The U.S-Israel-Turkey Frenemy Triangle

Daniel Larison has a series of interesting, provocative posts on the U.S. and Israel’s deteriorating relationship with Turkey, made all the more acute by the Gaza flotilla disaster which left four Turkish nationals dead. Larison makes the larger point that we should not be surprised when the stragetic interests of developing democratic nations are not always aligned with those of the U.S. I agree with Larison’s main point here:

Hegemonists seem to think that if other countries are becoming more democratic they ought to become more “like us” in their “values,” and therefore their governments should be more willing to align themselves with the U.S. As we are seeing all over the world, the more democratic other nations become the more their governments begin to pursue interests that diverge from American interests….

But rather than diverging interests, Larison thinks it is the “disastrously bad leadership in Israel” that is largely to blame for the precipitous decline in Turkish-Israeli relations. He traces the impetus for this decline to Israeli’s “excessive and destructive military actions” in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2009. I do agree that both were excessive and destructive, and as Noah Millman pointed out in an excellent essay yesterday, they were untethered from any clear strategic or military goal:

Israel’s policy-making no longer seems to me to be particularly related to concrete policy objectives at all. Neither the Lebanon war nor the Gaza war had actual military goals. Both were essentially wars for domestic consumption. Hezbollah and Hamas were firing rockets at Israel, and Israelis were understandably furious. “Something” had to be done about that, to let the Israeli public know that their leadership felt their fury. So the government did “something.”

Larison argues that Turkey had particular reason to be angered by Israel’s actions, especially the Gaza war. He notes that immediately prior to Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan was mediating high-level peace talks between Israel and Syria:

[Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert turned around almost immediately after meeting with Erdogan and launched the operation against Gaza. Erdogan understandably felt that he had been left in the dark about Israel’s intentions and saw Olmert’s decision as sabotage of his mediation effort. In other words, the Turkish government was attempting to help Israel with a long-standing diplomatic problem, and Israel rewarded them by making Erdogan look like a fool. Add to that the damage and the deaths caused by the operation and the genuine outrage the Turkish public felt about these things, and one can understand how Erdogan has become so combative.

Is that really so easily understandable?

Much is made of Turkey’s increasing economic and diplomatic clout and its desire to play a more activist role in regional and global affairs. But a maturing and strong regional power does not “become combative” over diplomatic pique. And this sounds cynical, but Arab-Israeli peace is, to say the least, a contact sport, and no sane country decides to make its diplomatic bones by injecting itself in the Mideast peace process. If Erdogan thinks he has cause for special grievance simply because Mideast peace has made a fool of him, then he is not nearly as ready for the world spotlight as he thinks. If Erdogan hasn’t noticed, making fools of well-meaning mediators and interlocutors is all the peace process does!

Turkey can espouse a “zero problems with neighbors” policy all it likes, but that doesn’t mean its neighbors don’t have problems. Turkey ought not be surprised when playing diplomatic footsie with that renowned statesman and peace-lover Bashar Assad doesn’t lead to easy diplomatic victories or garner Turkey immediate international prestige and respect. Getting burned by naively wading into the Mideast peace tinderbox does not grant you the right to become “combative.”

Larison also concedes that Erdogan is all too eager to play the demagogue on Israel-Palestine:

Turkey and Israel did have a constructive, mutually beneficial relationship. Thanks largely to disastrously bad leadership in Israel that has provided Erdogan with a perfect foil for demagoguery, it is now in ruins.

But why is Erdogan so keenly on the lookout for pretexts for demagoguery? Why isn’t that the root problem here? If Erdogan wasn’t so eager to exploit a “perfect foil for demagoguery”, then perhaps the relationship would not be in ruins. A country that espouses a policy of “zero problems with neighbors” does not seek out opportunities to deliberately demagogue an issue on which it hopes to play a leading role as mediator! This is puerile behavior and it should come in for much more criticism from Larison than it does.

Larison also quickly glosses over the fact that the Turkish ruling party “has some sympathy for Hamas.” Steven Cook goes much farther, referring to Ankara’s “warm embrace” of Hamas, and calling the Turks “thinly-veiled advocates.” I know this sort of Islamist solidarity is not exactly shocking, but why should Israel have zero problems with a putative ally that expresses sympathy for a terrorist organization? How is Israel to regard an aspiring “honest broker” who is engaged in a warm embrace with the group dedicated to Israel’s destruction?

Both Turkey and Israel at times have had to suppress their immediate self-interest in the service of maintaining their strategic alliance. When those interests diverge too far and the alliance frays, it’s not fair to assign agency and blame to only one side, which Larison does above. If in the past Turkey has failed to act in its own self-interest out of a desire to mollify or curry favor with a strategic ally, perhaps Israel has done a little of the same with regard to Turkey. All governments have an instinct to wallow in diplomatic pique and to demagogue an emotional issue for the benefit of domestic consumption. Such instincts should not be condoned; not for Israel and America, and certainly not for Turkey.

On U.S.-Turkish relations, Larison offers a solution to the problem of diverging national interests: The U.S. should simply define down its conception of its national interests:

A more modest, limited, rational definition of American interests would considerably reduce the number of clashes with other governments, and an administration following such a definition would actually welcome the regional leadership and gestures towards burden-sharing that some of our allies have started to offer.

This has been our superpower paradox. As Ezra Klein put it regarding China:

On the one hand, we get a bit uncomfortable when other countries amass too much power too quickly. On the other hand, we want other powerful countries to use their power to take some of the burden off of us.

And we only want others to share the burden if they do so as our proxy, even if it forces them to subordinate their interests to ours. But at the same time, responsible burden-sharing means not crying foul every time you think you have cause to. It means being self-assured enough to not give in to demagoguery at home at every turn. And frankly, it’s absurd and unbecoming of a regional stakeholder to aspire to “zero problems” with your neighbors, when two of those neighbors, Iran and Syria, arm and support terror groups in Lebanon and Palestine, and rule their countries by brutal force and suppress political dissent and minority rights. Does Turkey have zero problems with Hezbollah? Does Turkey have zero problems with Bashar Assad’s police state? How about Iran’s fraudulent elections and subsequent bloody crackdown? Does Turkey have zero problems with rabid anti-semitism and homophobia?

If it does, it ought to say so. By all means Turkey, share in the burden. All of it.

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