The Reckoning

Part II: Five Countries We Need: Turkey

erdogan in libya

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan waving beside and Libya’s interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil after Qaddafy’s fall last year. From Egypt to Iran, this is the Muslim world’s idea of a leader - an idea the US should starting getting used to.

Photograph by Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images

With Egypt decoupling from the long alliance with the United States and Israel more isolated than ever, does anyone believe that the United States is well positioned to set agendas of any kind in the Middle East?

With the exception of our military dominance – and, granted, that is a significant exception – the ability of American diplomacy to line up support for any initiative that would actually break one of the region’s major deadlocks is at an all time low. We’re spent as a regional force, unless we launch missiles, carrier strike packages or send in The Marines.

But there is a country – a democratic of the United States – with a dog in every important fight in the world’s most volatile region: Turkey. With the largest standing army in NATO outside the US and a leader in Recep Tayyip Erdogan who far outpolls all others in popularity across the Muslim world, Turkey is what the political risk guru Ian Bremmer calls a “pivot state,” one perfectly situated politically, economically and geographically to help encourage the best and prevent the worst in their respective regions.

·         In Syria, it has led efforts to aid anti-regime rebels and borne most of the burdens of the refugee crisis.

·         Until very recently its close ties to Israel stood out as unique in the region – and while Israel stupidly caused a breach in 2010 by attacking a Turkish aid flotilla heading for Gaza – this is a relationship both privately want to repair.

·         In Iraq, it has broken old taboos and reached a practical accommodation with the Kurdistan Regional Government, even as a Kurdish militant group battles its security forces inside Turkey.

·         In the Gulf, Turkish diplomats provide a key channel of communications between the Saudis and their rivals in Iran; Turkey’s rise also represents counterbalance to Iran’s power and the Mullah’s brand of Islam.

·         In Central Asia, too, Turkey stands as a model of good governance, rising prosperity and moderation as these still new nations gyrate between “color revolutions” and old-style, Moscow-puppet strongmen.

·         In Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, moderate Islamists look to Turkey’s example as they remake the societies clawed back from brutal U.S.-backed dictatorships.  

Its economy is booming, too, perhaps even overheating, but that’s not a bad problem to have in today’s world. Meanwhile, its domestic demons slowly exorcising themselves – evidence the jailing last month of army officers convicted of plotting yet another coup in 2003, and successive – if not yet successful – talks with the Kurdish minority. Is everything perfect? Of course not. Erdogan is an egotist and shows a worrying lack of deference for free speech. But Turkey’s media remains feisty, and on balance this is another country of the future – one that can do enormous good in the present, too, if the US would properly engage it.

Turkey is a longstanding US ally, of course: a NATO member, an EU aspirant, and generally a reliable ally (except when we’re about to do something homicidally stupid – like attack Iraq). But Turkey’s word, like that of Indonesia described in yesterday’s post, if often unwelcomed in Washington

And what does Washington base this attitude on today? Look around the tough MENA neighbourhood, and you quickly realize that the US possesses neither the will nor the credibility to play the honest broker/balance of power role it held from 1956 (when the British and French finally lost their mojo after Suez) and 2003 (when we screwed the pooch by launching a murderous invasion of Iraq under false pretences).  

It’s no coincidence that we “led from behind” in Libya last year – where else should we be given our recent track record? Even with the world’s most powerful military force, our name is mud, thanks largely to Iraq and various scandals involving torture. We have no stomach to intervene in Syria, and have fallen back on a policy of hoping for the best as Egypt remakes itself, Iraq struggles to regain its footing, Libya staggers forward and the Palestinians manage to completely miss the Arab Spring, demonstrating once again their unparalleled ability to misread global trends.

In all these vacuums, Turkey is better placed to step in than any other power in the world. And at the end of the day, who’s preferable? Turkey or Iran? Turkey or Russia? Turkey or China?

With US troops out of Iraq and drawing down from Afghanistan, with the murder of diplomats in Libya reminding us (and the US electorate) of the thanklessness of our role in the Mideast, and with “tight oil” and fracked gas displacing more and more of the Gulf’s energy from the US energy mix, Americans understandably would like to lessen their footprint in the Middle East.

This is a great idea in the medium-term. The US currently gets only about 25 percent of its oil from the Gulf, unlike Japan and China, which import 50 percent of their needs from the Gulf. The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) suggests that will reach 70 percent for both around 2020, even as US Gulf dependency diminishes.

Indeed, if it weren’t for the need to provide a ready reserve and deterrent for the defense of Israel, we would be quite justified in demanding that Japan, India and China figure out a way to keep the Strait of Hormuz opened.

Sadly, it’s not that simple. Whatever one thinks of Israel’s reluctance to talk peace, the Iran nuclear weapons program will keep the United States anchored in the Gulf for the foreseeable future. What’s more, oil is a global commodity – it doesn’t matter all that much whether you get most of your supplies from Mexico, Canada and African producers rather than the Gulf; if the Gulf’s flow stops, then supply doesn’t meet global demand and prices go sky high.

So we can’t just cut and run. Politically and morally, we can’t do that to the Israelis, who face genuine peril after all and whose uglier side has been encouraged for decades by the carte blanche treatment accorded them by Washington’s establishment. And we can’t afford to believe GOP fantasists who talk of US oil independence or (only slightly more realistic) “hemispheric independence.” The latter idea has some value in terms of reliable supplies, but not prices.

 What could we do to help Turkey’s cause? Here are a few practical steps:

·         Coordinate with Turkey to recognize a Syrian government in exile, create a NATO peacekeeping force in waiting with a Turkish general in command, and help arm the Syrian opposition against a brutal government that is filling refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon with traumatized people.  

·         Publicly demand that the Israeli government apologize for the deaths caused in the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid. Israel would expect no less, and neither should we.

·         Invite Turkey to lead the next round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, in tandem with the so-called “Contact Group” (US, EU, Russia, UN).

·         Invite Turkey to join to so-called P5+1 group (the five permanent UN Security Council powers plus Germany) handling nuclear talks with Iran. Is it not absurd that Germany and China are sitting at that table but Turkey is not? The Turks are hardly allies of the Iranians – they are Sunnis and have the same fears of a Shia dominated Gulf that many Arabs states have. But Turkey’s moral and diplomatic authority in the region could open new possibilities.

·         Pressure Europe to treat Turkey with respect in EU membership talks. One might wonder why anyone would want to join at this point, and with their ham-handed, vaguely racist handling of Turkey’s bid, the EU has just about convinced the Turks of precisely that. But anchoring Turkey in the West is a long-term strategic interest of both Europe and the EU. Not surprisingly, Europe can’t see the forest for the trees. Washington should help improve their eye site.

·         Back the idea of Turkey as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The body is so profoundly broken that this is basically a freebie. But it’s effect on Turkish prestige and US-Turkish relations would be tremendous (we’ve only ever publicly backed one other bid, India’s).