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A Foreign Policy Without Principle or Prudence

2:29 PM, Oct 12, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

After almost a week of exchanging fire with Syrian troops across its southern border, Turkey finds itself embroiled on another, albeit related, international front. Wednesday the Turkish air force scrambled two jets to intercept a Syrian passenger jet flying from Moscow to Damascus. The plane, said Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was carrying “ammunition, and defense equipment," presumably intended for Bashar al-Assad’s troops in their 20-month-long attempt to crush the uprising against the Syrian regime. Turkey’s foreign ministry explained that the pilot had been warned of Turkey’s intention to ground the plane, but he continued on his course, the F-16s forced the plane to land in Ankara, and now both Damascus and Moscow are demanding answers.

The question is, in the parlance of the White House, does Obama have Erdogan’s back? After all, the Turkish premier is said to be one of the international leaders closest to the president. Moreover, the White House once seems to have perceived this NATO ally as a strategic partner, one it has sometimes sided with against Israel, and to whom it subcontracted much of its Arab Spring policy. And yet over the last two years, Turkey has shown that its ability to project power in the Middle East is extremely limited. Nonetheless, the administration’s blandishments and encouragements, and later its reproaches and betrayals, have pushed Turkey out on a ledge, apparently alone. If some are gloating that a boastful Erdogan is finally getting his comeuppance with his troubles on the Syrian border, the fact is that the administration has let an ally, albeit a troublesome one, expose its weaknesses, a posture dangerous both to itself and American interests.

It should hardly come as a surprise that Erdogan’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy has backfired. After all, Turkey’s neighborhood is the Middle East, which means that there are going to be problems everywhere with everyone regardless of your own cheerful disposition. Before Erdogan’s Freedom and Justice party (AKP) came to power in 2003, Turkish governments looked the West, especially toward Europe where they had hoped to win Turkey membership in the European Union. The Turks were so little concerned with neighborly relations that when Assad’s father hosted Kurdish terrorist Abdullah Ocalan on Syrian soil, Ankara simply massed troops on the border in 1998 and demanded Damascus expel him. Today, however, Ankara finds itself in the middle of a much more complicated, and consequential, game than the backstabbing nepotism of European bureaucracy. Erdogan’s Middle East policy has managed to align some very dangerous characters, including Syria, Iran, and Russia, against it.

Erdogan’s shift to the Middle East seems to have been precipitated by two factors. First, the likely realization that the EU was still a long way off from accepting Ankara, if ever; second, the conviction that Turkey’s Ottoman legacy enabled it to play a leading role in a resource-rich, and increasingly religious, region where Washington was eager to find competent interlocutors. Both the Bush and Obama administrations flattered Erdogan’s self-image.

The Bush White House saw an AKP-governed Turkey as a model Islamist state—moderate, democratic, and with a booming economy—for other Islamist parties in the region to follow. The Obama administration would come to collect on that bet during the course of the Arab Spring uprisings, but not before Erdogan had shown the region that he was prepared to lead by proving his pan-Islamic credentials. He galvanized support across the Middle East, from Cairo to Tehran, by using the standard method known to all Middle East rulers for the last eighty or so years—turn on the Zionists.

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