Obama’s embrace of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan threatens both Israel and the Palestinian Authority
Mickey Mouse must have felt a bit like this, midway through the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode of Fantasia. In the remake, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan plays the role of the runaway broom conjured up by President Barack Obama, who wanted a fresh set of allies to advance a 21st-century foreign policy that rejected U.S. hegemony. Now his inventions have taken on a life of their own, and the White House is awash in a flood of trouble.
The volatile Turkish leader was supposed to have been a key U.S. partner in a new world order founded on diplomacy rather than force. Obama reached out to him repeatedly, first in a high-profile pilgrimage just after taking office and most recently to mediate a secret nuclear fuel deal with Iran. But Erdogan has a different agenda, which a group of Turkish diplomats recently characterized as “neo-Ottoman.” He sees an opportunity to become the Mideast’s regional hegemon, as well as Russia’s strategic partner in oil and gas transmission. And to succeed he wants to rally the region’s extremists to his neo-Ottoman cause.
“Even despots, gangsters and pirates have specific sensitiveness, [and] follow some specific morals,” Erdogan said of Turkey’s erstwhile ally Israel, accusing the Jewish state of “piracy” and “war crimes.” He also vowed that Kurdish rebels who seek autonomy from Turkey will “drown in their own blood.” Evidently, Erdogan interpreted U.S. expressions of dependence on Turkish good will as an invitation to say and do whatever he wants.
Turkey’s public embrace of Hamas—which the European Union and the United States consider a terrorist organization—has undercut traditional U.S. allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The biggest loser might be the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. After a year of riding point for the Obama Administration’s Mideast policy, and after five years spent nursing George W. Bush’s promise of U.S. support for a Palestinian state, Abbas was cut off at the knees when Obama buckled to Turkish demands over Gaza. The White House declared after the flotilla debacle that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was “unsustainable” and “must be changed” and announced a new $400 million Gaza aid package that will help resuscitate Hamas. Visiting the White House days later, Abbas reportedly begged Obama not to lift the Gaza blockade, which was sponsored by the Bush Administration after Hamas gunmen slaughtered Abbas’ security people during the June 2007 Gaza coup in order to squeeze Hamas into “reconciliation” with the Palestinian Authority.
The Obama blend of self-abnegation and chaos persuades U.S. allies around the world that they are on their own and U.S. enemies that they can get away with a great deal more than they dreamed only a year ago. When Obama proclaimed to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2009 that “no one nation can or should try to dominate another nation,” the message to world leaders in the audience recalls Robin Williams’s 1970s nightclub impression of Jimmy Carter addressing the world on the eve of World War III: “That’s all, good night, you’re on your own.”
With the United States seemingly committed to a general strategic withdrawal, the rest of the world has begun a wild scramble for position in a post-U.S.-dominated world. Every wannabe and used-to-be power from Pyongyang to Ankara has seen the opportunity to realize long-simmering ambitions that had been frustrated by decades of Cold War and another two decades of U.S. hegemony. As a matter of self-preservation, their neighbors have had no choice but to join the fray.
Iran hopes to command a “Shi’ite crescent” embracing disaffected Muslims from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Hazara in Afghanistan. Turkey wants to assert its old overlordship over the region, while the starry-eyed Islamists of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, dream of a new caliphate. Russia wants to weaken the United States.
“America has no influence now, because it’s not doing anything,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Italian daily La Repubblica last month. The United States is not to be engaged, but simply replaced, the Syrian leader said. “It is merely a matter of becoming aware of a fact: that America and Europe have failed to solve the problems of the world,” he said. “This failure leads necessarily to other alternatives: a geo-strategic map that aligns Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Russia, in a community of politics, interests and infrastructure. It takes the form of a single space that unites five seas: the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea.”
Assad’s account isn’t quite accurate: Turkey, Iran, and Russia only agree about the United States. They compete with each other in the Hobbesian post-United States war of each against all. Turkey’s Erdogan sponsored the Gaza blockade-runners in order to make Hamas into a Turkish rather than an Iranian attack dog. Turkey has aligned with Iran, in open defiance of Washington’s desultory efforts to “isolate” the Tehran regime but with a view toward contending with Iran for leadership of the Muslim world.
