The Arab Spring has captivated the world and grayed the hairs of foreign policy analysts in governments around the world. Indeed, the Arab Spring will go down in history alongside the end of the Cold War as an event that no one, most notably foreign policy elites in government and academia, saw coming or even had a plan to confront. The Obama administration made their unpreparedness painfully obvious in the president’s repeatedly fumbled statements during Egypt’s revolution leading up to the ousting of Hosni Mubarack.
The United States has since paid a price; whereas before Arab public discontent with the US was held at bay by tyrants who could be pushed and persuaded by America, the Arab public is now in a position to have their discontent reflected in their countries’ policies. This comes at a time when, because of the Obama administration’s feebleness during the revolts, attitudes towards America have become worse than when Bush, the same Bush who waged wars in two Muslim countries, was president. Additionally, the US is pulling out of Iraq and will likely do the same in Afghanistan in 2012. The final product is America being pushed, and pulling itself, out to the periphery of the region.
The Obama administration’s self-fulfilling prophecy of waning American influence in the Middle East is leaving behind a dangerous power vacuum that Iran has been hungrily eyeing. However, another actor, a (mostly) democratic US ally, has entered the stage and has the potential to reshape the dynamics of the Middle East—the Republic of Turkey.
The seemingly meteoritic rise of Turkey’s influence in the Middle East is coming under increased scrutiny by the Western media. The most common question media outlets are asking themselves is: “Is Turkey turning its back on the West?” Some, like Hoover fellow Dr. Daniel Pipes, have postured that the “newly Islamist” Turkey is “going rogue” and that “along with Iran’s nuclear weapons, a rogue Turkey is the region’s greatest threat.”
With respect to Dr. Pipes, interpreting Turkey, America’s long-time and continuing ally, in this manner would be a complete misinterpretation of not only Turkey but also the trending of the geopolitical landscape since the Arab Spring. Understanding Turkey’s strategic perspective reveals that Turkish interests are still highly compatible with America’s and can offer an excellent channel to reinvigorate American influence in the region. The best illustration of Turkey’s strategic perspective—and importance—is a map. Turkey shares borders with Syria, Iran, Iraq, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Greece and Armenia. In addition, Turkey has direct access to the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black seas. The Republic lives in a rough neighborhood, but also has very valuable real estate. Turkey shares a massive border with the Iranian-Syrian axis , perhaps Turkey’s biggest threat to its majority Sunni population (though the Syrian revolution may end this). Georgia barely qualifies as a buffer to Russia, as shown by the 2008 war between the two states, and an increasingly unstable and historically hostile Greece shares the Aegean. Turkey’s double-edged location is difficult for relatively isolated Americans to comprehend but it is absolutely fundamental to understanding and thus taking advantage of Turkey’s strategic interests.
I absolutely agree, and so would Turkish policy makers, that a hegemonic, nuclear-armed Iran is the region’s greatest threat not only to American interests but also to the rest of the region. However the next best thing to counter Iranian machinations besides American deterrence is a more powerful Turkey. Containing Iran is one of many shared interests between America and Turkey. Besides looking at a map, one not need look farther than the NATO missile defense emplacements that Turkey has agreed to install on its soil much to the anger of its neighbor.
Additionally, Turkey is openly positioning itself to create, in the words of its foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a “Turkish-Egyptian axis.” Turkey’s relationship with Egypt could become a cornerstone of Middle Eastern politics. It is no accident that Turkey is choosing Egypt over other states in the region. First, an alliance with Egypt could become an excellent balance against an Iranian axis and, crucially, Egypt still maintains, albeit coolly, a peace treaty with Israel. Despite the recent breakdown in Turkish-Israeli relations, Turkish officials have maintained that they do not see Israel as an enemy. Though military relations are in a current freeze, it is important to note that trade relations have remained unaffected.
The nuances and myriad of opportunities and challenges facing US-Turkish relations are too many to adequately cover in a column, but I cannot stress enough to my readers the crucial importance of Turkey to the future of security in the Middle East.
Joshua Alvarez is a senior International Relations major and president of the Alexander Hamilton Society. He is currently working on a thesis “Turkey’s Grand Strategy” for the CISAC undergraduate honors program. Please contact him at [email protected] with questions or comments.