Ambivalence About Davutoğlu

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s new Prime Minister, is a familiar name in Western capitals. It is also a name that generates mixed feelings among his peers.

What most agree is that he is was an incredibly ambitious and hardworking foreign minister, always willing to travel wherever necessary, even when the outcome of such visits generated little concrete results. There is also consensus about his willingness to lecture his counterparts. He probably believed that his academic background and the relative ignorance of his counterparts entitled him to do so. But in most cases he had a tendency to forget that he was dealing with fellow foreign ministers and not students of history. This tendency generated only a begrudging sense of respect, even among his most graceful and objective peers.

It is also clear for people who knew him when he was an academic that politics has changed him. In the eyes of most his students, he was a reluctant policymaker when he began his political life. He often mentioned that his real goal was to go back to academia, where he could once again enjoy the intellectual life of an analytical thinker who can keep a healthy distance from events. Yet, in a matter of few years he discovered the irresistible pull of power. It was maybe “Kissinger syndrome” — realizing that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Perhaps most important is the question of Davutoğlu’s ideology. There are numerous articles written about this question, and the emerging consensus is that he is an incurable idealist. It may be reductionist to argue that he is an Islamist, but it is undeniably true that he has focused on parts of the world where Muslims are facing injustice with much enthusiasm. Although he rejects being labeled neo-Ottoman, it is also undeniably true that he speaks of Ottoman tradition, tolerance and governance with great nostalgia. As most of his students, he is very critical of the West and its Orientalism. His years in Malaysia as a professor bring a colorful interpretation to his critic of colonialism and imperialism. Yet, what he often fails to realize is that in his criticisms of the West, he often repeats the methodological fallacy of Orientalism. The result is what can be best labeled “Occidentalism” — a tendency to generalize and construct a Western civilization with a prejudice similar to the one displayed by Orientalists.

Finally, there is the issue of missing modesty. Although Davutoğlu appears to be very modest and unpretentious, he often displays a stubborn resistance in admitting mistakes. This is perhaps a defense mechanism in dealing with the press. But combined with his unabashed sense of idealism, his reluctance to recognize failure and to see the world as it is rather than how it should be is very troubling for a policymaker. The reluctance to admit policy failures creates two major problems: a disconnect from reality and an inability for course-correction.

In short, there is a lot of ambivalence towards Davutoğlu in the West. He is coming to his new position with a lot of baggage and the looming shadow of a powerful president. Newly elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wanted someone who would follow his lead without hesitation. His choice speaks volumes about Davutoğlu’s new persona and about how much he has changed since the early days of his political career.

This article was originally published in Today’s Zaman.