Structural U.S.-Turkey Tension Isn’t Going Away

December 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

Ahmet Davutoğlu this week implicitly acknowledged that the U.S. and Turkey have seen better days in their relationship, saying that “relations are proceeding on a dynamic and honest ground,” which is not exactly the “model partnership” that the Turkish foreign minister was so fond of touting a couple of years ago. Whatever “dynamic and honest ground” means, unquestionably things are not going nearly so well as during President Obama’s first term, when Prime Minister Erdoğan was on Obama’s Oval Office speed dial and Turkey was viewed by U.S. policymakers as the key to a new Middle East. Many events have conspired to shatter that vision, and Turkey is no longer through such rose-colored glasses as it was. To my mind, the new status quo is not just a temporary blip in an otherwise robustly healthy relationship; there are major structural forces that are putting the U.S. and Turkey increasingly at odds over issues large and small, and three in particular stand out.

The first is that the U.S. perceives Turkey to be pursuing short term aims, oftentimes explicitly political ones, at the expense of long term goals, and the pursuit of these short term aims often conflicts with U.S. interests in the region. For instance, the rift that the Turkish government opened up with the Egyptian government following the military coup that dislodged Mohamed Morsi when Erdoğan not only insisted that Morsi be reinstated but refused to even acknowledge the new Egyptian officials as legitimate was an example of Turkey pursuing a policy that caused long term harm (to wit, the Turkish ambassador to Egypt was expelled last month) for no purpose other than domestic politics. Another obvious example is the continuing feud with Israel, where Turkey has continuously blocked Israeli participation in NATO summits, sold out Israeli intelligence assets in Iran to the Iranian government, bolstered Hamas and given it as much international credibility as it can at the Palestinian Authority’s expense, and dragged its feet in every way possible to avoid true reconciliation with Israel following Bibi Netanyahu’s apology last March for the Mavi Marmara deaths. In both of these cases, the U.S. would strongly prefer that Turkey work with its other allies in the region, and Turkey’s intransigence in both instances is not the result of any bigger plan or in the pursuit of foreign policy aims, but is rather almost entirely for domestic political consumption.

More serious than these two cases is the shortsighted Turkish policy of allowing jihadi fighters to stream across the border into Syria in order to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad – a policy that even Turkey now seems to realize was dangerously myopic – and the agreement to purchase an anti-missile defense system from China, about which I have already written at length. Turkey’s Syria policy has been an unmitigated disaster, and the Chinese anti-missile decision has caused huge waves with the U.S. and Turkey’s other NATO allies, and both are examples of Turkey pursuing what it perceives to be easy short term gains to the great detriment of long term strategic goals. While Turkey is, of course, free to do as it pleases, both of these decisions have created great fallout for the U.S. and thus cannot be simply ignored by the Obama administration or chalked up to internal Turkish business. They fit into a general pattern of Turkey rushing headlong into foreign policy decisions without taking a minute to look at the big picture and assess the impact of its actions on other parties, specifically the U.S. in this case, which is bound to cause some friction.

The second structural force driving the two apart is that their priorities in the Middle East are moving in divergent directions. Just as Turkey was deciding to ramp up its involvement in the region and become more active and vocal, the U.S. was deciding to ramp down, pivot to Asia, and leave the Middle East behind to the greatest extent possible. The U.S. has a couple of core things it wants to be involved in, such as coming to some resolution over Iran’s nuclear program and pushing Israel and the Palestinians to work out a comprehensive peace agreement, but otherwise it wants to bow out as much as feasible. This is why the U.S. basically threw its hands up at the Egyptian coup and looked for any way out of getting military involved in the Syrian civil war. Turkey, in contrast, wanted to be deeply involved in reshaping the region in the wake of the Arab Spring (or whatever it is we are calling it these days), and was particularly assertive when it came to loudly insisting that Assad had to go. The problem is that Turkey could not force Assad out on its own and so assumed that the U.S. or NATO would eventually take care of the job, and after it became apparent that this was not going to happen, Turkey felt a sense of betrayal. In essence, the problem is that Turkey wants to see certain outcomes, but those outcomes require the U.S. to make them happen, and the U.S. has absolutely zero desire to get any more involved than it already is. So you have a hyper-involved Turkey that wants more active U.S. involvement on certain fronts, and a U.S. that just wants to be left alone.

The third structural force contributing to tension is the basic power imbalance that exists between the two countries. The U.S. has its own set of interests and oftentimes Turkey’s wishes and views rank low down on the list of American priorities, but at the same time Turkey tends to interpret U.S. action through a distinctly Turkish prism. Thus, the U.S. instinct to stay out of Syria was a result of war-weariness after Afghanistan and Iraq, sequestration and other budgetary problems, politics leading up to the 2012 election, a desire not to increase tensions with Russia, a growing sense that the Syrian opposition was extremely problematic…I could keep on going, but Turkey was not part of the equation. In Turkey, however, U.S. inaction in Syria despite months and months of Turkish demands for NATO involvement and strident Turkish calls for Assad to leave has been interpreted as a purposeful slap in the face to Turkey. Many Turks believe that the U.S. led them down the garden path and implied that help would be coming, and the fact that Assad is still in power is because the U.S. wanted to humiliate Turkey. The best example of this overall general dynamic was the controversy in Turkey in August of last year over the photo of Obama holding a baseball bat while on the phone with Erdoğan. As I wrote at the time, this had nothing to do with Erdoğan and was nothing more than the White House releasing a photo in the midst of a presidential campaign designed to reinforce the image of Obama as a regular guy, but in Turkey it was imbued with all sorts of deeper meanings over the type of hidden message that Obama was trying to send to his Turkish counterpart. Because it is Turkey’s most powerful and most important ally, the U.S. will always have an outsized image in Turkey and Turks will imagine that anything the U.S. is doing is directed at them, when in reality many Americans probably couldn’t even tell you what language is spoken in Turkey (you have no idea how many times I have had someone ask me if I know Arabic after hearing that I study Turkey), place it on a map, or identity Ankara as its capital. This imbalance, where Turkey always has the U.S. on its mind but does not get reciprocal attention, is another source of tension.

Of these three forces, the first one can easily dissipate, and in fact there are signs that it is already happening, particularly when it comes to Turkey’s Syria policy. The other two, however, are here to stay, and are not easily overcome. Does it mean a major rift between the two allies? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the halcyon days of Barack and Tayyip’s late night gabfests and both public and private talk of model partnerships is over, and unlikely to return anytime soon.

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Guest Post: Zero Problems But Few Common Interests

November 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today’s post comes to you courtesy of O&Z favorite and veteran guest poster Dov Friedman, and examines the reasons behind Turkey’s apparent shift back to its Zero Problems With Neighbors policy and why the strategy is unlikely to be too successful the second time around.

Turkey’s foreign policy activity appears resurgent of late.  In early November, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu hosted his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for bilateral talks in Ankara.  Zarif, picking up on a cherished Davutoğlu theme, emphasized the countries’ shared ability to promote dialogue in service of regional peace and stability.  Two weeks ago, reciprocating Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s October visit to Ankara, Davutoğlu visited his counterpart in Iraq—where he extolled his own regional policy in vivid, splendid fashion.

Taken together, they at least signal an end to the oppositional forcefulness of Turkey’s Syria policy.  They may also indicate a broader effort by Turkey to reset regional relations.

The problem, Turkey may find, is akin to the one Alvy Singer faces in the lobster scenes in Annie Hall—that of trying to recreate a particular, wildly successful moment from the past.  The efforts to improve relations with Iran and Iraq are transparent and a bit clumsy—a sort of ersatz Zero Problems with Neighbors tactic.

In the years prior to the Arab Uprisings, Zero Problems was at its most effective as an aspect of a wider foreign policy strategy—one that leveraged regional relationships to facilitate, and at times mediate, among powers.  For a brief moment, that foreign policy vision raised the prospect that Turkey might be a vital presence in facilitating international political negotiations—a “central power” of sorts, to borrow Davutoğlu’s own conception.

Whether by fault or circumstance, that moment is gone.  Its evanescence explains Turkey’s efforts to recapture the magic of Zero Problems—and why that effort now appears futile.

Take, to begin, Egypt’s decision over the weekend to send off Turkey’s ambassador and downgrade relations.  The obvious immediate cause—as Steven Cook noted in a strong post yesterday—was Turkey’s ostentatious condemnation of the Egyptian military coup.  Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan foolhardily insisted on continuing to recognize the Mohamed Morsi government as Egypt’s legitimate rulers, and rarely passed up jabs at the military regime.  He did so because he believed vocal support of democratically elected governments bolstered Turkey’s regional influence.  The result is an embarrassing diplomatic fiasco for Turkey.

