Obama Is Losing Turkey

Battle lines are being drawn across the Middle East.

On one side sit the forces of stability, with Saudi Arabia at the helm. On the other sit the forces of revolution, with Iran prominent in leadership. The alliances they lead are well known: the Gulf Sheikhdoms and Jordan align with the Saudis; Syria, Hamas, and Hizbollah with Iran. While both sides are equally capable of espousing Islamism and of violating the most basic human rights, the difference between them is very real. The Saudi-led bloc is quite content with the existing global order and the petrodollars that it bestows. The Iranian-led bloc is committed to toppling that order.

For obvious reasons then, American–along with European and Israeli–interests align with the Saudis, while Iran counts Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez among its closer friends.

Though the formation of these blocs predates the Obama Administration, the battle lines have become clearer on his watch. More disturbingly, Obama’s policies have also allowed them to tilt in a decidedly unfavorable direction. Having entered office with a seamless continuation of the Bush Administration assertion that a nuclear Iran was “unacceptable,” the Obama team seems set to accept it. Recent reports of nuclear discussions with Saudi Arabia suggest strongly that we have moved on to the next phase of the issue.

We are also losing ground. For thirty years, Hosni Mubarak kept Egypt entrenched firmly on the side of stability. Obama jettisoned this deeply flawed ally seemingly without concern for who or what might replace him. With Egyptian politics still in a transitional phase, however, all indications are that it will stabilize in favor of instability.

But while the sudden explosive loss of Egypt garnered its fair share of attention, the slow subtle loss of another critical longstanding ally has happened almost out of sight. That ally is Turkey. This past weekend, Turkey announced the resignation of its top General. This resignation marks a final capitulation of the country’s leading secular institution to its Islamist political leadership.

To most Americans, civilian leadership over the military seems the proper order of things. Even most of us who believed that General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of Afghanistan was more accurate than President Obama’s nevertheless recognized the necessity of his resignation after his public questioning of his commander-in-chief. But the situation in Turkey is different. Turkey’s political leadership has systematically dismantled the country’s civil liberties, eroded the freedom of its press, abused the legal system do destroy critics and opponents–and most of all, reoriented its foreign policy.

Turkey today is a troubling anomaly. A NATO “ally” that favors Iran, manufactures international crises with Israel, supports Syria, and generally sees its future to its east. Most of these trends started on the watch of George W. Bush–who neither said nor did anything to deter them. But plausible deniability was still possible until recently. It is only on Obama’s watch that the situation has become stark. And yet, Obama has been as silent as his predecessor.

Turkey’s Islamist leadership has been smart enough to avoid a major crisis. The inevitability of a break, however, is becoming clear. The longer we wait before pushing such a break, the more likely Turkey is to turn Southeast rather than Northwest.

Will Obama manage to salvage this important relationship? From all evidence, it appears highly unlikely. But it does suggest an important foreign policy question for the various Republicans seeking to displace him: Is it still possible to keep Turkey facing the West? If so, how?


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