Turkish Dilemma

Once a reliable Western ally, Turkey is now going its own way in the Middle East. And nobody in Washington or Brussels knows what to do about it.

My son wants to study a non-European language that's going to matter in the future. He has been contemplating Arabic or Hindi. But after the last few weeks, I'm thinking -- Turkish. All of a sudden, everyone wants to know about Turkey -- and it turns out almost no one does. There's no real mystery in that: Americans tend to benignly neglect other countries until they become a problem. And until just the other day, Turkey was a fun tourist destination; now it's a problem.

Turkey has thrust itself into the American national consciousness by working with Brazil to broker a nuclear deal with Iran, which the United States viewed as unhelpful, at best; by voting (along with Brazil) against Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran; and by assailing Israel in the aftermath of the deadly attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla. Senior Obama administration officials have begun to worry that the West has "lost" Turkey; Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently fretted that Turkey is "moving eastward" and blamed the European Union for blocking Turkey's aspiration for membership. The Wall Street Journal editorial page goes a step or three further and accuses Ankara of throwing in its lot with the fundamentalists and the Israel-haters.

Turkey didn't set out to be a problem. Over the course of the last decade, the country's diplomats seem to have taken a leaf from China, whose doctrine of "peaceful rise" dictated harmonious relations along its borders and a relatively low profile in global diplomacy. Turkey's policy of "zero problems toward neighbors" smoothed away conflict with Middle Eastern partners, including both Israel and Iran. Through a series of bilateral agreements, Turkey has established a visa-free zone, and it hopes to establish a free trade zone in much of the area once occupied by the Ottoman Empire -- without, as a Turkish diplomat pointed out to me, seeking to re-create Ottoman hegemony.

But success breeds confidence and makes yesterday's modesty seem like undue timidity. Beijing, which once hid behind the skirts of the Non-Aligned Movement, now openly confronts Washington on both economic and military issues. And Turkey, no longer content to reduce friction along its borders, dreams of bringing a new order to the Middle East. "[T]he world expects great things from Turkey," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has written on this website.

He might be wrong there, but what's clear is that Turkey expects great things from itself. Turkey may well have overplayed its hand by forcing Barack Obama's administration to choose between its two closest allies in the Middle East -- Turkey and Israel -- but Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear to have decided that they would rather overplay their hand than underplay it.

Perhaps all emerging powers reach this inflection point, where nationalistic pride almost compels overreaching. (See under: Brazil.) But Turkey is the only emerging power located in the Middle East, a region where supreme global conflicts play themselves out. A peaceful rise in East Asia is no great feat, but try living next to Iraq and Iran without antagonizing somebody. The Turks infuriated George W. Bush's administration by refusing to let U.S. troops invade Iraq through their territory. Had they acquiesced, they would have outraged their neighbors instead. Nor could Turkey's remarkably warm relations with Israel survive long at a time when the Israeli government is seen as utterly intransigent toward the Palestinians; the Gaza-bound flotilla was only the last straw. Turkey's aspirations for regional leadership virtually compelled the break with Israel. That had nothing to do with Ankara's rejection by the European Union.

Turkey is also a democracy in a region where the United States is incredibly unpopular. Ordinary Egyptians hate U.S. policy, but autocratic President Hosni Mubarak feels free to ignore popular opinion. The same is true of Saudi Arabia, the United States' other major regional ally. Indeed, the central paradox of President Bush's policy of democracy promotion in the Middle East is that it might have been a disaster for U.S. interests had it succeeded among America's allies -- which, of course, it didn't. In the latest survey by the Pew Research Center, 14 percent of Turks had a favorable view of the United States. (The figure in Egypt was 27 percent.) Turkish leaders can no more afford to ignore antipathy toward the United States, or Israel, than American leaders can ignore popular anger at Iran. Instead, they have stoked that anger through increasingly fierce attacks on Israel, led by Erdogan himself. "The government in Turkey has decided that the policy of confrontation with Israel suits it both domestically and regionally," says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And history has propelled Turkey forward. The rise of new states has loosened the West's epochal grip on global economic, military, and political power. Additionally, the Middle East has been remade. Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, recently observed that in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire's collapse, Arab leaders reorganized the Middle East as the Arab world; owing to the weakness of Arab states and then to the toppling of the Iraqi regime, that system has come to an end. Setting aside Israel, the big Middle Eastern powers are now the once-marginalized non-Arab ones: Iran and Turkey. And unlike Iran or any of the Arab states, Turkey has a great story to tell: not the reconstitution of the Ottoman Empire, but the rise of a democratic, free market state in the Islamic world of the Middle East. Salem described Turkey as "the only country in the Middle East actually pointing toward the future." That is what is known as soft power.