Yet, the interactions between Turkey and Egypt during Morsi’s year in power should have communicated to AK Party’s leadership the potential limits of Turkey’s regional influence.  After the Freedom and Justice Party’s victory, the AK Party government offered friendly—and wise—advice to its political Islamist brethren on the merits of blending conservative values with a secular constitution.  Morsi’s FJP politely told them to bug off.  Support from Turkey for the Muslim Brotherhood’s cause was one thing; advice on its political program for Egypt was another entirely.

In hindsight, that was the moment for serious Turkish introspection.  Regional actors might welcome Turkey’s support and collaborate to mutual benefit, but they were wholly uninterested in domestic political advice. Turkey’s facilitation- and mediation-focused foreign policy had clear benefits for Turkey’s role in both the international sphere and in relations with the U.S. and Europe, but it purchased little in the way of regional leadership.  At the very least, the FJP’s wakeup should have pushed Turkey to consider its core regional interests and work quietly to implement as many of them as possible.

But Turkey pursued misguided policies in Syria and now faces serious internal problems as a result.  Believing the regional trend would move toward conservative democratic movements—and believing in an opportunity for lasting Turkish influence—Turkey was bullish on the Syrian opposition. To support the protracted fight against Bashar Assad, Turkey tacitly facilitated the Saudi-backed jihadists, enabling free movement through Gaziantep’s airport and on to the Syrian border, while turning a blind eye to Gulf-funded safe houses on the Turkish side of the border—ones it publicly denies exist.

At the same time, Turkey refused for far too long to engage politically with the PYD—the PKK offshoot in northern Syria—, backing Massoud Barzani’s heavy-handed and futile efforts to extend his influence by sending KRG-affiliated peshmerga forces across the border.  This despite the PYD’s demonstrated commitment to fighting both al-Qaeda and Assad regime forces.

The result of these Syria policies?  This terrifying item on jihadi recruitment in Turkey’s southeast from the Guardian‘s excellent Istanbul-based correspondent, Connie Letsch.  It is a problem Turkey may contend with for years to come.

Which returns us to the recent visits with the Iraqi and Iranian foreign ministers.  As the Syrian civil war grinds on, and as Turkey bears the economic and social costs of 600,000 refugees, the government recalls its momentarily exalted international standing and seeks to diminish problems and mend relations with its neighbors to the east.

How deep can these ties possibly run?  On nearly every issue facing the region today, Turkey and Iran—and Iraq, by extension—are at odds.  Their divergence over Syria is well known.  Meanwhile, Turkey continues to foster close relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government, with the recent Erdoğan-Barzani meeting in Diyarbakır only the latest indicator.  Despite fears that the Turkey-PKK peace process was on life support, Erdoğan—to his credit—has renewed the push to move it forward.

On each of these issues, Iran’s and Iraq’s interests run counter to Turkey’s.  The KRG-Turkey partnership markedly increases the likelihood of an eventual bid for independence from Iraq.  Turkey is already on record supporting Kurdish oil claims and its constitutional interpretation.  Historically, Iran has fomented the PKK-Turkey conflict, which preoccupied Turkish military forces in the east and diminished the potential for PJAK mischief.  If Turkey truly ends the decades-long conflict with the PKK, Iran may face a more concerted, focused Kurdish opposition.

Despite the glaring reality that Turkey’s and Iran’s interests run at cross-purposes, Turkey petulantly lashed out in its diplomatic feud with Israel by gift-wrapping 10 Mossad agents for the Iranian regime.  At the moment it should have been recalibrating its strategic approach, Turkey simultaneously aided a country with the greatest capacity to upset its regional interests while irrevocably losing the trust of a country whose strengths complement Turkey’s well.

Undoubtedly, Turkey will continue to proclaim, in every way imaginable, a return to normalcy in foreign policy.  But through a mix of well-intentioned miscalculations and ill-advised, rash decisions, Turkey faces some troublingly intractable problems.  If only assuaging conflicts with its eastern neighbors were the solution.  But Erdoğan and Davutoğlu must understand as well as anyone that Zero Problems was effective not as an end in and of itself, but as a platform.  Perhaps they would be better off finding their diplomatic rhythm with those who share even the most basic of common regional interests.

The Year Of The Settlement

January 14, 2013 § 2 Comments

We are only two weeks into the new year, but if these two weeks are any indication of what is yet to come, then 2013 is going to mark a large shift from 2012. If 2012 was dominated by talk of Iran, 2013 is going to be dominated by talk of settlements. While the constant worries over what the government would do about bombing Iran did not always resound to Israel’s benefit, it was a conversation that at least focused on Israel’s security and the proper response for Israel to take against threats from Iran. The conversation about settlements, however, is not one that is going to focus on threats to Israel or Israeli security, but rather on Israel’s problematic behavior in the West Bank, and it is an issue that is bound to be a losing one for Israel.

