The Magazine

Ankara Alienates Everyone

Forget chess, Turkey is failing at geopolitical checkers.

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By LEE SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

refused to recognize the legitimacy of Egypt’s new military government, cut off diplomatic ties with Israel, angered Iran with its acceptance of a NATO radar station and its support for Syrian rebels, quarreled with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, angered key Gulf states over its support for Muslim Brotherhood movements throughout the region, and alienated Europe with unfounded accusations and conspiracy theories. In October it shocked its NATO allies by announcing that it would procure a missile-defense system from a Chinese company that is under U.S. sanctions for its dealings with Iran.

This, then, is the upshot of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. In the Middle East, you are destined to have problems with your neighbors. What’s more, the policy—the brainchild of an academic theoretician, now Erdogan’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu—does not account for the power politics of the region or allow for normal pursuit of the national interest. 

Imagine the Middle East as a large checkerboard where you sit on black. You will have problems with everyone surrounding you who sits on red, so you want to befriend all the other players on black. In effect, this was the rationale for Israel and Turkey’s strategic alliance. Syria was a problem for them both, as was Iran. Erdogan traded the relationship with Israel for a fantasy—never imagining that even if he attempted friendship with everyone in the region except Israel, he’d still keep running into trouble. 

It’s one thing to annoy the Saudis and other Gulf states as well as the Egyptian military by going against them and continuing to support Mohamed Morsi even as he languishes in detention. A world leader should know when to walk away from a lost cause; but Erdogan’s personal loyalty to Morsi is unlikely to affect Turkey strategically. Syria is another matter. Erdogan’s choices have put him at odds with everyone—including the Turkish public, which fears a growing refugee problem, further terrorist attacks from Syrian and Iranian agents, and the growing number of Islamist fighters transiting Turkey on their way to fight the Assad regime. 

In supporting the Syrian rebels, including some radical units, Erdogan has also crossed the White House. Indeed, some Turkish sources are convinced that the leaks against Hakan Fidan are intended to get Erdogan to fall into line behind Obama. Erdogan and Fidan came to Washington this spring in the hope of getting Obama to support the Syrian rebels. But it is now clear the administration’s paramount goal in the region is to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, and it doesn’t want to make the Iranians unhappy by helping topple their ally Assad. The United States is disengaging from Syria and expects the Turks to follow suit. 

It is here that parallels can be seen between Erdogan’s regional policy and Obama’s. Both are academic constructs divorced from real-world experience and thus destined to get their proponents into trouble. If Obama wanted a deal with Iran he’d turn up the pressure in Syria until the Iranians begged for relief. To that end, Erdogan could play a constructive role, as could other American regional partners like Saudi Arabia, helping damage, even diminish, Iran’s position in Syria. Instead, the White House has cut its allies loose. While Saudi Arabia, now openly critical of the administration, is more vigorously pursuing its own interests, Turkey is wobbling. Instead of letting a NATO ally float out into deep space, the White House ought to be guiding it back to base. That’s not likely to happen on the watch of an American president who, like Erdogan, seems incapable of distinguishing the national interest from the stuff of dreams. 

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers