Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran, October 27, 2009.(Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestinian national project had been “hijacked,” telling an Egyptian television station that “the decision-making power is not in our hands.” Nor, he said, is the “Palestinian people’s unity.” The instrument of usurpation to which he was referring, however, was not Israel but rather “the Iranians.” While the Obama White House believes that a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians is a prerequisite for preventing Iranian hegemony in the Middle East, Abbas explained that, in fact, the reverse is true. The Palestinian file is in the hands of Tehran; if Washington doesn’t do something about Iran, then the peace process is finished.

Tehran’s rise to regional hegemony is best understood as a function of Washington’s drastically diminished influence in the Middle East. With President Barack Obama’s promised withdrawal from Iraq, re-engagement in a strategically meaningless war in Afghanistan, and acquiescence in Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon, the regional power vacuum has become so large that the Iranians now have fresh competition in the region—Turkey. On Monday morning, when Israeli forces boarded a Turkish boat bound for Gaza, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP government officially threw its hat into the ring to become the standard-bearers of the Islamic resistance.

The Mavi Marmara, owned by the municipality of Istanbul, was part of the 6-boat flotilla sponsored by an Islamist organization affiliated with Erdogan’s party, the AKP, that was ostensibly carrying humanitarian relief to Gaza. When Israeli commandos boarded the boats, the Marmara’s passengers armed themselves with knives and other weapons and attacked the Israeli forces. With nine of the Marmara’s passengers dead and dozens wounded, international condemnation of Israel was swift and comprehensive.

It’s hardly surprising that Washington could muster no more than a statement expressing regret for the loss of life and concern for the wounded activists who attacked the Israeli boarding party. After all, last week the Obama Administration chose to endorse a resolution calling for a 2012 Nuclear Proliferation Treaty conference that would require Israel to disclose and then give up its undeclared nuclear arsenal, even as the document made no mention of Iran’s nascent nuclear weapons program. If the White House is not willing to abide by a secret understanding on Israel’s nuclear program that dates back to 1969, there is no reason to believe it would stand by the Jewish state’s “disproportionate” attack on what has been described as a “freedom flotilla” bearing humanitarian goods to Gaza. And if the United States will not support its ally, no one else will either.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cancellation of his scheduled trip to Washington may well afford both Israeli and American leadership an opportunity for reflection. For Netanyahu, there is the fact that his defense establishment blundered wildly. Where many navies might enforce a maritime blockade by first disabling a ship’s engines, the Israeli military used helicopters at sea to land commandos (perhaps because Defense Minister Ehud Barak is a former commando and is rumored to have demanded commando elements for past Israeli operations). Armed with paintball rifles, the commandos, who were vastly outnumbered, were promptly beaten to a pulp by the “peace activists” on the boat before being forced to use their side-arms. Moreover, there is the fact that the vaunted Israeli intelligence apparatus was evidently unable to discern the intentions of a boat bearing radical Turkish Islamists—and reportedly sponsored by a Turkish non-governmental organization (known because of its initials in Turkish as IHH) belonging to a Saudi umbrella organization that the United States and France, as well as Israel, have accused of financing terror. The fact that AKP parliamentarians scheduled to join the flotilla canceled their berths at the last moment hardly conceals the Erodgan government’s enthusiastic support for the trip organized by the IHH, and thus the Turkish state’s part in what was effectively an act of if not state-sponsored terror then certainly state-encouraged terror—carried out by an Islamist group that, among other things, played a role in the 1999 “millennium plot” to bomb the Los Angeles airport.

The ostensible reason for the flotilla was to provide humanitarian aid to Gazans. But not only do the Israelis themselves send regular shipments of goods into Gaza, they had assured the organizers of the trip that their items would be delivered once they had cleared the regular channels. Hence, there can be no other reason for the flotilla’s determination to reach port except to initiate a violent provocation and to lend prestige to Hamas, the terrorist organization that was elected to rule Gaza.

