I was just listening to a Turkish professor on To the Point discuss the emergence of his country as a major regional player in the commercial, military and diplomatic affairs of the Middle East. He mentioned that Egypt’s revolution had forced it to step back from such a role as it contemplated its future. He also said that Israel has increasingly boxed itself into a corner and lessened its own leverage in the region, which has included deterioration of relations with both former allies (well, Egypt wasn’t exactly an ally, but you know what I mean). This has left a vacuüm in regional politics which Erdogan has had the vision and skill to fill. Not just that, Erdogan has had the ability to do something Pres. Obama Hasmalit not been willing or able to do. He’s been willing to crack the whip to get the various players to sit up and take notice. Israel has been a prime “victim” of this approach.
One critical factor that’s led to the rise of Turkey is the abandonment by the Obama administration of any sort of active, engaged role in the region. Sure, its stalwarts will retort that the president does have an active policy. But what he really has is a semblance of a policy, not the real thing. As I’ve reported here, the president’s Middle East policy has foundered on lack of fortitude in reining in Israel’s appetite for settlements and the latter’s bellicosity toward its neighbors. Obama has not been willing to do the hard things that would call the Israeli government to heel. But Erdogan has. And that makes all the difference in Turkey’s ascendancy and the U.S.’ decline in status in the region.
It was Turkey which brought together Syria and Israel for talks which may’ve led to a negotiated settlement of all outstanding differences and the return of the Golan to Syria. This rapprochement was disrupted by Ehud Olmert’s decision to invade Gaza. It was Turkey together with Brazil, which attempted to broker a deal to resolve the Iran nuclear issue. It did all these things in an attempt to play a constructive role and resolve conflict.
But the flip side of leadership is also to know when tough medicine is called for in relations with a neighbor. Sometimes honey doesn’t work and vinegar is necessary. That’s why Turkey is forcing Israel to pay a price for its hubristic behavior whether it be Operation Cast Lead or the Mavi Marmara assault. Erdogan also recognizes that the political currents from the Arab Spring work in his favor and not Israel’s.
Obama’s problem? He refuses to make enemies, even the right ones: whether they be Republicans, (some) American Jews or Israelis. Well, you can’t exercise leadership if you’re only kind, gentle and nurturing. There are times when you need to tell people who’s boss. Erdogan is willing to do that. Obama isn’t. Erdogan is willing to call Israel a “spoiled child.” Obama calls Israel the “best friend we have.” Erdogan is willing to tell the Arab League that supporting Palestinian statehood in the UN is “not a choice but an obligation.” Obama contradicts his own nation’s policy in denying Palestine statehood, making him look the fool. That’s the difference.
Obama’s hesitance reminds me of recent coverage of a presidential speech by Dmitri Medvedev, who’s running for another term against his former mentor, Vladimir Putin. The entire nation awaited a forceful statement of his vision, an urgent call to arms revealing his political agenda. When he had the attention of all Russia, what did he do? He delivered a stale list of platitudes, thus showing his countrymen and women he didn’t have the heart for a fight.
This is Obama in spades. He simply doesn’t have the heart for the trench warfare sometimes necessary to win in politics. And that, in a nutshell is why Erdogan is a true leader with the potential of greatness, while our president is an also ran.
To be sure, Erdogan is not perfect. Human rights in Turkey are sometimes threatened and the Kurds are not free. But at least this is a leader aware of the weaknesses of his country and working (perhaps too slowly in some areas) to repair them. Can we say the same about Bibi Netanyahu or even Barack Obama?
On a slightly different subject, we can see that a vote for Palestinian statehood in the General Assemby, which seems likely, could bring a huge wave of violence in the Middle East. While Israel claims that the violence would be originated by protesting Palestinians, the IDF itself has played a huge role in escalating tensions by declaring its expectation of violence. The world must put Israel on notice that it will not accept mass violence against Palestinians. It will not accept a national price tag policy from the Netanyahu government as a consequence of Palestinian rejection of U.S.-Israel directives to abandon the statehood bid. I fear this. I fear it greatly. It could be like the Mavi Marmara assault except on a much greater scale. I would love to be proven wrong and hope I am.
Bob Mann says
It is stunning to see a post like this from a progressive like you.
Erdogan is a true leader with the potential of greatness? Can it really be possible that you believe that to be the case?
A recent Time magazine article (June of this year) does a nice job of presenting who Erdogan is and what kind of “leader” he has been.
Firstly, the article points out the similarity between his political party, the AKP, and the socially conservative wing of the Republican party in the US, noting that their “values agenda” has alienated much of the secular middle class in Turkey.
Thousands of websites are banned, users are required to go through state-controlled filters (Facebook has been deemed “immoral” for instance).
Under Erdogan, “the police have become increasingly powerful” and journalists have been detained and jailed without trial for investigating those in power. “Public leaks of private conversations have become commonplace” as journalist phones are regularly tapped.
The article also highlights the “brutal environmental desecration” that has gone on under Erdogan’s leadership.
