The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Turkey, Israel and the US

I have to take issue with my friend Steven Cook of CFR in his take on Turkey's recent behavior over the flotilla raid. Steve, a talented Turkey and Egypt expert, argues that Ankara is departing from its longstanding alliance with the US by "taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict": 

It is hard to admit, but after six decades of strategic cooperation, Turkey and the United States are becoming strategic competitors -- especially in the Middle East. This is the logical result of profound shifts in Turkish foreign and domestic politics and changes in the international system.

This reality has been driven home by Turkey's angry response to Israel's interdiction of the Istanbul-organized flotilla of ships that tried Monday to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. After Israel's attempts to halt the vessels resulted in the deaths of at least nine activists, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to Israel's actions as "murder conducted by a state." The Turkish government also spearheaded efforts at the U.N. Security Council to issue a harsh rebuke of Israel.

Monday's events might prove a wake-up call for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Among the small group of Turkey watchers inside the Beltway, nostalgia rules the day. U.S. officialdom yearns to return to a brief moment in history when Washington and Ankara's security interests were aligned, due to the shared threat posed by the Soviet Union. Returning to the halcyon days of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, however, is increasingly untenable.

The aberration here is not Turkey is calling Israel's actions a murder, but the US in refusing to do the same. It is not Turkey that has acted aggressively towards Israel, but vice-versa — diplomatically for a while and now with violence. That Turkey has a regional policy at odds with Israel's is not an attack on the United States, and thinking it is implies a worrying assumption: that US policy should be driven by Israeli interests and desires. Turkey has not broken off diplomatic relations with Israel, or even its military purchases. But as the most democratic state in the Middle East, it has reacted in a manner commensurate with its public opinion and its desire for international respect. The same goes for Turkey's policy with Syria: Turkey's policy is driven by its own interests; whereas US policy is driven by a political desire to lend protection to Israel.
He concludes more timidly:
Given the mythology that surrounds the relationship, the divergence between Washington and Ankara has proved difficult to accept. Once policymakers recognize what is really happening, Washington and Ankara can get on with the job of managing the decline in ties with the least possible damage. Obama's goal should be to develop relations with Turkey along the same lines the United States has with Brazil or Thailand or Malaysia. Those relations are strong in some areas, but fall short of strategic alliances. "Frenemy" might be too harsh a term for such an arrangment, but surely "model partnership" is a vast overstatement. It's time to recognize reality.
Turkey is still a NATO member, houses a key US base and provides logistical support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That seems pretty special and more than what Brazil or Malaysia do. The country that needs to review its policy is the US.
Cook's analysis is echoed in Thomas "Toto" Friedman's latest column — always a bad sign. He begins, as he frequently, by talking about his anguish:
As a friend of both Turkey and Israel, it has been agonizing to watch the disastrous clash between Israeli naval commandos and a flotilla of “humanitarian” activists seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Personally, I think both Israel and Turkey have gotten out of balance lately, and it is America’s job to help both get back to the center — urgently.
. . .
Therefore, it has been painful to hear the same Prime Minister Erdogan in recent years publicly lash out with ever-greater vehemence at Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza. Many see this as Turkey looking to ingratiate itself with the Muslim world after having been rebuffed by the European Union. I have no problem with Turkey or humanitarian groups loudly criticizing Israel. But I have a big problem when people get so agitated by Israel’s actions in Gaza but are unmoved by Syria’s involvement in the murder of the prime minister of Lebanon, by the Iranian regime’s killing of its own citizens demonstrating for the right to have their votes counted, by Muslim suicide bombers murdering nearly 100 Ahmadi Muslims in mosques in Pakistan on Friday and by pro-Hamas gunmen destroying a U.N.-sponsored summer camp in Gaza because it wouldn’t force Islamic fundamentalism down the throats of children.
I don't remember the United States, France, the UK or any other US ally going out of its way to condemn these things. On the other hand, Turkey's citizens have been killed and a ship flying its flag. Surely that's worse than something happening elsewhere for any country? And if Turkey is speaking out about the issue that has fueled regional tension for over 60 years — the Israeli/Palestinian conflict — surely that's not an irrational position.
After spending an inordinate amount of blood, treasure and political capital trying to regulate the Middle East according to a neoconservative idea of Israeli interests, the US has a unique opportunity to let strong regional leaders like Turkey try to manage issues that are of direct importance to them. It should not stand in the way; it should step aside.  
Update: Steve Cook responds:
I see your point about U.S. policy and how a democratic Turkey is taking a principled stand against the Israelis.  That said, two observations:
1)      It’s politically impossible for the United States to shift its position on Israel.  We saw that after Obama tried a more robust approach on settlements.  He backed down quickly, but I believe the episode demonstrates the limits of Washington’s actual room for maneuver.  It’s a problem, but the unfortunate reality.
2)      The central theme of the piece was the evolution of U.S.-Turkey relations, which you chose not to emphasize in your post.  I wasn’t really making a normative statement, I was making an observation that b/c Turkey is more democratic and b/c of changes in the international system, Washington and Ankara are diverging.  I was trying to wake up my friends in the administration to this reality so they can figure out what to do.
Some quibbles:
1)      Turkey’s military procurement from Israel is coming to an end; there is very little left in the pipeline once the soon to be completed main battle tank refurbishment program ends.
2)      The relationship between Turkey and Israel is collapsing.  It might not end completely, but the days of strategic cooperation are over.  It is politically unsustainable for both sides.
3)      Incirlik is important to the United States, but for how long?  The U.S. will be down to 50,000 soldiers in Iraq by August.  Those forces can easily be resupplied through Kuwait, though that isn’t optimal.  IF, a big if, the President is to be believed, the clock is also running on the Afghanistan operation.
4)      NATO.  Really?  It’s done.
Fair enough and 1 and 2 — I'm not complaining!