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.
Third, while it is no secret that the United States is increasingly viewed as a spent force and an unreliable ally in this region, it is not so much the events of the past 17 months that impress Middle Easterners as it is that the Obama administration remains oblivious to the impact of its policies. Everyone there sees clearly that Obama desires to be out of Iraq more than he desires to stabilize that country. Since a strong Iraq would be a force of resistance to Iran, this policy suggests that the rise of Iran will be unchecked by America. So does our policy on Iran’s nuclear program, where the fantasy that U.N. sanctions will solve the problem persuades no Arab or Israeli official. So does our distancing ourselves from Israel, which all understand is a deliberate policy. If America does not plan to stand up to Iran or help Israel do so, Iran will acquire nuclear weapons and its desired preeminence will only grow. Those who wish to survive will accommodate, whatever their private views; they will not stand up to a Turkish-Iranian alliance without strong, decisive American leadership.
This is not, of course, how the Obama administration sees the region, or the world. From the Cairo speech to the National Security Strategy, the president has described a very different international situation: The United States has but one enemy, al Qaeda, and for the rest we must not be “defined by our differences.” The National Security Strategy that refers to “21st century centers of influence—including China, India, and Russia” as if these powers were in similar relationships with the United States is clearly devoid of any sense of the difference between allies and adversaries. In fact, it is not a “strategy” at all, but merely a listing of desirable outcomes for the United States.
The Gaza flotilla incident might have been a great setback to the radical camp had the United States reacted sharply, defending Israel, condemning the jihadists on board and their sponsors in Turkey, blocking U.N. Security Council action, and refusing to sponsor another international inquiry that will condemn Israel. And Israel’s interests were not the only ones at stake: The blockade of Gaza is a joint Israeli-Egyptian action to weaken Hamas. But the American position reflects the Obama line: carefully balancing the interests of friend and foe, seeking to avoid offense to our enemies, or, as Churchill famously described British policy in the 1930s, “resolved to be irresolute.” Middle Eastern states, including Arab regimes traditionally allied with the United States, view this pose as likely to get them all killed when enemies come knocking at the door.
Still, whatever the trends and whatever the American errors, nothing is inevitable except the passing of certain key actors. Turks may tire of Erdogan’s speeches and return a government that seeks a true balance between East and West rather than a headlong dive into alliances with Iran and Syria. Iran’s nuclear program may be stopped by an Israeli action, or some day by the collapse of that increasingly despised regime. Israelis and Palestinians may find a way to a better modus vivendi through pragmatic actions that improve Palestinian life, expand self-rule, and reduce the Israeli presence in the West Bank. The sad and dangerous thing for all moderates in the region, from Lebanese who fear growing Syrian influence to Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis who fear Iranian domination of the Gulf to Palestinians who fear Hamas, is that such desirable outcomes are far less likely now. Ironically, a “moderate” America seeking diplomatic “engagement” and military disengagement, seeking to avoid trouble and to palliate radical forces, does not produce moderation in the Middle East; America the fierce and certain ally gives moderates strength and radicals pause.
The bloody battle on board the Marmara lasted only half an hour, but larger and bloodier battles lie ahead unless the United States reasserts its role in the region. The vacuum our weakness creates will be filled by forces hostile to our interests, our allies, and our beliefs. In the end they’ll have to be beaten; the only question is the timing—and the cost.
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.