Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Telling Detail: The Turkish Leader's Personal Quarrel with Barack Obama

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By Barry Rubin

I've written a lot about the motives for Turkey's regime in turning toward the Iranian bloc and away from the West, as well as picking a bitter quarrel with Israel (here and here). But there's a detail that's extraordinarily important that must be added.

This is something that one hears from many Turks, both regime supporters and oppositionists, but hasn't surfaced in the Western media. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is very angry at President Barack Obama and feels that the U.S. president has personally insulted him. And accepting this story, many pro-regime Turks think that Obama has thus insulted Turkey itself.

[Why, might you ask, do many opposition Turks feel angry at the United States? A big step in that was the quarrel in 2003 over whether U.S. troops could go through Turkey to get into Iraq. So, yes, this is one case where the Bush Administration does deserve a lot of the blame. But one more recently constantly hears Turks opposed to the Islamist regime who are mad because they feel that Obama is supporting the Islamization of their country by being so soft on the current regime.]

For months and up to the very last minute, Obama privately encouraged Erdogan to negotiate with Iran for some kind of deal. This was a terribly stupid thing to do since Obama should have understood that Erdogan is now very close to Tehran. But the Turkish prime minister was eager to play an important international role and to help his friends in Tehran, as well as scoring points with the United States.

In another bad mistake, Obama thought that coddling the Turkish regime would lead to gaining its vote in the UN Security Council on sanctions against Iran. The result was the exact opposite.

(Incidentally, this is a big misunderstanding regarding the Turkish regime. A number of people claim that it really is trying to be friends with everyone. This isn't true. It is helping Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah against the West. But as long as the West imposes no cost for this policy, the regime can present itself as everyone's friend.)

Well, last month, Erdogan "succeeded." He made a terrible deal with Iran on the very verge of the UN Security Council vote on sanctions. Suddenly, the Obama Administration realized that this was a disaster, offering an escape route for Tehran to postpone or even block sanctions altogether. It reacted strongly against the Turkish-Brazilian bargain.

Erdogan was, understandably, outraged at the perceived American betrayal. He is a very tumultuous and emotional man and when he feels his honor is impugned, he blows up. And so he did.

I am NOT suggesting here that the Obama Administration shouldn't have rejected the Turkish-Brazilian proposal. Saying that the proposal was no good was a correct decision. The mistake was blundering into a corner by essentially encouraging untrustworthy and even hostile intermediaries to talk on America's behalf.

Nor am I suggesting that this is the sole reason for the Turkish regime's current policy. One leak claims U.S. officials are saying that Brazil was really the bad guy and Turkey would have been content to abstain rather than vote against the sanctions. Possible but it might be letting Turkey off the hook easily.

What I am saying is that this has been one of many Obama Administration errors which is leading to a decline in American credibility and power, undermining U.S. alliances and helping its enemies, or making friends decide they're better off to get in good with America's enemies.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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