Can Turkey Change the Mideast?

In a region dominated by extremists, Turkey is trying to occupy the vacant position as champion of moderates. It should be prepared for serious opposition from the forces benefiting from chaos.

With extremists, i.e., those who voluntarily select violence as their means of achieving goals, still in control of or retaining enormous influence over the U.S., Iran, Afghanistan, and Israel, an enormous political vacuum exists in the Mideast: the forces advocating conflict dominate the agenda on all sides, and moderates are marginalized. That is the scope of al Qua’ida’s victory to date. The genius of the Erdogan-Davutoglu team is that they realize this and are acting to fill that vacuum. Turkey might have trouble leading the Mideast by force (even the U.S. seems unable to do that) and has plenty of economic competition, but it is now alone in the Mideast scaling the peak of moral leadership.

The existence of such a glaring vacant position is curious in a region so tense with competing positions and constitutes a huge failure on the part of major world powers. Religious pretensions on all sides play a role in this global failure of leadership, as does the addiction to oil. American provincialism, which appears tragically to be rising even as American involvement in the Mideast deepens, contributes a great deal, though more effort on the part of Arabs and Persians to achieve good governance and live as good neighbors would lessen the opportunities for American mischief. The irresponsible overarming of Israel combined with the granting to Israel of a blank check allowing it the unique “right” to amass nuclear arms and commit aggression without the restraints applied to other regional powers is another key factor.

The strategic calculus of Erdogan and Davutoglu seems to go approximately as follows:

  1. The regional position of moral leader as advocate of compromise and cooperation is vacant;
  2. Tensions are staying high, if not rising, with extremists on all sides pushing the region toward further conflict;
  3. The time is right to assert moral leadership before the Mideast reaches a tipping point and collapses into general war;
  4. Given the absence of other candidates with the vision to step forward, this is Turkey’s opportunity and duty.

In a sense, Erdogan wins just by trying; there is some satisfaction in trying to bring sense to a region gone mad even if one fails. However, truly to win, he does need some help from the antagonists. Turkey will have no room to negotiate if the opposing sides refuse to compromise. The U.S. and Iran will need to give a little if Turkey is to succeed in brokering a nuclear deal. Israel and Syria will need to give a little if Turkey is to succeed in brokering a peace deal. Whether or not the adversaries will compromise is unclear: everyone is letting pride get in the way and far too many politicians are making great careers out of waving the bloody flag.

But just by trying, just by making the case for moderate compromise, Erdogan is altering the tone of regional affairs. The whole complex system that constitutes the Mideast is already visibly in the process of adjusting. Washington can hardly reject Turkey’s offer of help out of hand, and the lack of such rejection empowers Erdogan a bit. Iran as well feels pressured at least to pretend to be seeking resolution. Similarly, Israel now finds itself somewhat on the defensive as Syria welcomes Turkish offers of mediation: if Israel wishes to spurn Turkish assistance, then it must find alternative ways forward to avoid looking even more like the party responsible for conflict. The terms of debate subtly shift from a search for victory to a search for compromise, which leaves conservative Arab dictatorships embarrassingly marginalized. So bit by bit, the Mideast political system readjusts, and a new tone emerges.

How far this new tone will go is the question. Turkey itself is an imperfect champion of understanding: a crackdown on its Kurdish minority will make Erdogan’s pretentions to moral superiority look hypocritical. The attitude of Turkey’s highly politicized military, comfortable with its flow of support from the U.S. and Israel, is unclear, as well.

Externally, many actors will dislike Turkey’s interference with their ambitious plans:

  • Al Qua’ida’s whole program is directly threatened, and a vicious response from jihadis seems almost inevitable.
  • Israeli right-wing ambitions for a racially pure Greater Israel exercising military dominance over the Mideast are also directly threatened, and an Israeli effort to provoke conflict—with Iran, Lebanon, or perhaps Yemen—in order to cut the ground out from under Erdogan should come as no surprise.
  • A big question is how Iran’s IRGC will respond. To the extent that it is, as alleged by the Israeli right and its American fellow travelers, an expansionist force, it seems likely to try to sabotage Turkey’s initiative. But to the extent that the IRGC is less a force for Shi’ite revolution and Iranian imperialism than a business enterprise like the armies of Pakistan and China, it may come to see opportunity rather than threat in the new cooperative vision Turkey is outlining. Turkey’s plans to transform itself into a regional hydrocarbon hub connecting, among others, Iran to West Europe will surely be noted by IRGC officers involved in the import-export business.
  • Another question concerns the Arab dictatorships. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have a big decision to make about whether or not to join Turkey on the peace bandwagon.

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Expect the advocates of war to blow one of the many regional disputes out of all proportion as civilization’s life or death struggle…requiring resolution through the use of more violence.

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If Istanbul can open sufficient political space domestically for its Kurds, if it has sufficient time to get the diplomatic ball rolling before a new crisis alters the regional mood, and if Iran can be persuaded that economic integration trumps nuclear brinkmanship, then Erdogan may emerge as the 2010 Man of the Year.

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