But Assad is entirely right to sneer at the confusion and weakness at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. As presidential candidate, Obama employed his ample talent for persuasion to convince prospective supporters with incompatible views that he was on their side. Despite extensive reporting of anti-Israel sentiment among his friends and political entourage during the summer of 2008, Obama managed to win the endorsement of the New Republic’s Martin Peretz, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, Elie Weisel, and other American Jewish celebrities who like to advertize their commitment to Israel’s security.
But the methods that served Obama so well as candidate have turned into a cascading series of catastrophes that has left the United States at a diplomatic low point not seen since the Carter Administration. Whatever the failings of the Bush Administration—and there were many—the world accorded U.S. priorities a grudging respect born of fear. In just two years Obama has become a figure of astonishment and contempt. In every field of foreign policy—Middle East peace, nuclear proliferation, dealings with the Russians, the Korean peninsula, relations with Japan, management of Latin America— the once-stable pillars of U.S. foreign policy are melting down.
Obama’s image, meanwhile, has tarnished rapidly overseas. His administration’s popularity among Arabs plunged during the past year. The British and continental media portray him as a bumbler; Der Spiegel, Germany’s arbiter of liberal opinion, dismisses Obama as the “Jimmy Carter of the 21st century.”
One problem is that the White House works like a campaign headquarters rather than a presidency. Everything is about spin, and all lines of communication go straight up to the persuader-in-chief. Overlapping and conflicting responsibilities abound. Whether Middle East policy emanates from Dennis Ross or George Mitchell or Hillary Clinton or Rahm Emanuel on a given day depends on press leaks and presidential whim. And above the chaos there is Obama’s preternatural confidence that he can persuade almost anyone to do almost anything.
Israel, which wants to remain a loyal U.S. ally, is in a particularly tough position. Despite his misgivings, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed on to the two basic requirements of the new U.S. paradigm for the Middle East: acceptance of a two-state solution and a settlement freeze. The Obama Administration repaid Netanyahu’s loyalty in March by staging a diplomatic crisis over a minor zoning decision in an East Jerusalem neighborhood where no Arab ever had lived and that every draft peace agreement assigns to Israel. The White House in effect demanded that Israel concede in advance key matters subject to negotiations. Most alarming to Israel, it repudiated the 2004 agreement that President George W. Bush had struck with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in which Israel unilaterally evacuated Gaza in return for American flexibility on West Bank settlement growth. Sharon’s chief of staff Dov Weisglass put this agreement in writing in letters that have since been made public.
To add insult to injury, in March the White House sent Gen. David Petraeus to tell the Senate that Israel’s failure to make peace with the Palestinians compromised the United States’ position throughout the Middle East. And when Netanyahu came to Washington to meet Obama later that month, he was given the back-door treatment usually accorded disreputable dictators from banana republics, without a final statement or a photo opportunity.
The Obama Administration rewarded its most loyal and cooperative ally by sabotaging Israel’s negotiating position, blaming Israel for U.S. policy failures in the Middle East, and humiliating its leader. Any of these actions would have been sufficient to put Israel in diplomatic isolation; the combination of them has left Israel in the weakest international position in decades. Israel has become a passive observer in the demolition of its international standing, hoping that the remonstrations of its friends in the United States would reverse the administration’s public hostility.
Damaging as the diplomatic crisis was to Israel’s position, the most devastating blow to Israel’s standing came on May 28—the weekend prior to the Mavi Marmara incident—when the United States cast its vote against Israel at the May 28 U.N. review conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Breaking decades of precedent, the United States voted for a statement demanding that Israel join the NPT, which would mean handing over its nuclear arsenal.
