You can’t fight these wars in a clean fashion. Stephen Walt

Delayer in Chief

The United States hoped to build Turkey into a model democracy in the Middle East, and to wait out the turmoil of the Arab Spring. Both policies have failed.

The revolt in Turkey indicates that Ankara has finally slipped out of reach for Barack Obama. The US had hoped that Turkey’s “secularized society” would lead to a functioning state in the Middle East as secularists served as checks on the religiously motivated policies of Erdogan’s ruling AKP party. But the mere fact that discontent over a few trees can turn into demonstrations that draw hundreds of thousands to the streets says a lot about the influence that secularists enjoyed in public affairs. Some might actually care about the trees in Gezi Park, but the protesters are mainly united by their opposition to the person whom many call “a dictator.” They are often shut out of Turkey’s politics, either because of the dysfunctional nature of Turkey’s opposition parties or because of Erdogan’s ability to crush oppositional coalitions. Washington had pinned its hopes on the powerless: Obama wanted to see a larger influence of liberals and secularists in policy-making. It hasn’t worked, neither for Turkey nor for the international community.

The search for a new political model

From the perspective of the United States, the ball of the Middle Eastern roulette has landed on the worst number. In a mere two years, Washington has lost almost all its allies in the region. Before 2011, the US was working to improve its relationship with Muhammar Qaddafi in Libya (the country was removed from the list of terrorism sponsors in 2006). In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak managed to contain Islamist tendencies. Syria was moving along just fine, and the Assad clan even agreed to a partial retreat from Lebanon. Saudi Arabia had grown more lenient with its oil policies. Iran’s dictatorship had been shaken by a widespread revolt and was only clinging to power through coercion – not a very lasting solution. In short, it didn’t look too bad for proponents of American interests.

Then the region collapsed – some call it the “Arab Spring” – and the big discussion focused on finding a “new political model.” Turkey came in very handy for that purpose: Ankara’s government was considered to have Islamist tendencies, but it was also seen as moderate. A strong Turkey could also check the Syrian uprising and contain Kurdish terrorism. Ideologically, Turkey’s moderate stance could serve as a counter-weight to the extremists in Iran and could prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from engaging in religious zealotry and from becoming the sole voice of Islam.

The first problems with this approach became evident when Turkey developed a rather odd stance towards Israel. After the Arab Spring, Israel represented the only growing export market for Ankara in the region; moreover, some half-million Israeli tourists flooded vacation resorts such as Antalya and Bodrum during the summer. Erdogan and his acolytes nonetheless decided to go for political sensationalism and idealistic showmanship. After Israel’s leader Bibi Netanyahu “apologized” to Erdogan for the deaths that had occurred when Israeli forces stopped a naval convoy from Turkey and bound for Palestine – the so-called Mavi Marmara incident –, Erdogan did not re-open diplomatic dialogue. He violated an unspoken assumption that Obama had made when he helped to broker the apology from Israel. It wasn’t Erdogan’s first diplomatic gaffe: He had already caused sensation in 2009 when he clashed with the Israeli president Shimon Perez at Davos. As for the calming influence of Turkey on the Muslim Brotherhood: that didn’t work out either. Egypt’s government learned from the AKP, but not quite as expected. I introduced progressive Islamist reforms and began to rule Egypt with a heavy hand.

The American strategy has failed

The problem with the American Turkey-centered strategy is that Turkey was never a feasible candidate to rebuild the political order in the Middle East. The heirs of the Ottoman Empire – whose reputation in the Arab Middle East is anything but good – were tasked with “leading the Arab world” and leveraged opposition to Israel as a means of building political consensus. At the same time, the US tried to bring Turkey over to the Western side with the intent of introducing real moderation to Islamist policies, and tried to rebuild the region on the foundation of a Turkish-Israeli axis.

The American strategy has failed. But is it Obama’s fault? It’s quite possible that Turkey represented the only viable option for American diplomats. But one of the key features of US foreign policy in the Middle East was the tendency to wait. Obama may well deserve the nickname “Cunctator,” Latin for “the Delayer.” The name first arose as an insult against the Roman Emperor Fabius Maximus, who refused to confront Hannibal in an open battle during the Second Punic War. Maximus had to weather harsh criticism at home, as Romans preferred blood-and-glory warfare over postponement tactics. In the end, however, Maximus’ strategy succeeded and the agnomen turned into a recognition of strategic wisdom.

Once again, delaying tactics dominate Middle East policy (the ancient city of Cartage – Rome’s opponent during the Punic Wars – was located in today’s Tunisia). But this time, they don’t seem to pay off. Syria could be lost to an increased Iranian-Russian influence or to extremist rebels. The upcoming Iranian elections have been won long ago by a strictly selected group of conservatives, and the Iranian nuclear program continues to progress. Egypt is becoming more extremist by the day, and there is no hint of progression in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Most dangerously, a complete Syrian collapse might lead towards new confessional conflict in Iraq. Waiting won’t serve the United States well.

Read Newest From Column Stefano Casertano: Steady as she goes

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