Much of last year was filled with speculation about whether Israel would strike Iran until Bibi Netanyahu put an end to that with his speech at the United Nations. Lots of ink was spilled both trying to predict what would happen and analyzing whether bombing Iranian nuclear facilities would be a smart move or not. All of this undoubtedly caused some degree of negativity toward Israel because many folks – including the bulk of the Israeli defense establishment – felt that bombing Iran would be reckless and unnecessary, and in the end this pressure was at least partially responsible for derailing Netanyahu’s evident plans to do just that. Nevertheless, keeping the focus of the discussion surrounding Israel on the potential bombing of Iranian nuclear sites was in other ways good strategy, which is why Netanyahu kept on stoking the fires. Yes, it entailed observers railing against Israel for contemplating setting the region on fire with a strike on Iran, but it also forced people to think about Israel’s security, the threats that it faces, and the virulent hatred of Israel and Jews – no, not Zionists, but Jews – expressed by the Iranian government.

When it comes to settlements, Israel gains no such benefits. Despite the fact that the Israeli government claims that settlements are a security issue, nobody really buys this excuse. A bunch of settlers armed with rifles along with their families are simply not going to serve as the last line of defense against a horde of Arab tank battalions rolling over the border from Jordan, not to mention that such an assault is not coming. 350,000 Israelis scattered around the West Bank are also not a defense against Palestinian rockets, which don’t come from the West Bank because Fatah is not yet in the rocket shooting business and because the IDF – rather than settlers – is also currently positioned to stop them. In the 21st century, the line that settlements are a defense against anything is just not credible or believable. When settlements become the main issue that people focus on when it comes to Israel, the spotlight is trained not on threats to Israel but on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and desire to hang on to the West Bank. Literally nothing good comes out of this conversation for Israel, and all it does is highlight the worst possible side of Israel and its government. For an extremely small subset of people it serves as a reminder that Israel has a strong historical and cultural heritage in the West Bank, which is after all the land of the Bible, but for most people it serves as a reminder that Israel is militarily occupying the West Bank and that this situation is looking more and more permanent every day.

The response to the Bab al-Shams outpost in E1 is a perfect example of why the Israeli government is destined to lose when the focus is all settlements, all the time. After the outpost was illegally erected, the government evicted the Palestinians who had set up camp there and claimed that this was a necessary security measure and that the area was now a closed military zone. Nobody really believes that this is a security issue, and the glaring double standard in which illegal Israeli outposts are left to stand for months and years or even retroactively legalized has been noted far and wide. The domestic politics aside, this is an unambiguous losing issue for Israel, but because it has proved an effective tactic for the Palestinians, it is guaranteed to play out over and over, with Israel looking increasingly inept and even foolish in the process.

Lest you think that settlements are not going to be the talk of 2013, just take a look around. Bab al-Shams and E1 have taken on a life of their own, Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi – advocating an annexation policy – are a near lock to be in the next coalition, future Likud MK Moshe Feiglin has called for paying Palestinians to leave the West Bank, a significant swathe of Likud MKs favor annexing Area C or permanently maintaining the current status quo, and settlements and the settlement budget are expanding rather than slowing down. The craziest part about this is that on the right there is a desire to have settlements become even more of an issue rather than tamp down the settlement talk, as they see it as good politics and as a way of putting a dagger through the heart of the peace process for good.

It doesn’t matter that settlements are not the original cause of Palestinian discontent, or that there are larger obstacles to an effective two-state solution. The focus on settlements is very bad for Israel, and the longer it goes on the worse off Israel becomes. This is not an issue of public relations but of policy, and the Israeli government needs to understand that sooner rather than later. 2013 is well on its way to being a year in which the world, American Jewry, and Western policymakers hear a lot more about Israel creating a situation in which there is no Palestinian map than about Iran threatening to wipe Israel off it.