So yes, young people: Do learn Turkish. Turkey has the world's 17th-largest economy and expects to be No. 10 before long. Some pundits and scholars would like to see the United States move toward Turkey rather than the other way around. In his new book, Reset, Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent, argues that the three non-Arab powers of the Middle East -- the United States, Iran, and Turkey -- constitute a "tantalizing 'power triangle.'" Kinzer would have Iran and Turkey replace Israel and Saudi Arabia as key U.S. allies in the region. Perhaps the Turks entertain the same dreams.

That's not going to happen. The White House is not going to leave Israel in the lurch, even if the right fears it and realists like Kinzer hope for it. But the real beef between the United States and Turkey is Iran: Barkey observes that Erdogan does not understand that for Obama, Iran's nuclear ambitions are a fundamental issue, not a matter of regional power. One administration official with whom I spoke said that the Turks "have a very high opinion of their role in the world" and seem blithely unaware that they are provoking a backlash on Capitol Hill.

What then? To say that Turkey doesn't want to be a problem is only to say that Erdogan wants to have his cake and eat it, too: to court public opinion in Turkey and the region by targeting Israel, to satisfy nationalist aspirations by making a separate peace with Iran -- but not to pay a price with the United States or Europe. The Turks profess bafflement at the harsh reception their diplomatic forays have received in the West. This is either naive or disingenuous. Still, what price will Turkey have to pay? Maybe the White House won't try to stop Congress from passing a resolution accusing Turkey of having perpetrated genocide against Armenia (though it probably will). More seriously, Erdogan and Davutoglu are playing into the hands of Europeans who oppose Turkey's aspirations for EU membership. Nevertheless, they might have more to gain than lose by playing to the Middle Eastern street -- especially if they have concluded that the European Union won't accept them anyway.

The problem for White House policymakers is different. This administration is prepared to take counsel from rising powers. This is a G-20, not a G-8, White House. "We're trying to give them their place in the sun," says the official with whom I spoke. But how can they accord Turkey its place in the sun without acceding to a view of the Middle East that Washington does not and will not accept? "When you come up with that," the official told me, "let me know."


Terms of Engagement

Two Cheers for Multilateralism

Why the nuclear review conference was a minor triumph for Obama.

Let us now praise modest achievements. The U.N. review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty concluded at the end of May with a 28-page document (pdf)  that contained no new commitments by the nuclear-weapons states to move toward the abolition of such weapons. Nor did the non-weapons states bind themselves to accept more intrusive inspections of their nuclear facilities. The parties made few other substantive new commitments. Rebecca Johnson, a one-woman nuclear conscience who runs a British advocacy group puckishly named the Acronym Institute and who wrote an indispensable blog from the conference, describes the final document as "mostly smoke and mirrors."

That probably explains why the agreement has been largely greeted with a yawn. But Johnson, as well as other anti-nuclear advocates, believe that the agreement constitutes a historic breakthrough for which the Obama administration -- though not only the Obama administration -- deserves profound credit. I think they're right.

Until recently, the nuclear threat waxed and waned according to relations between the United States and Russia. That's history; the nightmare scenario of the post-Cold War world is not World War III but a nuclear strike by a rogue state or terrorist group. The U.S. cannot counter this threat without the active cooperation of many other states, and that is why both as candidate and as president, Obama has vowed to revitalize the non-proliferation treaty.

At the core of the NPT is a bargain in which the five states that had the bomb in 1968 when the treaty took effect -- the five permanent members of the Security Council, as it happened -- agreed to move toward disarmament while the other signatories agreed to work to prevent new states from acquiring a weapons capacity. In exchange, all states would be granted the right of access to peaceful nuclear technology. That bargain is often generously described as "frayed," as Israel, India and Pakistan have since developed a bomb without ever signing the treaty, while North Korea and Iran threaten to add to the list. The five official weapons states have mostly honored their disarmament pledge in the breach. And yet a dozen or more states that could have developed a weapons capacity have chosen not to do so. Many states have voluntarily accepted the intrusive inspections, known as "additional protocols."

