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A Turkey of a Policy

Obama makes the Middle East an even more dangerous place.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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The Gaza flotilla incident is not over. American demands for some “international role” in investigating Israel’s conduct (but not, it seems, Turkey’s) and for a new system of getting humanitarian aid to Gaza will be imposed on Israel one way or another before the episode will be behind us. But however they play out, this incident clarified several major trends in the region—all of which are dangerous for the United States and for our allies in the Middle East.

First, it’s obvious that our formerly reliable NATO ally Turkey has become a staunch supporter of the radical camp. In the flotilla incident, it not only sided with but also sought to strengthen the terrorist group Hamas—a group that is anathema not just to the United States and Israel, but to the governments of Jordan and Egypt. The recent photo of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar Assad in Damascus is an emblem of this change, and Turkey’s work to undermine U.N. sanctions against Iran shows its substance. Turkey’s U.N. Security Council vote against the newest round of sanctions this past week put it in Iran’s camp against Europe, the United States, Russia, and China. That’s quite a realignment for a NATO ally.

Perhaps even worse is Turkey’s push to turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious war. A column in the leading Istanbul newspaper Hurriyet well described the new Turkey: 

As for the images from Turkey that were reflected across the globe following last week’s incident, it was a purely Islamic one, with headscarved and turbaned protestors chanting Islamic slogans under Islamic banners, and invoking the name of Allah for days on end in front of Israeli missions in this country.

Turkey’s solidarity with Hamas is not, of course, based on Arab nationalism, which as a non-Arab nation it does not support. It is instead based on a definition of the Mideast conflict as one between Jews and Muslims, precisely the position of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Needless to say, if the Arab-Israeli conflict is about interstate disputes and the need to resolve the future of the West Bank and Gaza, it can be solved; if it is a religious conflict, nothing but violence is ahead. 

Second, the Arabs are once again becoming objects, not actors, in history. The anchors of the Arab consensus have long been Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and both are now weakened forces in Arab politics and diplomacy. In part this is a story of old age: While for decades Mubarak was the key Arab leader, and the Saudis for 35 years counted on their foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, both men are now in a steady decline. Few observers expect Mubarak to live more than another year or two, and he may not make it to Egypt’s 2011 presidential elections. Saud suffers from Parkinson’s and has repeatedly asked to leave his post. States act in politics through the medium of men: at best, men who have prestige, persuasive powers, and whom it is thought dangerous to cross. Twenty years ago Saud and Mubarak were both such men, but that time is past. Nor can they easily be replaced: Saud has no understudy, unless it is his feckless brother Turki, who failed so badly as ambassador to Washington that he lasted but 17 months here. Whoever replaces Mubarak will spend years solidifying (or perhaps failing to solidify) the regime. 

Looking at the broad sweep of history such personnel matters can be deprecated, but that would be a mistake. Mubarak has been a critical factor at Arab summits for three decades, and American efforts to resist radical moves (by Qaddafi, the Syrians, and of course Saddam Hussein) depended substantially on him and his desire to protect Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Similarly, anyone who has worked with Arab diplomats knows that they almost instinctively ask “Where are the Saudis on this?” and “Where are the Egyptians?” whenever asked to support an American position. But today Qatar, with 225,000 citizens, has at least as much influence in Arab councils as Egypt with 80 million or Saudi Arabia with 30 million, and Qatar’s 51-year-old foreign minister has clout that would simply have been impossible 10 or 20 years ago. Erdogan and the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, further demonstrate how much damage clever, unprincipled, energetic actors can wreak when unopposed by more responsible officials of equal force. 

So the Arab core grows hollow and less and less able to defend its interests against supporters of Islamism. Worse yet for the Arabs, peripheral powers are coming once again to dominate their region: The Turks and Persians are rising forces and, with Israel, are now by far the dominant states in the Middle East. History may someday record that the Arab awakening that began with the Arab revolt of 1916 against the Ottomans ended about a century later with a whimper.

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