July 20, 2010 | NOW Lebanon

Turkey Plays Out Of Its League

Two months after the Gaza flotilla affair, it seems the wager made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, namely to boost his domestic standing while making a bid for regional primacy with an American blessing, has not panned out. And with that, President Barack Obama’s designs for Turkey in a post-American Middle East have perhaps hit a wall as well.

Obama signaled Turkey’s privileged place in his regional vision during his April 2009 visit to Ankara. Turkey was supposed to be the cornerstone of his policy of engagement with the Muslim world. According to this view, the country, with its supposedly moderate Islamic and democratic government, was the perfect partner for Obama’s agenda. The American president at the time urged Turkey “to help bridge the gap between the Muslim and Western worlds,” and remarked that his visit was a “statement about the importance of Turkey, not just to the United States, but to the world.”

In an address to the Turkish parliament, Obama laid out his view of Turkey as a partner in traditionally American roles, such as mediating peace between Israelis and Palestinians (and Syrians), and helping “to forge a new dialogue that reconciles differences” in Iraq. As the United States lowered its regional profile, Obama seemed to outline new dynamics in the region in which Turkey enjoyed pride of place.

Not surprisingly, this led the ambitious Erdogan, whose foreign policy was already premised on so-called “neo-Ottomanism,” to overreach. First came the deal Turkey and Brazil negotiated with Iran. Erdogan thought he had delivered a masterstroke, only to find himself slapped down. Worse, he embarrassed the Obama administration and its European allies at a critical moment in the drive to impose sanctions on Tehran. Here was Turkey appearing to be playing out of its league.

But Erdogan thought he was operating on Obama’s behalf, and with his blessing, in the mediator role. After all, the president had told him at a December 2009 summit at the White House that Turkey could be an important player in trying to move Iran to abide by international rules while pursuing a peaceful nuclear energy program.

Not only that. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed the uranium swap deal was crafted on the basis of letters sent to Brazil and Turkey by Obama himself, and he added that an April 2010 meeting with the American president had helped shape the agreement the Turks and Brazilians brokered. Moreover, Turkish officials had used their summits with Obama to denounce Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons at a time when the Obama administration was itself taking a historic departure at the United Nations from Washington’s traditional policy toward Israel’s nuclear program.

Then came Turkey’s reaction to the Gaza flotilla affair, which proved a step too far. But there too, Erdogan was reading the tea leaves in Washington, where Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser had made explicit his desire to “engage” with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah – a notion gradually entering the mainstream of public debate. If Erdogan was to make a bid for primacy in the Middle East and seize the mediator role, then becoming the interlocutor for Hamas and showcasing Turkey’s ties to other Islamic groups made perfect sense from his standpoint. And this did not just make sense to Erdogan, but also to many who saw this as a way of counterbalancing Iran.

Erdogan’s mistake may possibly have been in thinking that he could expand his role as a “bridge” and extend it to Hamas, and that Obama would give him cover. For a moment, given the meek initial American reaction to the flotilla crisis and Obama’s support for easing the blockade on Gaza, it looked like his calculation was not far off target.

But it was one thing to play second fiddle to Obama’s feel-good rhetoric about “outreach to the Muslim world,” and quite another to be the associate to radical Islamist groups, not least of which was the IHH, the Turkish charity that organized the Gaza flotilla. The German government has just banned the German-based IHH for providing financial support to Hamas, which the European Union lists as a terrorist organization. While officially separate from the Turkish organization, the German IHH, according to German media, may be linked to its Turkish counterpart. Last week the New York Times broke the story that the IHH had close ties with Erdogan’s party.

With that, Obama’s sell becomes that much harder, highlighting the limits of his vision. In fact, the Turkey gambit has created quite a mess for US allies like Egypt and other beleaguered players, such as the Palestinian Authority, neither of which wish to see the pressure on Hamas lifted. Meanwhile, Erdogan is not pleased and is criticizing the US for not supporting Turkey’s position on the flotilla and ranting against Washington’s “double standards.” So now Obama needs to readjust and scale back some of his ill-advised policies.

This is a fitting example of the pitfalls of Washington’s lowering its regional profile and subcontracting to middle powers important initiatives, all the while over-inflating their stature. Obama’s impulses notwithstanding, there can be no doubt that it is the United States that holds primacy, especially when these powers harbor their own ambitions in a regional order that the Americans spent decades painfully constructing. Not realizing this can mean regional disorder.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.