Two months after the event, the New York Times discovers that the Gaza flotilla intercepted by Israeli commandos last May is “tied to the elite of Turkey,” a conclusion that was obvious on the face of it from initial news reports. This occurred after the German government banned the Turkish “charity” IHH, which had sponsored the flotilla, on the grounds that it had channeled millions of dollars in supposed philanthropic contributions to fronts for Hamas, which both the U.S. and the European Community list as a terrorist organization.
According to a senior Turkish official close to the government [the Times writes], who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political delicacy of the issue, as many as 10 Parliament members from Mr. Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party were considering boarding the Mavi Marmara, the ship where the deadly raid occurred, but were warned off at the last minute by senior Foreign Ministry officials concerned that their presence might escalate tensions too much.
When leaders of the charity returned home after nine Turks died in the Israeli raid, they were warmly embraced by top Turkish officials, said Huseyin Oruc, deputy director of the charity, who was aboard the flotilla.
“When we flew back to Turkey, I was afraid we would be in trouble for what happened, but the first thing we saw when the plane’s door opened in Istanbul was Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister, in tears,” he said in an interview. “We have good coordination with Mr. Erdogan,” he added. “But I am not sure he is happy with us now.”
What has transpired during the past two months is this: The Obama administration has come to the rueful conclusion that the President’s public embrace of Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Erdogan as a principal ally in outreach to the Muslim world has backfired. In a June 24 essay for the Tablet, a Jewish-oriented webzine, I explained:
Mickey Mouse must have felt a bit like this, midway through the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode of Fantasia. In the remake, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan plays the role of the runaway broom conjured up by President Barack Obama, who wanted a fresh set of allies to advance a 21st-century foreign policy that rejected U.S. hegemony. Now his inventions have taken on a life of their own, and the White House is awash in a flood of trouble.
The volatile Turkish leader was supposed to have been a key U.S. partner in a new world order founded on diplomacy rather than force. Obama reached out to him repeatedly, first in a high-profile pilgrimage just after taking office and most recently to mediate a secret nuclear fuel deal with Iran. But Erdogan has a different agenda, which a group of Turkish diplomats recently characterized as “neo-Ottoman.” He sees an opportunity to become the Mideast’s regional hegemon, as well as Russia’s strategic partner in oil and gas transmission. And to succeed he wants to rally the region’s extremists to his neo-Ottoman cause.
Obama’s sponsorship of Erdogan has had devastating consequences for US interests in the Middle East, I argued:
Turkey’s public embrace of Hamas—which the European Union and the United States consider a terrorist organization—has undercut traditional U.S. allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The biggest loser might be the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. After a year of riding point for the Obama Administration’s Mideast policy, and after five years spent nursing George W. Bush’s promise of U.S. support for a Palestinian state, Abbas was cut off at the knees when Obama buckled to Turkish demands over Gaza. The White House declared after the flotilla debacle that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was “unsustainable” and “must be changed” and announced a new $400 million Gaza aid package that will help resuscitate Hamas. Visiting the White House days later, Abbas reportedly begged Obama not to lift the Gaza blockade, which was sponsored by the Bush Administration after Hamas gunmen slaughtered Abbas’ security people during the June 2007 Gaza coup in order to squeeze Hamas into “reconciliation” with the Palestinian Authority.
In Goethe’s ballad “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the source for the Paul Dukas tone-poem and the Disney animation, the hapless apprentice cannot stop his enchanted brooms from bringing water to the already-flooded laboratory. Chopping the broom in half only produces a pair of water-carriers. At length the master sorcerer returns and gives the incantation:
In die Ecke
(“Into the corner/Broom, Broom/Be what you were” — or “Sei das gewesene”). A team of State Department philologists is working day and night to translate this into Turkish.
Obama, to be sure, does not deserve all the blame for this policy disaster. As I explained in a July 29 “Spengler” essay at Asia Times Online entitled “Sympathy for the Turkish Devil,” the Bush administration backed Erdogan against the secular Turkish establishment after Turkey in 2003 refused American requests to allow coalition a Northern invasion route into Iraq:
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was a monster, but for the Turks a useful monster. The 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds of northern Iraq killed up to 180,000 of them, and the crackdown on the Kurds after the 1991 First Gulf War killed as many as 100,000. The Turks, by contrast, killed perhaps 20,000 to 40,000 Kurds during the 1980s and 1990s.
Turkey in 2003 refused America permission to open a northern front against Saddam out of fear that the war would destroy Turkey’s ability to control its restive border. The destruction of the Iraqi state, moreover, created a de facto independent Kurdish entity on Turkey’s border, the last thing Ankara wanted. If America had simply installed a new strongman and left, Turkey would have been relieved. But America’s commitment to “nation-building” and “democracy” in Iraq, to Ankara’s way of thinking, meant that Iraq inevitably would break up; the Kurdish entity in northern Iraq would become a breakaway state; and Iran’s power would grow at the expense of Turkey.
Turkey has many reasons to fear Iran, whose possible nuclear ambitions make it a prospective spoiler in the region. But there is another vital issue. Among the fault lines that run through the modern Turkish state is a religious divide. Iran exercises influence through the Alevi minority in Turkey, a heretical Muslim sect closer in some ways to Shi’ite than Sunni Islam. No accurate census of the Alevi exists; they may comprise between a fifth and a quarter of of Turkey’s population. The late Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared the Alevi to be part of Shi’ite Islam in the 1970s, and they have been subjected to occasional violence by Sunni Turks.
The Iraq war undermined the position of the Kemalist military, which had bloodied its hands for decades in counter-insurgency operations against the Kurds. Erdogan’s Islamists argued that the weak glue of secular Turkish identity no longer could hold Turkey together, and proposed instead to win the Kurds over through Islamic solidarity. The Kurds are quite traditional Muslims; unlike the Turkish Sunnis, the provincial Kurds of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq often practice female circumcision.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the George W Bush administration saw no reason to back the Turkish generals who had let them down in Iraq, and instead threw their backing to the Islamists, on the theory that Erdogan represented a sort of “moderate Islam” that would provide an example to other prospective democratic Muslim regimes. When Erdogan won parliamentary elections in 2003, Bush invited him to the White House before he took office, a gesture that persuaded most Turks that America had jettisoned its erstwhile secular allies, as I wrote in 2007.
Credulously and fatuously, Obama compounded the error of the Bush administration, which also believed that Erdogan’s supposedly “moderate” brand of political Islam was a weaker form of the virus with which to inoculate the rest of the Muslim world. That was also the view of the Jesuit Islamologists in the entourage of Pope Benedict XVI—Christian Troll, Samir Khalid Samir, and Felix Koerner—who worked closely with the Theology Department of the University of Ankara to concoct a revised version of the Hadith, the “traditions” of purported sayings of Mohammed.
For the record, I warned in 2008 that Turkey was “in the throes of Islamist revolution.”