In light of the progressive values espoused on this site, it is thoroughly shocking and inexplicable that there can be a post made here where Erdogan is called “a true leader with the potential for greatness” that is not meant ironically.
I hope you’re wrong about the possibility of violence too. I only hope that the Israeli government will think twice about unleashing Hell on the basis that it may quickly roll out of its control.
I think, as well, that a little caution is needed with regard to Turkey. To be sure, Erdogan’s profile in the Arab world is high. His stance on Gaza shamed the Arab leaders and I suppose, in a way, it’s the Arab desire for an Erdogan of their own that may have contributed to the Arab Spring.
But the caution that Erdogan’s visit to Egypt has received is interesting. The Egyptians, and the Arabs as whole I think, have no taste for replacing one foreign power-broker for another.
I would also add that (very very sadly) Turkey was well in bed with the dictatorships have have thus far been removed by the uprisings in the region. And that has laid bare the reality that Turkish economic activity in the Arab world is very damaging for local people.
Take Libya as an example. You might remember that when the Libyan uprising began, Turkey had to arrange for the departure of 25,000 Turkish workers from Libya. Those workers were there because Turkish companies had struck deals with the Gaddafis that were highly exploitative of the Libyan people: they get the contracts, divide the spoils with the Gaddafis and Turks get the jobs. Libyans must watch as others take home money and they are left with nothing.
It was this that made Turkey essentially take Gaddafi’s side when the revolution began. Many have forgotten but I remember it like it was yesterday and it was appalling. Only when it became evident that the Libyans were steadfast and not willing to give in, did Turkey recognise the NTC and even provide aid to it.
To his credit, the Turkish foreign minister spoke candidly about his government’s error and was publicly apologetic when he spoke in Benghazi. The fact remains though, that Turkey’s influence, while a million times better than that of the United States (which ranges from barely perceptible to outright malignant), is still open to question.
I can’t shake the feeling that Erdogan – while no doubt sincere in his belief that Israeli policies in Gaza are wrong – is behaving somewhat opportunistically. That’s life, you might say. That’s diplomacy. You’d be right.
But I think that the Arab states should not go running into Erdogan’s arms.
He should sing for his supper (and reign in his CEOs).
delia ruhe says
Excellent post, Richard. Like all other states, Turkey has its problems, and Erdogan has a blind spot or two. But he’s the only leader of some standing who’s announced that he’s not putting up with Israel’s criminal behaviour any more — and he’s backing that assertion with action. Not only Obama, but also Canada and the European nations should get some spine and do likewise: if they all took similar kinds of actions the I-P conflict would be solved tomorrow.
“a blind spot or two” and “Israel’s criminal behavior”
Yes – Israel’s behavior often fails any measure of reason, but calling Erdogan’s treatment of the Kurds “a blind spot or two” suggests that you are using two very different and biased yardsticks to measure Israeli and Turkish behavior.
Your post seems to suggest that his taking action in Israel would be welcome. We have seen his “actions” against the Kurdish population. Let’s hope the wished action against Israel is not of a similar vein.
The Kurds, even more than the Palestinians, are politically fatherless whose blood is cheap, if not free.
This is far from being the case with current day Israelis, and Erdogan seems to be calculated enough to know that.
“…But at least this is a leader aware of the weaknesses of his country and working (perhaps too slowly in some areas) to repair them.”
That’s exactly what George Galloway said about Assad…
“well, Egypt wasn’t exactly an ally, but you know what I mean”.
Well, if Egypt wasn’t exactly an ally of Israel, Pres. Mubarac certainly was.
Richard Silverstein says
Good point. I’d forgotten about that. It was a cold peace but Mubarak certainly did Israel’s bidding well.
Obama’s situation is somewhat reminiscent of Clinton’s first term as Governor of Arkansas: an ideologically motivated (relatively) young academic having to come to terms with the harsh realities of American leadership – having been democratically elected to numero uno position means little against the strengths of other powers to be.
Bill Clinton has certainly learned this lesson, I hope Obama manages to play his (disastrous) cards well and gets his own second chance at the helm.
In terms of getting a “second chance at the helm”, Pres. Obama has been boxed in by AIPAc, “Jewish money” and the Jewish vote in respect of the positions he can take regarding I/P matters. So, 14 more months of ass-kissing.
When (hopefully!) the “second chance” comes and the ass-kissing is no longer required, it is my urgent hope that he makes Netanyahoo and his ilk pay for the spit in his face that he has had to endure.
Time will tell.
free man says
Arduan is killing Kurds indiscriminately.
He is invading the states around him and bomb them from planes.
It is sad to see someone who shouts all day and everyday when he thinks Israel does that, shout applaud the Turks when they do it.
In addition, Turkey occupy half of Cyprus illegally. It has performed ethnic cleansing and has created there many settlements. I wonder how it’s leader is held as a great leader, while the same people who attributes the same allegations to Israel condemn its leaders ?