Obama believed that other states would make good on their nonproliferation commitments if the U.S. took the disarmament side of the bargain seriously; the Bush administration, which sought to build new weapons even as it reduced the overall size of the arsenal, did not. The NPT is reviewed every five years, and the 2005 conference during Bush's presidency was an unmitigated fiasco. In 2004, John Bolton, then the assistant secretary of state responsible for arms control, had announced that the administration would not be bound by agreements that had been painstakingly reached in previous review conferences, infuriating many of the non-weapons states and licensing would-be spoilers to throw their own spanners in the works. Signatories spent the first half of the month-long review conference fighting over an agenda, and the second half blaming each other for a failure that felt foreordained.

By contrast, Johnson notes, "the Obama administration put people in place a year ahead of time, especially Susan Burk" -- the president's special representative for nuclear nonproliferation -- "to really work the whole field." The single greatest impediment to an agreement was Egypt's longstanding campaign to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East -- a zone that would, of course, include Israel, the only nuclear state in the region. A 1995 agreement to advance the concept was the chief target of Bolton's sweeping 2004 edict. This year, Egypt would come into the review conference as the president of the Non-Alignment Movement, giving it far more leverage over other states than it had in the past. Cairo, and the NAM, insisted that the conference would be stalemated once again absent real progress on the Middle East, but Egyptian diplomats quietly stipulated that they would be open to a compromise outcome. Washington began negotiating in earnest months before the meeting began. And on the final day of the conference, all sides agreed on a non-binding conference to be held under the auspices of the U.N. secretary-general in 2012.

Because NPT conferences operate by consensus, which any one state can block, a final report requires the threading of many needles. Only two previous conferences, in 1985 and 2000, even concluded with such documents. This year, Iran came to play the spoiler, starting with a defiant opening speech by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The Iranian delegation made a last-minute bid to forestall consensus by asking Egypt to convene a meeting of the NAM countries the day before the conference ended; Egypt, refused. Unwilling to be isolated, Iran signed the final agreement. Tehran made no concessions on its apparently inexorable march toward nuclear-weapons capacity; an NPT review conference is not the setting for such high-stakes diplomacy. Nevertheless, the Obama team, always searching for evidence, however tenuous, that its engagement policy has helped realign global opinion on Iran, can cite the non-aligned countries' pragmatism in the face of Iranian intransigence as a new data point.

There is, it's true, much less than meets the eye in the 64 "action" points of the final document. France and Russia adamantly opposed the idea of a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and requiring their abolition by a specific date (and Britain and the U.S. weren't enthusiastic either). Instead, the report said, the conference "notes" a suggestion by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that "proposes ... consideration" of such a treaty. The conference also recognized "the legitimate interests of non-nuclear-weapons States" in having the weapons states agree to things they wouldn't, in fact, agree to, like lowering the "alert status" of weapons to allow more time for a decision in the midst of a crisis. In his nuclear posture review, released in April, Obama also refused to make this concession.

But that's how consensus documents sound: You slice the salami finer and finer until you've reached a razor-thin point of agreement. The specific commitments matter less than the fact of commitment.

Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, puts the case negatively: "Given all the stresses and strains on the treaty at the moment, what would the effect be on our ability to deal with these challenges if these countries could not come to agreement on a final document?"

John Duncan, Britain's ambassador for multilateral arms control and disarmament, states the positive case: "What is described in this document is a political process," rather than a set of outcomes. Recognizing the "legitimate interests" of others is not an eloquent dodge, Duncan says, but a pledge to be held accountable. And that, he asserts, is something genuinely new.

In the recent past, of course, states have asked to be held accountable on fully funding development assistance, or reducing their carbon output, or stopping atrocities abroad, and haven't so much as blushed when they failed to make good. That's the limitation of the contractual approach to international affairs that Obama holds dear. But consider the alternative: the truculent John Bolton was not about to win concessions on nonproliferation, or anything else for that matter, from developing nations. Thanks to Obama's expressions of good faith -- in the New Start treaty with Russia; in his nuclear posture review, however compromised; in his speeches at home and abroad -- those states were willing to make pledges on nonproliferation they had never made before. Bolton and others of his ilk, whom I described in my column last week as Hobbesians, would say that such pledges aren't worth paying for. A Lockean like Obama would say, at the very least, that you cannot know until you try.

Modest achievements are just about the only kind multilateral diplomacy offers. And because such agreements require innumerable compromises, they're easier to attack than to defend. Obama's commitment to "the international order," so prominent in the recently released National Security Strategy, requires a measure of trust, but it also rests upon a willingness to accept small, incremental improvements, and thus, at least at its best, upon a prudent sense of how much you can hope to move the world beyond your borders. There is more "realism" in the slow and often frustrating effort to promote international norms than there is in the self-defeating battle cry of "you're with us or you're against us."

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