The Region: Bright future ahead for Erdogan

Turkey’s prime minister has moved against American interests in many ways. So why does President Obama continue to support him?

By BARRY RUBIN
January 9, 2012 05:40
PRIME MINISTER Erdogan and Hamas leader Haniyeh

PRIME MINISTER Erdogan and Hamas leader Haniyeh 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

For the first time in 40 years, Israel is not the American president’s favorite Middle Eastern ally. Instead, that role is played by Turkey’s government.

This would not be such a bad thing if we were talking about the “old” Turkey, the secular republic. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama’s favorite adviser among the regional leaders is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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Pretend all you want, but Obama really dislikes – hates? – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and truth be told Netanyahu has done nothing to deserve that.

The fundamental problem with Erdogan is despite being embraced by the United States, he is an enemy of the United States, the West more generally, and of Israel. He is on the side of radical, anti-American Islamists who want to wipe Israel off the map. So angry and passionate is Erdogan’s loathing of Israel that the leader of the opposition mockingly but pointedly asked if the prime minister wanted to go to war with the Jewish state.

In contrast, the list of Erdogan’s nearest and dearest friends includes Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, the repressive Sudanese dictatorship and Syria (formerly the regime there; now the Islamist portions of the opposition). Erdogan would also like to be good buddies with the Muslim Brotherhood forces in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, though they are suspicious of him.

TO LOOK at Erdogan’s record at home and abroad would be to understand what he and his regime are all about.

Indeed, the truly bizarre thing about Obama’s judgment is that Erdogan has done nothing beneficial to the US and several detrimental things to it. These include:

• Iraq war: Whatever you think of the Iraq war, Turkey’s refusal to allow US troops cross into northern Iraq in 2003 (despite a promise to do so) was an unfriendly act. Many American officials and members of Congress were outraged at the time.

• Israel policy: Erdogan has gone to an extreme in attacking Israel and sabotaging any possibility of conciliation. His government sponsored the Gaza flotilla knowing that many of the Turkish participants were violent Islamists who wanted to stage a confrontation.

• Iran: Erdogan’s regime tried to sabotage sanctions against Iran in 2010. He has repeatedly defended Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and denied that Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons. While there have been some bilateral disagreements – the Turkish decision to allow in NATO installations to watch Iran and backing different sides in Syria, the two countries remain close and Erdogan is currently visiting Iran.

• Lebanon and Palestinians: In opposition to US policy, Erdogan backs radical, anti-Semitic Islamist terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya was just received as a hero by Erdogan.

• Syria: While Turkey now opposes the Assad regime in Syria, this is not out of a love of democracy but rather due to Ankara’s support for a Sunni Islamist takeover there. When Obama gave Erdogan the task of organizing a Syrian opposition leadership, the Turkish regime packed the group with Islamists.

• Worldview: Erdogan’s foreign minister wrote a book explaining the regime’s strategy of aligning with the Islamic world against the West. This is clearly what Erdogan has been doing. The bonus, however, is that the book is in Turkish so he has been able to pretend otherwise and thus act without any real cost or pressure from the West. On the contrary, he can tell Turkish voters that Obama loves him.

• Erdogan’s domestic policy: growing repression; arrests without trial; trumped-up charges of terrorism and treason; intimidation of the media; constitutional changes that give him control over all state institutions including the courts.

The very real fear and despair within Turkey is generally not reported in the West, but it is there. Talk to almost any Turk, at least to those who don’t support the regime, and they’ll tell you that the only explanation they can fathom for US policy is that the US wants an Islamist regime in Turkey to prove its sympathy for Islam and possibly affect such groups elsewhere.

One area in which the regime has done very well – or at least benefitted from – is the economy. Despite recent claims that Turkey’s economy is in trouble, the country seems to be flourishing.

Soner Cagaptay, a frequent critic of the regime, describes Turkey as having an unprecedented “sense of global confidence” not seen for centuries; a “Eurasian China;” a country whose economy grew a record 8.2 percent in the third quarter of 2011. Since 2002, he continues, the economy has nearly tripled in size. Its trade is shifting from Europe to Islamic countries.

As one journalist put it: “After suffering through eight coalition governments and four economic crises, the Turkish people have welcomed 10 years of a stable... government even if it has meant entrenched single-party rule.”

Cagaptay argues that to continue this economic success the Turkish government must avoid “a belligerent foreign policy.” But that’s a bit misleading.

Turkey can maintain a radical, pro- Islamist foreign policy that is objectively anti-Western at little cost. It just has to avoid getting involved directly in wars, which it can easily do.

Having broken the Turkish army, Erdogan needs only to consolidate his control of the courts to be able to do whatever he pleases within the country. And with Obama following Erdogan’s advice and trying to help spread the “Turkish model” – electing radical Islamist regimes that will be repressive at home and backing radicals abroad – things look bright indeed for Erdogan.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January.


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