Israel And Distinguishing Between Hostile States

August 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

There were two articles published yesterday on the topic of Israel’s security in the wake of the Arab uprisings that arrived at polar opposite conclusions about the behavior Israel should expect from new Islamist governments. One was authored by me in the National Interest and I argue that massive economic crises and the renewed focus on quality of life issues that comes with elections have created a situation in which Israel’s Arab neighbors have too much on their plates to be thinking about causing trouble for Israel (the argument is longer and more nuanced than the one sentence summary, so please click over to the National Interest and read the whole thing). Writing in the Daily Beast at Open Zion, Benny Morris comes to the opposite conclusion, arguing that Israel is now “the most dangerous place for Jews in the world.” Looking at recent developments in the region, Morris sees things as follows:

But for Israel the “Arab Spring” represents  a dramatic, abrupt tightening of the noose. The takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas; the ongoing takeover of Egypt by the Brotherhood, traditionally an advocate of Israel’s destruction; the gradual subversion by Islamists of Hashemite control in Jordan; the Hizbullah dominance of Lebanon; and the current overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria all represent a tightening of the siege.

As Jeremy Pressman breaks down in a thorough fashion at Mideast Matrix, the reason Morris and I view Israel’s security situation so differently is because I am looking at material interests and capabilities and Morris is looking at ideology. For Morris, ideology outweighs every other consideration, and Islamism is a monolithic entity, the same in Iran as it is in Egypt. No matter what else is taking place, Morris sees Islamic fundamentalists joining hands to jump at the opportunity to destroy Israel. As Pressman rightly points out, Morris’s argument is difficult to test since Islamists are not actually controlling Egypt (the military is still very much running the show), Jordan, and Syria at the moment, but there is a reason that he and I differ over how to view emerging Islamist governments in Arab states, and it has to do with how one views ideology and ideological states.

There is something ironic for me about the fact that I am downplaying the role of ideology here since the thrust of so much of my non-blog writing is about how ideology is often a controlling variable in a variety of situations. My dissertation argues that ideology operates as a constraint on successful democratic transitions, and I have theorized that the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia was pushed out the door so quickly because the military and regime softliners did not see an emerging ideological threat (although their calculation was incorrect). In the case of new Arab Islamist governments looking to confront Israel, however, ideology is not a particularly important factor, which Morris does not grasp because he fails to distinguish between variants of ideology and their purpose.

Morris looks at Iran, which is an Islamist regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and assumes that every other Islamist government is going to behave in an identical fashion. The problem with this view is that while the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed very hostile to Israel, it misses some extremely important context. The Iranian regime is one that uses ideology as a source of legitimation; it’s argument for existing is that it governs a revolutionary state, the aim of which is to spread the Islamic revolution beyond its borders. Despite its parliamentary and presidential elections, it makes no real pretense to legitimating itself through democratic institutions and is run by unelected and unaccountable officials. Ideology is both its primary purpose and primary source of legitimacy, and thus if it does not act to carry out its ideological mission at all times, it endangers its very existence; when ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, fealty to the ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. In this sense, ideology becomes its primary interest to be advanced and it can take precedence over material concerns.

Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood (to the extent that the MB actually controls anything) is theoretically also an Islamist state, but its relationship to ideology is not the same as in Iran. The MB government in Egypt does not use ideology as its source of legitimacy even though it is an ideological movement. The MB ran for office in free and fair elections and campaigned on a host of promises to improve the economy, eliminate corruption, and increase transparency. In other words, it subjected itself to the people’s will as a way of creating legitimacy and it appealed to a host of material, rather than ideological, concerns. Not only does the MB not need to justify everything it does from an ideological perspective, it would be devastating to its long term prospects if it did. When it comes to confronting Israel, the MB will do so in a number of lower grade ways since it is a popular stance and also fits in with the party’s ideology, but it is not going to launch a war at the expense of its economic and political goals.

I do not mean to downplay in any way the hostility that the Muslim Brotherhood and other related Sunni Islamist groups harbor toward Israel. I do not view the MB as a benign reformist movement (or even necessarily a democratic one at heart rather than out of convenience) and the Israeli government is correct to be vigilant in not letting down its guard. This is not the same thing though as being on constant alert for invading Islamist armies willing to sacrifice their entire existence for a chance to kills Israeli Jews. Ideology is an extremely powerful force, but in order to understand how and why, it is necessary to get a handle on the different ways that ideology operates to shape events rather than taking a Manichean worldview that sees every situation involving Islamists as identical. Iran presents a real danger to Israel arising from its ideological worldview, but new Arab Islamist governments do not.

