Even as He Clashes With Israel, Turkey’s Erdogan is Displacing Iran’s Influence

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the Forum for International Law organized at Opera House by Cairo University Faculty of Economics and Political Science in Cairo, Egypt on September 13, 2011. (Kayhan Ozer / EPA)

The handwringing in the U.S. over the rock-star reception Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eliciting on his “Arab Spring” tour of post-dictatorship Egypt, Tunisia and Libya is misguided. Erdogan represents a reality-based, credible and very popular incarnation of the old Bush Administration idea of a moderate Middle Eastern leader rolling back Iranian influence. Note the stress here is on reality-based, because the Bush Administration distinguished itself from the “reality-based community” when making Mideast policy, insisting that it would instead create its own realities.

That much the Bushies certainly did, although few of the realities they created adhered to the masterplan: Afghanistan became a quagmire; Iraq a charnel house; Pakistan played a double game; Iran’s influence grew; Hizballah refused to roll over and die; Hamas won the Palestinian election staged at the Administration’s insistence, and so on, and so forth.

Not surprising then, perhaps, that the “alliance of moderates” idea is turning out quite differently from the Bush Administration vision of Arab autocracies and Israel joining hands to fight Iran and its allies, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be dealt with through the occasional photo-op and ritual summitry to sustain the illusion of a “peace process”. 

The idea that Arab leaders would stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel against Iran was a flight of fancy promoted by Israeli leaders ever eager to convince the world how other Arabs don’t really care about the Palestinians. No matter how much they loathed the Mullahs in Tehran, not even the most despotic Arab leaders could afford to embrace Israel amid its siege of Gaza and its ever expanding occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Yet, the Bush Administration effectively retreated (except rhetorically) from the longstanding strategic priority of settling the conflict through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, instead treating it simply as an issue of terrorism. Even the most conservative Arab regimes allied with Washington against al-Qaeda and against Iran — the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Mubarak regime — still repeatedly warned that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo was intolerable. But none was prepared to break with their longtime U.S. backers, leaving them glumly if skeptically settling for U.S. assurances that the peace process would be rekindled.

It was into that vacuum that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stepped, with a combination of hollow defiant rhetoric and vile provocative rhetoric, assuming a posture of resistance to the U.S. and Israel that saw his popularity among the Arab public eclipse that of every Arab leader.

But the game changed starting early in 2009 when Erdogan publicly challenged Israel’s pummeling of Gaza in a high-profile confrontation with President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos. While the world’s well-heeled power brokers saw the disruption as a sign that the Turkish leader was a hot-head who didn’t understand the rules of elite shoulder-rubbing, Erdogan was signaling that Turkey would not be bound by rules that accepted the trampling of Arab dignity as an intractable fact of life.

Turkish democracy had already seen Ankara break decisively with Washington over the Iraq war, its parliament voting to deny its NATO ally the right to use Turkish territory in a war of aggression on its neighbor. Later, Erdogan also challenged the U.S. handling of the Iran nuclear issue, warning that Washington’s efforts were more likely to set off a disastrous confrontation than to achieve their goals. Turkey opposed U.S. sanctions, and pressed for a compromise solution — much to the chagrin of Washington and Israel, where many commentators saw Turkey as having crossed over to the Iranian camp.

Rubbish. The Middle East was always a lot more complicated than the Bush Administration’s binary clash between its own camp and that of Iran. Democracy in Turkey, like in Iraq and quite probably in Egypt and elsewhere, has produced a government independent of the U.S. and responsive to public opinion, which makes it more inclined to challenge the U.S. — and Israel. But its own influence in the region, if anything, has grown at the expense of Iran’s. Erdogan’s AKP is a center-right party with roots in a moderate political Islam that evolved in a pluralistic secular democracy, and its business-friendly style of governance has more in common with European Christian Democrat parties than with Iran’s theocracy.

He may not be Washington’s or Israel’s cup of tea, but Erdogan’s positions that most annoy them are typically reflections of mainstream public sentiment in the region. He challenges the US and Israel, but also challenges Iran and Syria. His expulsion last week of Israel’s ambassador to Turkey coincided with agreement to station a NATO anti-missile system targeting Iran on Turkish soil.

While rallying support for the Palestinian cause in his speech to the Arab League and calling on Arab leaders to challenge America’s indulgence of what he called Israel’s “spoiled child” behavior, he also prodded them to do the right thing at home:

“Freedom and democracy and human rights must be a united slogan for the future of our people,” he said in an address televised across the region. “The legitimate demands of the people cannot be repressed with force and in blood.” Of course, just as he challenges others to live up to their own promises, Erdogan is likely to see growing pressure to act on those words amid the bloodshed in neighboring Syria. President Obama might have a few words of advice about what can happen to bold promises made in televised speeches in Cairo.

A moderate Islamist committed to democratic institutions (even if his record on press freedom has been widely criticized) and secularism, whose stewardship has seen his country emerge as the world’s second-fastest growing economy, he might be hailed in the West as the great “moderate Muslim” hope were it not for his habit of tangling with the Israelis. But on that front, the Turkish government sees itself saying the things that most Europeans and Arabs believe, but which their governments are unwilling to say see U.S. coddling as encouraging Israeli policies that are increasingly self-destructive by protecting them from many of the negative consequences of those policies. Unlike Ahmadinejad, Erdogan is not challenging Israel’s right to exist; he’s challenging its actions and insisting on justice for the Palestinians.”Israel will break away from solitude only when it acts as a reasonable, responsible, serious and normal state,” he said, warning that Israel’s government was adopting an increasingly self-destructive course.

That may not be an idea that gets much play in Washington, but it’s conventional wisdom in the moderate Muslim mainstream. Indeed, that mainstream, stung by its disappointment in the Obama Administration’s failure to deliver on the promises of his April 2009 speech in Cairo, has essentially given up on the U.S. delivering credible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even Saudi Arabia is warning that it will retaliate for any U.S. veto of the Palestinian bid for statehood.

The fact that the U.N. vote is even going ahead is a massive vote of no-confidence in U.S. peacemaking efforts.  It’s turning into an emperor’s clothes moment with Washington desperately insisting that the Palestinians return to negotiations that most of the world believes  have gone nowhere largely because Israel refuses to accept the international consensus on the terms for two-state solution, and the U.S. lacks the political will or means to change that fact.

Erdogan sees himself stepping into the breach, confronting Israel  with harsh truths from which U.S. diplomacy is increasingly unable to shield it. It would be naive to overlook his own agenda in terms of building regional influence and Turkish soft power, and maintaining his domestic popularity in the face of the perceived insult of Israel’s refusal to apologize over the flotilla killings. But his message clearly resonates, heralding the onset of new realties less permissive of U.S. and Israeli actions of the sort seen over the past decade.

But the fact that the newly risen Arab street, particularly the Islamists who remain the largest political element in most of the Arab revolutions, are looking to Turkey and Erdogan’s AKP as a role model should be a source of reassurance and optimism to all those who wish the region well. Turkey’s rising popularity has coincided and with it the principle of Arabs choosing their own leaders and demanding their dignity — an episode that has dramatically dimmed Iran’s appeal as a fetish for real leadership in the Arab world. The “reality-based community” in Washington ought to be encouraged when Islamists empowered by revolution are looking not at Iran but at a Turkish model based on secular democratic political pluralism and growth-oriented economics. Of course they’re going to challenge Israel’s behavior: Bush’s idea of “moderate Arab leaders” embracing Israel on the basis of that country’s current orientation never had any basis in reality to begin with.