A recent article by Patrick Cockburn, one of the ablest reporters covering the Middle East, provides an excellent character portrait of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. It is certainly consistent with what little I have been able to learn about this fascinating politician. Regardless of what you may think of Erdogan, and he has many detractors (I am not one), he is certainly establishing himself as an influential world leader who must be reckoned with in an emerging multi-polar world.
Cockburn’s report is must reading, because Erdogan has maneuvered himself onto the moral high ground in a very serious crisis he did not create. Consider please the following:
By standing tall against Israel’s murderous commando attack on the unarmed ship in international waters that was carrying aid to the besieged inhabitants of Gaza, and by promising to be on another ship trying to break the blockade, Erdogan has set an example that contrasts sharply with the latest generation of pusillanimous leaders in the United States. They have refused to condemn Israel’s attack, even though a US citizen was among those murdered — thus continuing the pattern of unprincipled moral weakness that began when President Johnson refused to act decisively after the Israelis deliberately attacked the USS Liberty in international waters in June 1967, murdering over 30 American sailors.
Not surprisingly, Erdogan has become the newest bête noire of the neocons. They have embarked on a concerted effort in their media outlets to smear him as well as to trash our relations with Turkey, starting with screeds in the Wall Street Journal and Weekly Standard. Their hypocrisy is stunning. Many of these same neocons assiduously cultivated the so-called strategic Israeli-Turkish alliance in the 1990s and, in fact, lobbied Congress on the behalf of Turkey. AIPAC is lobbying Congress for a resolution of support for Israel’s attack, or failing that, is pressuring congressmen to not criticize Israel. AIPAC and the neocons are also stoking up the Armenian lobby to criticize the modern Turkish Republic for the genocidal crimes which occurred during the waning days of a decrepit Ottoman Empire. This is logically equivalent to criticizing German Chancellor Angela Merkel for Adolf Hitler’s crimes. Some congressmen have already made strong public statements of support for Israel, and by extension a condemnation for Turkey, while the majority — like the good Germans of the 1930s — have done likewise by remaining silent. Israel just hoisted Obama on his petard (again) by requesting increased arms aid from the United States which, of course, will be rubber stamped by a compliant Congress. Meanwhile, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army, just threatened to sink any Turkish warships carrying Erdogan, if it was escorting another flotilla of aid ships trying to break the blockade of Gaza. The threat is serious, because it was made on Israeli Army Radio, an outlet for policy pronouncements intended to lather up the Israeli citizens for battle.
To add final insult to this march of folly, Sheera Fenkle just reported that the blockade of Gaza is not about stopping arms shipments to Hamas, because in her words, ‘McClatchy obtained an Israeli government document that describes the blockade not as a security measure but as “economic warfare” against the Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Palestinian territory.’ Put another way, Israel’s own documents suggest that the Israeli government understands the blockade is about an illegal collective punishment of the Gazan people for having the temerity to elect Hamas to govern Gaza in a free election. Ironically, it was the short-sighted Israelis who promoted Hamas in its early years during the late 1980s as a tactical means to divide and weaken Palestinian allegiances to the PLO.
So Turkey and Israel are maneuvering themselves and the United States into a trap between the moral high ground and the moral low ground for very different reasons. In the eyes of most of the world, Turkey is playing a constructive grand strategic card, while Israel is playing a destructive strategic card. One holds out hope for peace and justice while the other continues its warlike business as usual. But there is more. An Israeli attack on Turkey would be also an attack on the NATO Alliance. Under the terms of the NATO Treaty, such an attack should trigger what is known as an Article 5 response — an attack on a NATO ally is an attack on all. This is what the US used to justify a NATO response to 9-11 in Afghanistan, even though the Afghan case was far less clear than the Turkish-Israeli imbroglio, because the Taliban was at most an accomplice to the 9-11 crime and may not have known about it in advance. If Israel carries through on its threat to attack a NATO warship, it would be a clear act of war. If the US (and the rest of NATO) does not respond, you can kiss NATO and Turkey goodbye, and the US would lose moral standing in the world to a greater degree than that engineered by George Bush and his fellow neocon travelers — which is no small achievement. Nobody could ever trust the United States to live up to its formal treaty obligations. Our relations with Russia and China would be weakened dangerously, and Iran’s position in the Middle East would be strengthened. The fall of dominoes would go on in all sorts of directions.
To borrow the unforgettable words of British Foreign Minister Edward Grey in the fateful summer of 1914, “the lights are going out all over” the Middle East, in NATO headquarters, and in the White House (assuming they were turned on). If Erdogan presses forward with his public promise to be on another Gaza aid ship or an escorting Turkish warship and if Israel acts on its threat to sink the ship carrying him, then like the chain of events of August 1914, the march to war could very well take on a life of its own.
We know what Israel will do if, as is likely, the US stands passively on the sidelines again, so the questions of the hour seem to be: Will Erdogan blink? Will the US force him to blink?
Study Cockburn’s report and judge for yourself if blinking is a part of Erdogan’s character, particularly, when he has maneuvered himself onto the moral high ground, and it is obvious to all but a few that the low grounders, like PM Netanyau, are playing the hapless Mr. Obama for a moral dupe — again.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at email@example.com