The Politics of Russia in Israel

June 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Vladimir Putin was in Israel this week, and the government rolled out the red carpet for him. Shimon Peres hosted a state dinner for him and he held meetings with Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and he inaugurated a memorial in Netanya to Soviet soldiers who were killed in WWII. The Israeli welcoming embrace might seem strange given that Israel and the Soviet Union had an acrimonious relationship and that Putin is not exactly seen as a paragon of virtue these days, but it is actually a no-brainer from a domestic political standpoint. There are over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel out of a total population of 7.6 million, and there are many prominent Russian-Jewish politicians, from Natan Sharansky to current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many of these Russian olim no longer feel as acrimonious toward their former homeland as they once did, and they still have deep ties to Russia that make the Russian issue a political winner.

This point was really driven home for me this morning reading Marc Tracy’s post-Birthright thoughts on how his trip to Israel has made him feel more viscerally connected and emotionally attached to Israel even though he is an American Jew and not an Israeli. This connection felt by American Jews is one of the primary drivers behind the U.S.-Israel bond, as a particularly active and vocal (and yes, influential – let’s not sell ourselves short) segment of Americans feel so strongly about Israel. In Israel, the same holds true about the Russian population, who are Israeli citizens and may have not been to Russia or other former Soviet countries since they left but nevertheless feel a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward their previous home. This relationship goes both ways, as the new annual $1 million prize that Israel is going to bestow on recipients whose contributions to sciences or the arts reflect Jewish values is being funded by a group of Jewish Russian oligarchs. It makes sense for Israeli politicians to take advantage of this sentiment through stronger ties with Russia and wanting to have their pictures taken with Putin when he visits.

The question for me is whether this is a good idea for Israel geostrategically once you set aside the domestic political benefits, and my answer is no. To begin with, as Elise Labott points out, Israel and Russia do not see eye to eye on many foreign policy issues these days. The two countries are working at cross purposes when it comes to Iran and Syria, and yesterday Putin met with Mahmoud Abbas and implicitly backed the Palestinian president’s view that Israel is the party responsible for the deadlock in peace negotiations. Peres spent much of the visit publicly pressuring Putin to come around to the Israeli view of things, commenting during the memorial dedication ceremony that the country that defeated fascism will not tolerate similarly odious regimes in Iran and Syria, and expressing his view during the state dinner that Russia will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. This seems more like wishful thinking than an expression of confidence, since Russia has so far shown little inclination to budge on these issues and did not hint at any changes in policy during Putin’s meetings with Israeli leaders. Netanyahu, Barak, Lieberman, and other Israeli officials are assiduously working to court Russia, but to no avail. At some point, the closer relationship with Russia is going to come to a head, and it will be easier if there are fewer messy entanglements at that point.

Aside from the fact that Israel is destined to endlessly bang its head against the wall when it comes to Russian policy, there is another good reason for Israel to distance itself from Russia. Putin under Russia has evidenced an increasingly authoritarian bent, with Putin’s domestic opponents harassed and jailed, opposition political parties eviscerated, and charges of election rigging and voter fraud. Russia today is no longer a democracy, and Freedom House this year assigned it a 6 for political rights and a 5 for civil liberties (with 7 being the worst score a state can achieve). In short, Israel is trying to tighten its relationship with a deeply illiberal state, and one with which it foten disagrees on matters of foreign policy. In doing so, it risks damaging its relationship with other democracies and European states that do not look kindly upon Russian intransigence. Israel often evinces a view that any friend is a good one, but cozying up to Russia is not going to advance Israel’s international standing or leave it feeling less isolated. This is a classic example of losing sight of what is strategically prudent in the long term in favor of short term tactical political gain. Israel does not have to publicly repudiate Russia or Putin or lead the Mitt Romney vanguard that views Russia as the top geopolitical threat in the world today, but it also does not need to spend its time trying to be Russia’s best friend. Israel should work to keep its relationship with Russia as non-acrimonious as it can while holding Russia at arm’s length.

Why It’s Good To Know About A Topic Before Writing On It

May 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Paul Alster had a column yesterday in the Times of Israel predicting a reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. Seems like a reasonable enough proposition, particularly in light of the news that Israel has repaired and returned four Heron drones belonging to Turkey after agreeing to fix them over a year ago. Sure, there are other factors to weigh, such as the Turkish warning to Israel just last week not to violate Northern Cyprus’s airspace or the reports of Turkey vetoing Israel’s participation in this weekend’s NATO summit, but let’s assume that Paul Alster is a glass half full kind of guy. Reasonable people can differ on this issue, and for every sign that the freeze between the two countries is only getting deeper, there are signs of thawing in the relationship.

On the other hand, the specific arguments made by Alster in support of the proposition that Turkey and Israel are going to mend their relationship border on the patently ridiculous, and his command of the facts is, to put it charitably, a bit suspect. Let’s look at some representative examples.