This action—taken over Netanyahu’s urgent protests—marked the first explicit repudiation of Israel’s right to defend itself by any U.S. government. Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity”—neither confirming nor denying the possession of nuclear weapons—was an American idea, not an Israeli idea, to begin with. Then-Prime Minister Golda Meir adopted “nuclear ambiguity” in 1969 at the behest of President Richard Nixon, who did not want Israel to make a public demonstration of its recently acquired weapons. Every U.S. administration since Nixon’s has supported “nuclear ambiguity,” and Israel has cooperated. With no prior announcement, and no consultation, the Obama Administration overthrew a fundamental tenet of U.S.-Israeli relations in order to please Arab governments at the United Nations.
Netanyahu’s office called the NPT document “deeply flawed and hypocritical.” He added: “It singles out Israel, the Middle East’s only true democracy and the only country threatened with annihilation. Yet the terrorist regime in Iran, which is racing to develop nuclear weapons and which openly threatens to wipe Israel off the map, is not even mentioned in the resolution.”
Perhaps the most astonishing feature of the affair is that the administration not only voted against Israel on an existential issue but then publicly repudiated its own stance on the same day. Late on May 28, Obama and National Security Advisor James L. Jones released separate statements that “deplored” the U.N. resolution that it had endorsed that same morning. Jones said: “The United States will not permit a conference or actions that could jeopardize Israel’s national security. We will not accept any approach that singles out Israel or sets unrealistic expectations. The United States’ long-standing position on Middle East peace and security remains unchanged, including its unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.”
He continued: “In this respect, the United States deplores the decision to single out Israel in the Middle East section of the NPT document.” But if the White House deplored the resolution, why vote for it? The State Department attempted to explain, compounding the confusion. The Washington Times quoted a “senior State Department official” saying, “We did fight hard to get that language out of the final document.” But the State Department only need have voted “no.” To announce that the United States had fought and lost over anti-Israel language is a declaration that the United States will subject its alliance with Israel to a majority vote at the United Nations.
At the same time, the State Department told the Washington Times, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received unequivocal guarantees from Obama for the State of Israel’s preservation of strategic and deterring abilities. These assurances include a significant upgrade in the history of United States-Israel relations in the line of strategic understandings.” No subsequent mention has been made of these “historic assurances,” which presumably reside in the same wastebasket as the Weisglass letters and the “nuclear ambiguity” posture.
Obama seems to believe that he can build support in the Muslim world by voting for anti-Israel U.N. resolutions while at the same time reassuring American Jews that he really is on Israel’s side. Rahm Emanuel was wheeled out twice in May, along with Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, to shmooze a group of rabbis assembled for this purpose. Privately, though, Emanuel has been distancing himself from his boss. A recently reported rumor, which the White House denied, has him quitting after the midterm elections.
Just as bewildering are Obama’s efforts to placate hostile parties in the Muslim world. In order to bolster Mahmoud Abbas, Obama provoked a storm of protest by liberal Jewish supporters. At the peak of his problems with the American Jewish community, Obama then threw Abbas under the bus in order to placate Turkish leader Erdogan, who embraced Hamas in order to energize his Islamist political base which has been nurtured for years on nutty anti-U.S. propaganda. Wall Street Journal editor Robert L. Pollock recently recounted a 2006 conversation with the Turkish leader, in which he asked Erdogan to refute rumors that U.S. soldiers were harvesting organs from Iraqi prisoners—and Erdogan refused. “These kind of things happen in the world. If it’s not happening in Iraq, then it’s happening in other countries,” Erdogan replied.
Erdogan is an unusual sort of poster-boy for human rights advocacy. During the past two decades Turkish security forces have killed an estimated 40,000 members of the country’s Kurdish minority. After Kurdish militants killed several Turkish soldiers last week, Erdogan vowed that the Kurdish resistance fighters would “drown in their own blood.” Some 1,500 Kurdish leaders, including the mayors of several hundred Kurdish-majority towns, presently are under detention.
