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With militant rhetoric, Turkey spoils its reputation

Starting from Iran's nuclear standoff, the Erdoğan government's publicly anti-Western rhetoric indulged many across the Islamic world

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

No matter how beautiful it seems from afar, a light bulb becomes irritating when its glaring shine is brought closer to eyes. The yellow light bulb, 14-year-old symbol of Turkey's ruling AKP, is now disturbing many formerly supportive Turks as well as Middle Eastern public as it is no more a pretty shining star but blinding glare. Turkey's massive soft power has rapidly evaporated as Ankara attempted to impose its values on others.

AKP and Erdoğan's advent to power in early 2000s has been a glimmer of hope for many oppressed people around the Middle East although the government had been battling a ruthless media, hostile military, anti-democratic judiciary and a prevailing perception among secular opposition that it has an hidden Islamist agenda. Erdoğan's government represented a conservative political force that seized power peacefully, built amicable relations with the West, faced its dark past and made sweeping reforms to democratize its staunchly secular but deeply anti-democratic political system. Challenged by an array of adversaries who restricted the power discretion of the ruling party, including confrontational secular president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Erdoğan was smart enough to play nice and cleanse the country from relics of what was popularly known as "deep state" in slow motion. He even had to call early elections -- a move he prevented ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi from doing so as to unleashing a devastating political chaos afterwards -- after the Constitutional Court, buoyed by a memorandum from the military, effectively blocked the election of Abdullah Gül to the presidential post.

Wasting credibility

Erdoğan's government, a democratic conservative administration that raised the profile of this glorious nation, was too popular across the Middle East. Masses were eager to emulate the way he ruled and transformed Turkey. Under his aegis, the country's economy was catapulted thanks to massive privatization programs that were translated into widespread investment across the country. Unlike previous leaders, he embraced minorities to the point that didn't provoke nationalists and helped break so many taboos that were unthinkable only few years ago. This modern nation with democratic and yet conservative leaders deserved to be touted as a model country for other people clamoring for change in the region. The prime minister's popularity skyrocketed after he publicly confronted Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos in 2009 and helped organize an aid convoy aimed at breaching the Gaza embargo -- apparently an Iran-sponsored plot to cut Ankara's ties with the West and counter Israel with Turkey.

Starting from Iran's nuclear standoff, the Erdoğan government's publicly anti-Western rhetoric indulged many across the Islamic world

Mahir Zeynalov

Starting from Iran's nuclear standoff, the Erdoğan government's publicly anti-Western rhetoric indulged many across the Islamic world, who naively believed that the country has the necessary capability to walk its talk. Up until 2012, Erdoğan and his arrogant foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, kept talking and talking until no one paid attention. With too much literature and no action, these two men basically consumed Turkey's entire credibility. Seriously, why would you rely on a state that has no gut to respond when its citizens are shelled, cities bombed and jets are downed?

Turkey's rapid re-emergence in the Middle East, first time since the chaotic demise of the Ottoman Empire, was premature. Erdoğan, Davutoğlu and its infamous intelligence totally misread the situation in the Middle East, made wrong calls every single time and created many more enemies than reaching solutions to deepening problems. Due to its soft power, every actor in the Middle East -- Sunnis and Shiites, autocratic regimes and pro-reform critics, Israel and Palestinians -- trusted Ankara's integrity.

Then the unnecessary arrogance blew in like a deadly wind.

Imposing soft power on others

The saga has first started in mid-August, 2011, when Erdoğan was personally insulted after Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad didn't comply with the terms agreed with Ankara regarding the ceasefire in Homs and Hama. Putting aside the danger of dumping Assad so early, Erdoğan stepped up the rhetoric every week and doled out criticism to every actor in the region that challenged his sanity. The soft power Turkey possessed swiftly evaporated because Ankara ferociously tried to impose it on others.

Unable to convert his words into an effective action, Erdoğan's empty talk that sounded like a broken record disappointed masses seeking help from Turkey while infuriating other leaders battling insurgency and upheavals at home. No one already cared about the Turkish model because it failed to deliver and only produced more enemies.

Negative domestic developments in Turkey also buried Turkish democracy and the rule of law. Increasingly powerful Erdoğan at home also turned into an unaccountable leader. His attempts to silence dissent burst into open as millions flocked into streets last summer to demand his resignation, the biggest challenge in his 12-year tenure. While nearly a hundred of his citizens have been held captive in Iraq for nearly two weeks, Erdoğan was busy traveling across Europe to promote his presidential campaign. Two days after he asked the media not to write about the hostage crisis, a court banned coverage of it. A state that was once regarded as a potential regional leader with capable military and democratic leaders is now unable to rescue its own diplomats and citizens. The tragedy is, they're not even trying to do so.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.