Erdogan is no friend to America. He’s a dictator with strange ideas, not unlike Nicolás Maduro.
Turkish citizens are wildly optimistic about the invasion of Syria that began Oct. 9. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision finds broad support within Turkey, including from all the major opposition parties except the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. The incursion is understood domestically not only as a measure to protect the country from the Kurdish forces Mr. Erdogan calls “terrorists,” but also to affirm Turkey’s status as a power; Ankara no longer must bow to the wishes of Washington, Berlin or Moscow.
Then there’s the pessimistic view, the one I share. The invasion damages Turkey internationally: Western and Arab governments have condemned the military operation, as have the Russian, Iranian, Indian and Chinese governments. Volkswagen paused a planned investment in Turkey, and other companies may follow suit. Congress is weighing economic sanctions. Italy, France and Germany have suspended arms sales. Tensions are heightening between Turks and Kurds in Germany, and will likely rise within Turkey as well.
Though northern Syria’s open terrain is favorable to regular forces, Turkey’s huge army may not do so well on the battlefield. Mr. Erdogan has purged the officer corps several times in recent years for domestic political reasons. Even if initially routed, the Syrian Kurdish forces could regroup to mount a costly insurgency against the Turkish occupation. Turkey has many regional enemies eager to trip it up. Like many prior wars begun in a flush of jubilation—recall the British youth joyfully enlisting in 1914, confident of returning victorious within weeks—this one may end ingloriously.
Should the military operation go badly, responsibility for the failure will fall squarely on Mr. Erdogan’s shoulders. A brilliant politician and Turkey’s most consequential leader since Atatürk, Mr. Erdogan has repudiated Atatürk’s legacy of socialism, secularism and avoiding foreign military adventures. Instead, for years he oversaw a capitalist economic boom, and he still rules with an Islamist sensibility and a neo-Ottoman approach to foreign policy. In the nearly 17 years since his party first took Parliament, he has transformed Turkey.
But like other masters of domestic politics— Saddam Hussein comes to mind—Mr. Erdogan wrongly assumes that the cunning and aggression that brought him political success internally will also work internationally. This explains his unleashing thugs on the streets of Washington, abducting Turkish citizens accused of coup plotting from multiple countries, attempting to smuggle dual-use materials to Gaza, illegally drilling for natural gas in Cypriot waters, and shooting down a Russian jet fighter, among other bellicose actions.
Mr. Erdogan’s foreign-policy ineptitude has alienated other governments.
- Europeans seethe when he threatens to send 3.6 million displaced Syrians their way.
- Israelis despise him for a vitriolic anti-Zionism that compares them to Nazis.
- Egypt’s president hates Mr. Erdogan’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Erdogan’s abject apologies haven’t compensated for
- shooting down the Russian jet
- China hasn’t forgotten Mr. Erdogan’s accusing it of genocide against the Uighurs, despite his silence now.
When the candidate from Mr. Erdogan’s AKP party twice lost the Istanbul mayor’s race this year, most analysts saw this as a “political earthquake” and a “stunning blow” to Mr. Erdogan, but he remains as dominant and dangerous as ever. A ruthless ideologue, his continued rule could bring to Turkey the
- political repression,
- economic collapse,
- hunger and
- mass emigration
that plague Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.
I worry about this terrible outcome because Mr. Erdogan has consolidated power over Turkey’s institutions:
- the military, the
- intelligence services, the
- police, the
- judiciary, the
- banks, the
- media, the
- election board, the
- mosques and the
- educational system.
He has supported the private security company Sadat, which some analysts consider a “shadow” or “private” army. Academics who signed a 2016 petition critical of Mr. Erdogan’s policies toward the Kurds have lost their jobs, faced criminal charges and even been jailed. Mr. Erdogan’s hare-brained theory that high interest rates cause, rather than cure, high inflation has recently done great damage to the economy. The 1,150-room palace he had built symbolizes his grandiosity and ambition.
In short, Mr. Erdogan is a dictator with strange ideas, wild ambitions and no restraints. The invasion of Syria has made a domestic and regional tragedy the most likely outcome.
How can the outside world prevent catastrophe? By terminating its disgraceful indulgence of Mr. Erdogan. Donald Trump is only the latest politician to fall for his mysterious charms— George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, among others, preceded him. Mr. Erdogan deserves punishment, not rewards, for his outrageous behavior. His heading a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member country should raise, not lower, the bar.