At home, Erdogan wields power in a monster-ridden world of paranoid politics. Erdogan’s Islamist AKP has accused the secular establishment of hatching a vast conspiracy called “Ergenekon” aimed at imposing military rule. More than 4,300 military officers, journalists, public officials, and other pillars of Turkish civil society have been charged with lurid and often incredible crimes. Secular Turks allege that the mass arrests are designed to transform Turkey into an Islamic state. The United States has kept mum about the internal policies of its Islamist friends in Ankara.
Erdogan’s belief that he had a free pass from Obama is clearly not just a fantasy of the Turkish leader’s imagination but the product of a deepening relationship between the two men. Obama’s high-profile outreach to the Muslim world began in April 2009 with a town-hall meeting in Turkey, when the U.S. foreign-policy establishment argued that Erdogan’s “moderate” version of political Islam would provide a bridge between the United States and Muslims around the world. Obama’s dependence on the Turkish leader grew over the next year the U.S. president found himself entangled with Erdogan and Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a scheme to control Iran’s enriched uranium. So fixated was Obama on “engagement” with Iran and Syria that Turkey’s alliance with hostile regimes in Tehran and Damascus seemed like a golden opportunity. In fact, it should have been a red flag about the extremist character of the Erdogan government.
When Iran in May agreed to a Brazilian-Turkish plan to hand over 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, the United States rejected the plan as inadequate. Miffed, the Brazilian foreign ministry posted on its website a facsimile of an April 20 letter from Obama to Brazil’s President Lula da Silva, in which Obama makes clear that the 1,200-kilogram exchange was his idea in the first place.
In the April 20 letter, Obama thanks his Brazilian counterpart for meeting privately with himself and Erdogan at the Washington Nuclear Security Summit earlier that month. “There is a potentially important compromise that has already been offered,” Obama wrote. “In November, the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] conveyed to Iran our offer to allow Iran to ship its 1,200 kg of LEU [low enriched uranium] to a third country—specifically Turkey—at the outset of the process to be held ‘in escrow’ as a guarantee during the fuel production process that Iran would get back its uranium if we failed to deliver the fuel” that the United States promised to provide if Iran gave up its own enrichment program—which is exactly what Iran, Brazil and Turkey jointly proposed just a month later, and the White House then denounced.
Enmeshed in diplomatic shenanigans designed to woo U.S. enemies, it is clear that Obama regards the U.S. alliance with Israel as an annoyance. But Russia understands Israel’s strategic value to the United States quite well. While Russia has joined the diplomatic pile-up against Israel, it also is courting Israel as an arms customer as well as an arms supplier. Russian sources claim that Israel has already ordered several Su-32 “fullback” long range fighter-bombers, the top-of-the-line warplane that has just become available to Russia’s own air force. Sources say that Russia also has offered Israel the newest version of its surface-to-air missile system, which outperforms the Patriot air-defense system supplied by the United States. And Russia wants the full package of military avionics from Israel.
Israel has said nothing about rumored arms purchases from Russia, but it has good reason to diversify its sources of arms. The Obama Administration reportedly has privately threatened that it will cut off delivery of F-16 spare parts if Israrel launches a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. It is doubtful that Russia cares one way or the other whether Israel survives. Moscow’s objective is to weaken the United States. It could not have imagined that the president of the United States would be such a help in this project.
After throwing Israel under the bus in order to bolster the Palestinian Authority, Obama has thrown the Palestinian Authority under the bus in order to placate Erdogan, who is riding a tide of popularity in the Muslim world thanks to his sponsorship of Hamas and its jihadist allies and has threatened to use the Turkish military to force the Israeli blockade. No part of mainstream American opinion can support this kind of open embrace of extremists; even the most fervent advocates of dialogue with Hamas cannot defend turning Gaza into an Iranian port. The president has outraged Jewish voters and has nothing to show for it. Erdogan is the runaway broom of the sorcerer’s apprentice. He cannot be appeased, for he has staked his political future as well as his country’s position in the world on the extremist card. Obama now searches in vain for the magic formula that will put the Turkish broom back in the closet. And the water keeps rising.
David P. Goldman is a senior editor at First Things magazine and the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online.
A Lebanon-Israel conflict is a matter of when, not if, and the United States has an interest in the outcome