Erdogan (who went out of his way to antagonize and inflame relations with Israel at every possible opportunity) seems to have realized what a grave misjudgement he made in allying himself to two of the most despotic leaders on the planet, and by association being tarnished with the very dirty brush that has seen them gain pariah status across the globe.

I hardly think that Turkey has been tarnished with any brush that puts it at risk of becoming a pariah. At the moment, Turkey is being touted as a model by all sorts of Islamist political parties across the Arab world, is increasingly relied upon by the United States as a vital ally in the Middle East, has the second largest military of all NATO members, is once again making some progress on its EU bid, and is universally viewed as one of the most important actors of the coming decades. Does this sound to you like Turkey’s international status has been put at risk in any way? Undoubtedly Turkey waited too long to give up on Assad, but after that initial stumble Turkey’s reputation does not seem very much worse for the wear.

Exactly what was truly behind Erdogan’s posturing is hard to figure, as he had long been pushing for membership in the EU, and his cozying up to Iran and Syria was hardly likely to endear him to Turkey‘s potential European partners. This ill-conceived strategic gamble has clearly backfired and quickly blown up in Erdogan’s face. The prospect of the EU admitting a new member-state that is joined at the hip with two of the world’s most corrupt and authoritarian regimes was never going to prove a vote winner in Brussels; the tactic seeming to reveal a significant flaw in the political maneuvering of a man who has gradually been losing his way, only three years after he appeared to be a major player with growing influence on the international scene.

Hard as it may be to figure out for Alster, let’s see if we can come up with some reason for Erdoğan’s “posturing” in which he tried to develop closer ties with his neighbors. Might it be Turkey’s stated policy of zero problems with neighbors? Guess it wasn’t that hard to figure out after all.

As for this argument with regard to the EU, Turkey was not exactly sailing effortlessly toward EU membership before it consciously improved its relations with Syria and Iran. More saliently, there are a number of reasons why Turkey is having problems with its accession bid, from European cultural bias to worrying government suppression of the press to discredited witch hunts of military officers. Being “joined at the hip” with Iran and Syria is so far down the list of things that EU member states are worried about that to mention it betrays a staggering lack of knowledge about the real issues surrounding Turkey’s EU bid.

A PLAY IN ONE ACT

Herman van Rompuy: Nice to see you again Tayyip. I must say, you have made amazing progress in your efforts to join the EU. Who would have thought that just months after Sarkozy was out of office you would have made your peace with Cyprus and successfully negotiated all 35 chapters needed to gain accession to our club? We have never before seen such singleminded devotion by an EU applicant.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Thank you Herman. My fellow countrymen and I are most excited to take our spots in the European Commission, the European Council, the Council of Europe, and your various other bodies that have such wonderfully differentiated names. So when do I get my official EU membership badge?

Herman van Rompuy: Unfortunately, you made the grave mistake of being joined at the hip with Syria and Iran, which is the single greatest flaw we have ever encountered from a prospective EU member and is the subject of the double secret 36th chapter which you have now violated. As such, you are no longer considered to be a “major player with growing influence” – after all, your credibility with Iran, Pakistan, and Sunni Arab states is worthless to us, as is your rapidly expanding economy and military strength. Please confine yourself to Kadıköy and all points east from now on, as we have voted in Brussels to revoke your Europe visitation privileges.

CURTAIN

In recent months, with Iran becoming increasingly isolated by the international community as a result of its alleged development of nuclear weapons, and the Syrian government continuing to massacre large numbers of its own people while driving many more to seek refuge in Turkey — causing a growing humanitarian crisis within Turkey’s own borders — Erdogan’s government, amid rumors that Ankara is keen to re-establish relations with Jerusalem, has been noticeably short on its previously stinging anti-Israel rhetoric.

Right, I forgot about how popular Israel is among the international community. That BBC poll released just last week revealing Israel to be ranked above only Iran and Pakistan in favorability, and in which majorities in Spain, France, Germany, and Britain viewed Israel negatively, didn’t accurately capture the public relations value in Europe for Turkey of cozying up to Israel following Iran’s isolation and Syria’s horrific massacre of civilians (both of which everyone knows are Turkey’s fault, of course). That is precisely why Turkey’s top officials have in the past six months ceased berating reporters for not focusing on Israel’s nuclear weapons or accusing Israel of not wanting peace with the Palestinians or bragging about isolating Israel and bringing it to its knees. Isn’t it great how that previously stinging rhetoric has just disappeared?

