The terrorist leader lived just long enough to witness an almost complete repudiation of his more strategic vision for, as he put it, “the establishment of a castle of the Muslims, a new Caliphate” which would enforce his radical interpretation of Islam across the umma.
As it happened, the risings of 2011 across the region, like the unrest in Tehran in 2009 and Lebanon in 2005, traced their roots to a desire for “decadent” values like non-violence, personal liberty, rule of law, economic opportunity and free speech.
To pour salt in the wound, when a leader did finally emerge from the land of the Ottoman sultans, he would not be the fiery advocate of Islamic revolution bin Laden had prayed for, but rather the leader of a secular democracy with a modern economy, close ties with the West, a military treaty with Israel and membership in the very military alliance, NATO, which was battling the remnants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Cue the Seal Team.
As someone who lost friends and family in the towers of Manhattan that day, I can’t say that I’m not pleased. But life is for the living, so let’s turn to that Anatolian leader, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and consider the future, not the past.
Not since the downfall of Nasser in the early 1970s has a single figure emerged who would plausibly claim to speak for the Arab world. It is no small irony that the leader in question is a non-Arab.
Polls show that Erdogan, a practiced juggler of the region’s many conflicting passions, to be the most admired leader from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the border of Iran. In the authoritative 2010 Poll of Arab Public Opinion conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, the Turkish leader was cited by 20 percent of Arab respondents when asked “Which world leader do you admire most?” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, at 13 and 12 percent respectively, were distant runner-ups, and bin Laden (before his death) languished at 6 percent.
For the leader of Turkey to assume the mantle of leadership in the wider Middle East reversed a century of decline in Turkish influence, dating to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. This is no coincidence. In recent years, Ankara charted a much more independent course in foreign policy, led by his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, whose doctrine of “no problems with Turkey’s neighbors” provides the justification for closer ties than Washington would prefer with countries like Syria, Iran and the Palestinian movement Hamas.
The fact that Erdogan’s government has proven its independence from Washington has won him great credibility in the Arab world at precisely the moment when such a voice is desperately needed. Realistically, if there is any rival at all for Erdogan’s influence it would probably be another non-Arab, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This has mitigated his stock’s fall in Washington, too, and is accelerating Turkey’s march toward the top table of regional economic and security.
Missteps Along the Way
But the Arab Spring has presented new challenges, and Turkey has found it no easier to suddenly turn its back on friendly despots than Washington. With regard to Libya and Syria, in particular, Turkish policy has verged on the bizarre since the Arab Spring started. Turkey’s opposition to a “no-fly” zone over Libya, even after the normally quiescent Arab League demanded one, perplexed admirers of Erdogan, particularly those risking their lives to challenge Qaddafy’s regime. Turkey also prevaricated horribly on Syria, even as Assad’s tanks drove civilian refugees over its border seeking shelter from the violent crackdown there.
“As a result, at a moment of unprecedented regional change, when people power and democracy is sweeping the Middle East, the Turks look timorous, maladroit, and diminished — not at all the regional leader to which Ankara has aspired,” says Steven Cook, a fellow on Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of books on Turkey and Arab dictatorships.
These new realties may be driving Erdogan to mend fences with Israel, where relations have been poisonous since the Gaza flotilla killings. Turkish-Israeli trade has surged ahead, growing at a pace of 40 percent annually in recent years, in spite of the coolness. Yet Erdogan wisely chose against a breach in relations, understanding that Turkey’s route to regional superpower status is based on its place as a middle-man who can pick up the pieces of America’s shattered regional credibility.
The Turks clearly covet a major role in broker peace in the region – they tried repeatedly to do just that between Assad’s Syrian government and Israel over the Golan Heights. Inviting Turkey to co-host talks between the Israelis and Palestinians would, in Arab eyes, show that the U.S. recognizes it is not regarded as a fair mediator of the conflict.
Ally or Peer?
From the U.S. standpoint, this should be viewed as the God send that it is. Sadly, America’s policymaking community remains nearly as inert as Israel’s when it comes to absorbing the long-term implications of the Arab Spring. But imagine, after a true reconciliation between Ankara and the Israelis, if the U.S. asked Turkey to organize the next round of peace talks and reserved its alleged influence for critical moments.
Indeed, an outright a U.S.-Turkish partnership also would have enormous strategic benefits beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, opening the way for more realistic approach to Iran’s nuclear program. The current U.N. sanctions and other unilateral moves aimed at pressuring Tehran have been made more effective recently, but given high oil prices buoying Iran’s economy, alone will not be enough to force hard bargaining.
Turkey already tried, in partnership with Brazil in 2009, to broker an agreement with Iran on uranium enrichment. It failed largely because of U.S. opposition. Forging a truly joint Turkish-American approach could break the deadlock.
Virtually alone in the region, Turkey has the industrial capability, skilled native labor force and sophisticated banking sector able to turn Gulf money flows into facts on the ground in the forms of new infrastructure. Its growing economy, its world-class construction and engineering firms, coupled with investment from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, could remake countries where roads, railways and housing still look much the way they did when the French, Italians and British left a half century ago.
None of this would be simple. Turkey’s recent spat with Israel and independence on foreign policy issues has earned it enemies in Washington and in Israel, and reconciliation would raise the opposite suspicions around the region.
Yet down the road, drawing Turkey deeper into the politics of its former empire would be essential to create a lasting security structure – a kind of Middle Eastern NATO – to keep the peace as American power wanes and other interested players, from China to India to the oil-thirsty EU, move to secure the region’s vital resources. With Washington’s help and the addition of Egypt and possibly the Saudis, the Turks could help create the first truly regional collective security system in the Middle East. American policymakers appear to have given little thought to this possibility at this point, again assuming Washington itself would play the role of “balancer.”
History shows that leaving such details to chance invites chaos as a once dominant power begins to focus on other priorities. Unless American taxpayers are expected to sustain forever the current constellation of American military bases and naval flotillas in the region – a carrier strike group both in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean, a dozen air bases, a nearly permanent “float” of U.S. Marines and amphibious support flotilla, separate bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Incirlik in eastern Turkey — some regional system of managing the Middle East’s myriad “non-Israeli” conflicts must be established in America’s wake.
China, India and others interested in keeping the oil flowing will project their own presence soon enough. Today, Turkey, alone among the region’s larger powers, is focused on the wider world rather than internal revolution (Egypt) and regime perpetuation (Saudi Arabia). The shattering of Bin Laden’s dark dreams brought no new Sultan to the fore, but the democratic successor to Constantinople’s empire can ensure a generation of progress — if only the U.S. and regional powers have to courage to allow it.