How Erdogan overplayed his hand

Israel’s mistakes vis-à-vis the flotilla crisis were tactical; Turkey’s were strategic.

June 11, 2010 16:18
MEMORIAL FOR Russo-Turkish war of 1878 in the Bulg

russian turkish war 311. (photo credit: Wikicommons)

So the Mossad, the navy and the government were caught off guard, not to mention Israel’s PR system, such as it is. Yet at the end of the day theirs were tactical failures alongside a sensible strategy, which is to defend the Jews and fight their enemies. In Turkey it has been the other way around, with a tactically impressive foreign policy now proving strategically catastrophic.

For seven years Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fooled everyone about his agenda and character. The more time elapsed, however, the more the makeup wore thin and the masks came off, and now the entire costume party has ended amid much tragedy and farce.

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Erdogan’s quest for “zero problems” with Turkey’s many neighbors struck the international community as the kind of Islam the world so badly craved: pragmatic, tolerant and dialoguing. Turkey’s leaders smooched with their Greek archenemies, celebrated a pact with the Armenians, allowed Kurdish TV broadcasts, accommodated Syria and for the first time in decades visited Iraq.

True, some of these packages proved more poorly sewn than initially claimed. The Armenian deal stalled as it involved no Turkish concession on genocide recognition, and the gestures toward the Kurds left out what matters most – permission to run schools in Kurdish. Still, Turkey lent no reason to suspect its sincerity.

Not anymore. Erdogan has now made his country’s many historic enemies suspect that he is a liar, a wolf in sheep’s clothing who thinks he can fool everyone all the time.

SUSPICIONS THAT Erdogan is a diplomatic swindler arose already two weeks after he entered office in spring ’03, when the Turkish parliament vetoed America’s entry into northern Iraq through Turkey. At the time, few understood this development, which was overcome militarily with an improvised, but well executed, airborne landing.

Politically, it was Erdoganesque cunning at its purest. The American operation he nearly derailed was not the kind for which Turkish governments seek legislative approval. Yet Erdogan manufactured a “prohibition” which allowed him to pretend to be constrained by the very democracy that had made America wage its war in the first place.

Similarly, initial impressions that Erdogan was a moderate Muslim out to uphold Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legacy eventually gave way to a crawling counterrevolution, whereby the secular military, media and judiciary have been gradually strong-armed into submission.

And that, in fact, is the problem with Erdogan’s many half-truths, diversions and downright lies; they can only last so long. Eventually everyone begins to suspect they are being taken for a ride.

To hear Erdogan yelling at us, the Jews, as he did this week “Thou shalt not murder” (“I will now say it in Hebrew!”) is grotesque. This is the man who won’t recognize his country’s mass murder of the Armenians last century, the great lover of humanity whose typically escapist response to the American and Swedish legislatures’ recognition of the Armenian genocide was to furiously recall his ambassadors from Washington and Stockholm.

Turkey’s many historic victims, from Serbia and Bulgaria through Romania and Hungary to Cyprus, Armenia, Kurdistan and the Arabs are now quietly taking stock of the man behind the Flotilla Affair, and they have no choice but to suspect they have business with the kind of Turk they would all rather forget. The man is trouble, an Islamist loose cannon in a world brimming with Islamist fervor, malcontents and agents.

IT IS only a matter of time before the Turkish middle class joins the elite in wondering just how much Erdogan’s adventurism will cost them.

It is bad enough that he embarrasses his people when he says, for instance, that he can’t allow schools to teach in Kurdish because that kind of minority right is not accorded anywhere in the world. Of course it’s allowed, for instance in Israel, where Arab schools teach in Arabic. And it is of course bad enough when Erdogan is so inconsistent as to demand that Germany allow its 0.3 percent Turkish minority the kind of cultural autonomy he won’t allow his own 15% Kurdish minority.

It is also bad for Turkey that its leader is now perceived across the world as a demagogue. Erdogan missed the irony of him, the man who hosted Sudan’s convicted perpetrator of genocide Omar Bashir, publicly hollering at Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres, “You are killing babies in Gaza.” Millions of others, however, did not miss the irony, and they realize they have business with a thug whose definition of morality and immorality is what is good or bad for him, rather than what is good or bad regardless of him.

It is certainly bad for Turkey to be associated with anti-Semitism, a disease with which it was never previously plagued.

Erdogan likes to declare that he loathes anti-Semitism. He visited the chief rabbi of Turkey after a terror attack on a synagogue in Istanbul, and this week he hosted Israeli rabbi Menachem Froman. Alas, such gestures, beside suggesting he distinguishes between the Jews’ right to their faith and their right to their land, become meaningless when he succumbs to the basest anti-Semitic profanity – the blood libel. As long as he is in power, Turkey will be at odds with the entire Jewish people, a proven recipe for the kind of decline that befell Spain after the expulsion and Russia after communism, not to mention Germany after Nazism.

Yet the worst thing for Turkey is to be associated with provocation per se.

Erdogan has convinced his country’s many historic enemies, most of all Russia, that he is a dangerous hothead who must be contained. For Russia, modern Turkey is but a reincarnation of the power with which it had 12-odd wars between 1568 and 1917. For Russia, Ankara’s meddling in superpower politics by intriguing with Iran and Brazil was an alarm bell, the kind Erdogan was originally careful to avoid ringing, until he became overconfident, forgetting that a nuclearized Islamic axis of the sort everyone now suspects he is cultivating is for Vladimir Putin what a Cuban A-bomb was for John F. Kennedy.

All intelligence services suspicious of Turkey – and they add up to at least a dozen – know the truth about the flotilla. They know it was inspired, and very likely masterminded, by Erdogan; that it was a metaphor for his entire foreign policy, a loudly trumpeted, well financed and poorly camouflaged voyage of zealots who elbowed their way into a ship of fools, in order to pick a fight where the world least needed one. Erdogan has now made all suspect Turkey of quietly feeding the very Islamism that is the bane of the entire world. What action all this will produce is a separate question, but the mask has come off, and it’s too late to put it back on.

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