. The president is from another party, a leftist party. The Speaker of the parliament is a social democrat. In Morocco it's the same. There is a coalition government. Coalition governments are good for creating a culture of negotiation and compromise."

Even in Egypt, Davutoglu points out, the Muslim Brotherhood, having suffered repression for a long time at the hands of Mubarak, did not use violence against him. Davutoglu's judgments may turn out to be overly optimistic, but there can be little doubt Turkey's influence on Arab societies is benevolent.

Washington tends to see it that way, despite the truly bizarre comment from Texas Governor and Republican presidential nominee Rick Perry that Turkey was governed by Islamic terrorists.

Davutoglu, like the US, has been urging Syria's Bashar al-Assad to vacate office in the interests of his people. But there are issues where Ankara and Washington disagree. One is Iran. Turkey brokered an agreement with Iran to have some of its uranium enriched in Turkey and returned to it for use as fuel. Ankara feels it was encouraged to pursue this deal by the Obama administration, which then refused to take it seriously.

Davutoglu tells me Turkey will enforce UN Security Council-mandated sanctions against Iran, but will not join any unilateral sanctions, whether led by the US or the EU, outside of the Security Council. "We believe the only way to resolve this issue is through negotiations. Last month I spoke with (EU foreign policy chief Catherine) Ashton, and last week I was in Tehran. Both sides agreed to meet. We hope soon they can meet."

I ask Davutoglu whether he believes the Iranians are pursuing nuclear weapons. His answer is a equivocal: "It is not for us to judge. The objective assessment is important. Of course Iran claims they don't have such a program. There should be a proper mechanism established between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran. That is the only way."

I point out the last IAEA report indicated Iran was heading in the direction of nuclear weapons. Davutoglu replies: "IAEA reports are always a case of glass half empty, glass half full. We saw how the misreading of IAEA reports led to the Iraq war."

I persist in this line and he declares: "I am not here to defend Iran, to say that it does not have this capacity or is not heading in this direction, but there should be an objective mechanism."

Turkey's biggest falling out with Israel came after nine people were killed in the Mavi Marmara incident, when a flotilla of activist boats attempted to sail to the Gaza Strip to breach an Israeli naval blockade. A UN report found Israel's blockade was lawful, but that it used excessive force in repelling the boats. It criticised those on the flotilla for recklessness.

Davutoglu says Israel killed Turkish citizens in international waters and to accept that would mean Turkey accepting that Israel is above the law. He says good relations between Turkey and Israel could resume if Israel met Turkey's conditions, apologised for the killings, paid compensation to the families and ended the siege on Gaza. Israel says it has expressed regret for the loss of life, but there will be no apology beyond this.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told me a week and a half ago Israel regretted the deterioration of its relationship with Turkey, but that this had been a matter of Turkey's choosing.

Several times in our conversation Davutoglu expresses admiration for Rudd. Turkey and Australia are members of the G20, and although the two-way trade is not huge they are destined to mix a good deal more.

Davutoglu says: "Last year when my dear friend Kevin Rudd visited Turkey we defined a strategic partnership of middle powers. Although we have different geographical contexts, historically we are two nations that created a deep friendship out of war. These historical bonds provide a good bond between us. Our economies are of similar size, we are both members of the G20, we formed a like-minded group on nuclear disarmament."

Davutoglu treasures memories of a holiday in Australia. He is planning to visit again, in the first half of this year, this time officially. He has a lot to say to Australia.