I was listening to a Turkish professor on To the Point discuss the emergence of his country as a major regional player in the commercial, military and diplomatic affairs of the Middle East. He mentioned that Egypt’s revolution had forced it to step back from such a role as it contemplated its future. He also said that Israel has increasingly boxed itself into a corner and lessened its own leverage in the region, which has included deterioration of relations with both former allies (well, Egypt wasn’t exactly an ally, but you know what I mean). This has left a vacuüm in regional politics which Erdogan has had the vision and skill to fill. Not just that, Erdogan has had the ability to do something Pres. Obama Hasmalit not been willing or able to do. He’s been willing to crack the whip to get the various players to sit up and take notice. Israel has been a prime “victim” of this approach.
One critical factor that’s led to the rise of Turkey is the abandonment by the Obama administration of any sort of active, engaged role in the region. Sure, its stalwarts will retort that the president does have an active policy. But what he really has is a semblance of a policy, not the real thing. As I’ve reported here, the president’s Middle East policy has foundered on lack of fortitude in reining in Israel’s appetite for settlements and the latter’s bellicosity toward its neighbors. Obama has not been willing to do the hard things that would call the Israeli government to heel. But Erdogan has. And that makes all the difference in Turkey’s ascendancy and the U.S.’ decline in status in the region.
It was Turkey which brought together Syria and Israel for talks which may’ve led to a negotiated settlement of all outstanding differences and the return of the Golan to Syria. This rapprochement was disrupted by Ehud Olmert’s decision to invade Gaza. It was Turkey together with Brazil, which attempted to broker a deal to resolve the Iran nuclear issue. It did all these things in an attempt to play a constructive role and resolve conflict.
But the flip side of leadership is also to know when tough medicine is called for in relations with a neighbor. Sometimes honey doesn’t work and vinegar is necessary. That’s why Turkey is forcing Israel to pay a price for its hubristic behavior whether it be Operation Cast Lead or the Mavi Marmara assault. Erdogan also recognizes that the political currents from the Arab Spring work in his favor and not Israel’s.
Obama’s problem? He refuses to make enemies, even the right ones: whether they be Republicans, (some) American Jews or Israelis. Well, you can’t exercise leadership if you’re only kind, gentle and nurturing. There are times when you need to tell people who’s boss. Erdogan is willing to do that. Obama isn’t. Erdogan is willing to call Israel a “spoiled child.” Obama calls Israel the “best friend we have.” Erdogan is willing to tell the Arab League that supporting Palestinian statehood in the UN is “not a choice but an obligation.” Obama contradicts his own nation’s policy in denying Palestine statehood, making him look the fool. That’s the difference.
Obama’s hesitance reminds me of recent coverage of a presidential speech by Dmitri Medvedev, who’s running for another term against his former mentor, Vladimir Putin. The entire nation awaited a forceful statement of his vision, an urgent call to arms revealing his political agenda. When he had the attention of all Russia, what did he do? He delivered a stale list of platitudes, thus showing his countrymen and women he didn’t have the heart for a fight.
This is Obama in spades. He simply doesn’t have the heart for the trench warfare sometimes necessary to win in politics. And that, in a nutshell is why Erdogan is a true leader with the potential of greatness, while our president is an also ran.
To be sure, Erdogan is not perfect. Human rights in Turkey are sometimes threatened and the Kurds are not free. But at least this is a leader aware of the weaknesses of his country and working (perhaps too slowly in some areas) to repair them. Can we say the same about Bibi Netanyahu or even Barack Obama?
On a slightly different subject, we can see that a vote for Palestinian statehood in the General Assemby, which seems likely, could bring a huge wave of violence in the Middle East. While Israel claims that the violence would be originated by protesting Palestinians, the IDF itself has played a huge role in escalating tensions by declaring its expectation of violence. The world must put Israel on notice that it will not accept mass violence against Palestinians. It will not accept a national price tag policy from the Netanyahu government as a consequence of Palestinian rejection of U.S.-Israel directives to abandon the statehood bid. I fear this. I fear it greatly. It could be like the Mavi Marmara assault except on a much greater scale. I would love to be proven wrong and hope I am.
This article appeared at Tikun Olam