This easing of the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean is surely more down to necessity on the part of the Turks than to a sea change in the attitude of their leader. With the door to Europe slammed in their face, Syria and Iran remaining on the international blacklist, no improvement in their relationship with Greece, and problems on their eastern front with Syrian refugees and Kurdish separatists, Turkey is surely keen to find friends in the region.

Yes, Turkey’s isolation is really terrible. Granted, the P5+1 talks were held in Istanbul last month, and Turkey is fresh off the NATO summit in Chicago, and Turkey’s approval rating in the Arab world is 78%, but Turkey is still desperate for a friend, and that is why it is going to make up with Israel. Not because the world’s superpower is pushing for it, not because it benefits Turkey’s tourism industry and export markets, not because the two countries have a long history of military cooperation, but because Turkey is feeling terribly isolated and lonely. I mean, everyone knows that Turkey is just another term for Iranian/Syrian province, right? And oh, let’s not forget about Alster’s reference to Turkey’s “majority secular population” in which 83% of Turks identify themselves as religious and 55% self-identify as either “extremely” or “highly” religious.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. I do not know what your expertise is, Mr. Alster, but it is clearly not this. Israel and Turkey may very well reconcile, but just as a broken clock showing the right time twice a day is not evidence that it is working, an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement will not be a testament to your analytical skills in the realm of foreign affairs.

China Will Test Turkey’s Notion of Virtuous Power

April 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu arrived in China today for the first visit by a Turkish PM in nearly three decades, with the aim of increasing trade and business ties including sealing the deal with China for it to build Turkey’s second nuclear power plant (the first is being built by Russia). A stronger relationship with China is undoubtedly good for Turkey’s economy and Chinese investment in Turkey will help to maintain Turkish growth, particularly given the fears of a hard landing raised by Turkish economic performance in the last quarter of 2011, which dropped off considerably from the first three quarters. Closer ties with China will, however, present a different sort of problem related to Turkey’s growing influence in global politics.

Sunday’s article in Zaman about Erdoğan’s visit to Xinjiang noted Turkey’s hard line against Muslim Uyghur separatists and Turkish support for Chinese territorial integrity. This in some sense a difficult position for Turkey to take given the large contingent of Turkish Uyghurs, but in another sense it is reminiscent of Turkey’s position on its Kurdish population, as Turkey too wants to avoid a separate Kurdistan at all costs and thus is sympathetic to Beijing’s position. On other high profile issues involving the global community, however, China and Turkey are moving in separate directions. China has been following Russia’s lead in blocking a stronger international response led by the U.N. to the fighting in Syria, which puts it directly at odds with Erdoğan’s call for Assad to leave and his condemnation of the U.N. for not doing more to protect civilians from Assad’s brutality. There is virtually no chance of China coming along to Turkey’s position given China’s championing of the principle of absolute sovereignty and opposing all interventions on humanitarian grounds, which is one of the bedrocks of Chinese foreign policy. On Iran, Turkey seems to be slowly moving closer to the West’s position of suspecting that Iran’s nuclear program is not solely a civilian one, and this too puts it at odds with China.

For the Turkey of ten years ago, these differences with China would not matter. Turkey would have been happy to discuss little but increased trade and economic opportunities and left it at that. The Turkey of 2012 though has ambitions to be a global power, and has inserted itself quite starkly into the forefront of both the Syrian and Iranian issues. In addition, President Gül last week announced a new Turkish defense doctrine of being a “virtuous power,” and subsuming humanitarian issues in Syria or possible nuclear intransigence in Iran to new opportunities for Turkish business presents a conflict with this idea of incorporating justice and human values into foreign policy. This is a tough balancing act for Turkey to pull off, and it is one instantly familiar to anyone who has studied American foreign policy in the post-WWII era. The U.S. often finds its values and its interests at odds, and the trick is finding a way to reconcile the two and emerge with a foreign policy that advances the latter without entirely selling out the former. As Turkey becomes a larger and more responsible geopolitical player, it will find itself running into this problem with increasing regularity, and it will be interesting to see if Davutoğlu and Gül, who both often speak in the language of justice and virtue with regards to foreign policy, continue pushing these ideas over the next decade as Turkey faces an array of contradictions that it has largely avoided in the past. These next few days in China will particularly bear watching to see how Erdoğan and Davutoğlu reconcile their desire to gain Chinese cooperation on Syria with their push for Chinese investment in Turkey and a larger market for Turkish manufacturing.

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