So as to avoid alienating moderate Muslims, the Obama Administration has removed from its vocabulary words like “Islamist” and “jihad”—a move that only makes sense as part of a strategy to identify extremists in order to sideline them and empower moderates. But Obama has done precisely the opposite. He has sought to engage extremists like Iran and Syria at the expense of moderates and of allies like the president of the Palestinian Authority. Worse yet, from this perspective, is the fact that Turkey has gone from the moderate column into the extremist one.

Ankara’s transformation has been in the making since the election that brought Erdogan and the AKP to power in 2003. There was much hand-wringing during the George W. Bush years about who “lost” Turkey, but the fact is that Erdogan is a wily politician who lacks a majority in Turkey and is always competing for an electoral edge. And no one has ever lost support in the modern Middle East by playing the anti-Israel card. Erdogan’s January 2009 performance at Davos, where he accused Israeli President Shimon Peres of “knowing very well how to kill” in the wake of Israel’s Gaza offensive, won him acclaim throughout the region and helped his party build support among the masses. The Turkish military, a strategic ally of the Jewish state for two decades, canceled military exercises with Israel and drilled instead with Syrian forces. Still, it’s not clear that Erdogan’s partnering with American enemies would have been nearly so audacious had the White House drawn red lines or made clear that Syria and Iran are in fact enemies of the United States. Most famously, Turkey, along with Brazil, bought the Iranians time with a phony enrichment deal that embarrassed the Obama Administration—and then produced a letter from Obama that they claimed had encouraged them to make the deal.

While Ankara and Tehran enjoy joint photo ops, and their approaches to many issues may seem similar, it seems that given the long history of Ottoman and Persian enmity and competition for regional leadership is the more likely eventuality than partnership. As a Sunni state, Turkey has a more natural claim on the sympathies of the regional Sunni majority, even as the Ottomans oppressed the Arabs for hundreds of years. In any event, the race is on for regional hegemony. Both before and after the Marmara Mavi incident, crowds in Istanbul gathered to chant the Islamist slogan referring to the prophet of Islam’s infamous slaughter of a Jewish tribe—“Khaybar, Khaybar, O Jews/ the army of Muhammad will return”—a chant which for all practical purposes is indistinguishable from Iran’s cries of “death to Israel.”

Washington hands who believe in having a moderate Islamic state like Turkey around as a useful example for the rest of the region are fooling themselves that today’s Turkey is still the moderate, secular Kemalist state it seemed to be just 10 years ago. Nonetheless, the blame can’t entirely fall on Erdogan for seizing the chance that Washington has made available by looking the other way when our NATO colleague in Ankara is acting more like an adversary than an ally. The idea that Turkey is a friend is merely one more paradigm that Washington needs to shake to preserve its order in the region. After all, the Obama Administration has few qualms about interfering in the domestic politics of Israel, where the president is desirous of revising the Netanyahu government to his own liking. Why shouldn’t the White House try to tip domestic Turkish politics against an Erdogan government that aligns itself with terror and against its traditional superpower ally in Washington?

U.S. insistence on supporting a Turkish government that has occupied itself lately with slapping us in the face is the symptom not only of strategic incoherence but of a moral failure as well. It is a failure of easy politics when the leader of the free world singles out Israel’s nuclear program and ignores the Islamic Republic of Iran’s race to build a bomb, in order to gain popularity with the “world community” and gloss over the failure of his attempts to engage Tehran. It is the ethos of the snapshot and the sound-bite to make no distinction between a U.S. ally and a Turkish delegation dispatched to lend “humanitarian” aid to terrorists—because the rest of the world condemns Israel. The White House needs to stop seeing the Middle East in terms of Muslims, moderate and extreme, but in terms of allies who identify themselves by whether they align themselves with U.S. strategic interests. It is not grievance, or resistance to U.S. policies that is tipping the regional balance against us—rather, it is our haplessness. We need to return to an old paradigm for understanding the region: Reward our friends, and punish our enemies.