September 03, 2012
Step 3: Make friends with old adversaries at the expense of old allies.
Just as Putin actively built friendships with his old foes Germany, Italy, and France during his first term, Erdogan took office announcing a strategic realignment of Turkish policy centered on “zero problems” with the neighbors. He sought out new partnerships with Iran, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Hamas”and did so at the expense of the US and Israel. In 2003, he won Arab plaudits for rejecting American requests to use Turkish territory to transport troops to Iraq. In 2009, he was hailed as a Muslim hero for picking a fight with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Further raising Western eyebrows, he sided with Iran against the US over Tehran sanctions; championed Palestinian statehood at the United Nations; lauded Pakistani soldiers accidentally killed by US drones as “our martyrs”; and even accepted a human rights award from former Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi.
Step 4: Assert strength by walking softly and carrying a big stick.
If there is one lesson of Putin’s that Erdogan hasn’t learned, it is that tough talk needs to be followed by decisive action. The only battles Erdogan seems capable of fighting thus far are wars of words”making him look, as journalist Gideon Rachman puts it, “naÃ¯ve and ineffective.”
He pledged to bring Hamas and Fatah together but failed. He pledged to keep NATO out of Libya but failed. When Israel killed nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists on an aid ship bound for Gaza in 2010, he threatened to send the Turkish navy to protect future flotillas”then didn’t follow through. When Cyprus began developing oil fields off its coast in 2010, Erdogan threatened to send Turkish warships“then didn’t follow through. When Syria reportedly shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet this past June, Erdogan promised that Damascus would feel Turkey’s wrath“and then didn’t follow through. It has led some to wonder if Erdogan’s bark is worse than his bite.
Syria may prove to be Erdogan’s undoing. Turkey first supported Syria, then tried to coax it to change, then criticized it, and then officially allied with the Syrian opposition. It has put Turkey in the uncomfortable position of being the only country that has allowed its soil to become the base of Syrian opposition as well as the sole NATO country trying to persuade other NATO members to intervene. Other Muslims are openly accusing Turkey of being part of a “sabotage axis” against Damascus, aligning with what nations such as Iran regard as “the devil’s instrument on earth””America”to unseat an Islamic regime.
Far from “zero problems with its neighbors,” Turkey now has problems with all of its neighbors, including Russia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, and Armenia. It has led the Turkish magazine Radikal to observe that Turkey, which was once known as the sick man of Europe, is now becoming “the lonely man of the Middle East.” With no NATO allies coming to the rescue anytime soon, Turkey runs that risk that its own Kurds”which it has been battling for three decades”will ally with Kurds in Syria to destabilize Turkey’s southern border. As the Centre for Research on Globalization puts it, “Should Syria burn, Turkey will ultimately burn too.”
Once again, Erdogan is turning back to the Putin playbook. Term-limited out as prime minister, he is working to rewrite the Constitution to give the president more power, an office for which he will then run Putin-style in 2014. It was said that Syria is the place where Ataturk, as a young military officer, first proved his greatest strengths. A century later, it is revealing a Turkish prime minister’s greatest weaknesses. Where it will lead”for Turkey and America”nobody knows. But we’ll soon find out how much of Putin that Erdogan really has in him.
The author is Founding Chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC. This is a personal comment.