You’ve got to give Vladimir Putin his due: The man knows how to play a weak hand well.
With relatively little investment, the Russian leader is expanding his toehold in the Western Hemisphere and potentially getting access to giant oil and uranium supplies by backing a dictator in Venezuela.
With relatively little investment, he has expanded his base of operations in the Middle East by propping up a dictator in Syria and by trying to send some sophisticated Russian military equipment into Turkey. (For the latter effort, he’d actually turn a profit.)
And with relatively little investment, and little notice from a distracted international community, he has kept up a low-level war against those fighting a Russian takeover in eastern Ukraine, holding on to a bargaining chip he might find useful someday.
He does all this while overseeing an economy roughly the size of South Korea’s, which produces little or nothing the world wants to buy, outside of oil and military gear.
It’s an audacious strategy—and it is working. Never was that more clear than last week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Boltoncited Russian support as the only reason Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro remained in his country in the face of an organized uprising by his opponents and elements of his own military.
.. In short, Mr. Putin appears to recognize the moment he is in, and what to do about it. After almost two decades of a focus on combating terrorism and Islamic extremism, the world is evolving into a new era of big-power competition. The U.S. and China are the two big competitors now, of course, but Mr. Putin is making sure Russia is the third.
His problem is that Russia doesn’t have the economic might of the U.S. and China. So he brings to the table what he can, which is basically the ability to make trouble and thereby insert himself into the global mix.
Thus, Russia became an early world leader in the 21st-century tool of unconventional combat—cyber warfare. The Kremlin combined that skill with its traditional willingness to engage in the dark arts of covert action to interfere with the 2016 election in the U.S., as well as other elections in the West.
As the U.S. tries to maintain economic pressure on North Korea, Russia provides just enough economic relief to Pyongyang to ensure that Moscow has to be a player in how the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program plays out.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin is wedging himself into the space between East and West by offering to sell Russia’s S-400 air-defense system to Turkey, which happens to be a member of the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization. After members of Congress declared that Turkey couldn’t both buy the American-made F-35 jet fighter and have a Russian air-defense system geared toward shooting down that same jet, Russia stepped up and said it also would sell its own jet fighters to Turkey instead.
As usual, the president makes his predecessors look better.
Suppose you’re the type of smart conservative reluctantly inclined to give Donald Trump a pass for his boorish behavior and ideological heresies because you like the way the economy is going and appreciate the tough tone of his foreign policy, especially when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism.
These last few weeks haven’t exactly validated your faith in the man, have they?
.. The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey. So much for the idea, common on the right, that this is the most pro-Israel administration ever.
.. Contrary to the invidious myth that neoconservatives always put Israel first, the reasons for staying in Syria have everything to do with core U.S. interests. Among them: Keeping ISIS beaten, keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on the Levant.
.. Powers that maintain a reputation as reliable allies and formidable foes tend to enhance their power. Powers that behave as Trump’s America has squander it.
.. But leave that aside and consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint. Are Israelis better off now that the U.S. Embassy is in Jerusalem? Not materially. The move was mostly a matter of symbolism, albeit of an overdue and useful sort. Are Israelis safer from Iran now that the U.S. is no longer in the Iran deal and sanctions are back in force? Only marginally. Sanctions are a tool of strategy, not a strategy unto themselves.
.. What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president.
.. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not
- sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. It means we should
- resist interloping foreign aggressors, whether it was the
- Soviets in Egypt in the 1960s, or the
- Russians and Iranians in Syria in this decade. It means we should
- oppose militant religious fundamentalism, whether it is
- Wahhabis in Riyadh or Khomeinists in Tehran or Muslim Brothers in Cairo and Ankara. It means we should
- human rights,
- civil liberties, and
- democratic institutions, in that order.
Trump has stood all of this on its head.
He shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.
He speaks with no authority on subjects like press freedom or religious liberty because he assails both at home. His still-secret peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians will have the rare effect of uniting Israelis and Palestinians in their rejection of it
.. If you think the gravest immediate threat to Israel is jihadist Hezbollah backed by fundamentalist Iran backed by cynical Russia, the answer is no.
.. If you think the gravest middle-term threat is the continued Islamization of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — gradually transforming the country into a technologically competent Sunni version of Iran — the answer is no.
.. If you think that another grave threat to Israel is the inability to preserve at least a vision of a future Palestinian state — one that pursues good governance and peace with its neighbors while rejecting kleptocracy and terrorism — the answer is no.
And if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.