Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters as he leaves a mosque after the Eid al-Fitr prayers in Istanbul, Turkey, June 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters as he leaves a mosque after the Eid al-Fitr prayers in Istanbul, Turkey, June 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Today, eastward from the Atlantic, America faces more hostility and can count on less support than ever. Although US foreign policy is not wholly responsible for this predicament, its incompetence contributes to it. US policy toward Turkey, as ever part of Europe, of the Middle East, and of Eurasia, is the prime object lesson.

The geopolitical importance of whoever controls the Black Sea straits has been obvious since the Greco-Persian war of the fifth century BC.

In AD 330 the Romans moved half their empire to Constantinople, straddling the Bosphorus. When the Ottoman Turks turned it into Istanbul in 1453 they became great among nations, conquering southwestern Europe and the entire Middle East while pushing back the Russians. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as the Turks weakened, European nations and Russia knew that advantage over one another depended substantially on influencing them or on taking their territories.

During the Cold War, America had no stronger Nato ally than Turkey, and counted on it as a bastion of democracy in the Middle East and Eurasia. Robert Strauz-Hupé dean of America’s students of geopolitics, ended his career as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Turkey. That was then.

Today Turkey, Nato membership notwithstanding, is in the grip of a dictatorial Islamist regime. Part and parcel of the Muslim Brotherhood, it works against Western interests pretty much everywhere.

Since most of Nato’s other European members are essentially impotent vis a vis their own problems with the Muslim world and Russia, and since their ruling class is increasingly open in its cultural divergence from America, Americans cannot now count on the nation seeing their interests confluent with ours. Turkey poses its own problems for us, and helps sap Europe’s vestigial vitality.

This might have happened all by itself – in Western Europe as a result of de-christianization, the welfare culture, bureaucratic government, etc. and in Turkey from people’s natural dissatisfaction with Ataturk’s militantly secular, Westernizing legacy. But it did not.

Today, because of where Turkey is, because it is led by a Sunni Islamist government, because of the choices this government has made in the 21st Century, the country is literally in the middle of the Middle Eastern cauldron of terrorism, which cauldron its government stirs vigorously and incompetently.

US foreign policy helps it stir, just as it abetted Turkey’s political change from ally to adversary and Western Europe’s turn from allies to drags, by pretending that today’s Turkey and Europe are what they once were.

Recep Erdogan, effectively Turkey’s dictator, seems to aim simultaneously to foster all manner of anti-Western Islamism, to help the Sunni side in the Muslim world war, and to rebuild as much of the Ottoman empire as possible. It is not unlikely that he harbors the intention of returning the Caliphate to Istanbul with himself as Caliph.

Meanwhile, he wages war against the roughly one-third of Turkey’s population who are Kurds. The incompatibilities inherent in these simultaneous pursuits have placed Turkey in precarious military and diplomatic straits. US foreign policy’s attempts to help Erdogan navigate these straits have only sunk America in the Middle eastern morass.

Erdogan’s Turkey has been waging war against Syria’s Alawite (Shia) regime by supporting various Sunni rebels against it, including Daesh, the Islamic State. In so doing, he has tried to avoid excessively provoking Iran, the Syrian regime’s main sustenance and the very core of the Shia side in the great war, by allying with Qatar, with which Iran shares the world’s biggest gas field, and Iran’s only other state ally.

Qatar literally finances the Erdogan regime. In return, it hosts a Turkish army base that serves as a sort of guarantee against invasion from Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Qatar’s attempts to make themselves acceptable to the rest of the Sunni world’s governments by touting their Sunni credentials have not succeeded because the groups they finance, the Muslim Brotherhood foremost, considering nearly all Sunni regimes to be insufficiently religious and insufficiently anti-Western, are at war with them as much as with Westerners.

Thus Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states, because of Turkey and Qatar’s strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempted takeover of Egypt, cannot help but see Turkey and Qatar, as well as the groups they fund, as mortal enemies.

As a result, the Syrian civil war is also a proxy war between these states and Turkey. Add to this the fact that Erdogan’s day-to-day military/political priority in this war is to limit the growth of an incipient Kurdish entity along almost its entire southern border, and you see Turkey’s problem. Continuing present policies offers no good outcome. Retreat would acknowledge the regime’s faulty premises. Hence, Erdogan bets on continuing the status quo indefinitely, and on the United States making it happen.

Historically, US foreign policy’s problems have stemmed from confusing America’s own interests with those of allies, from letting others’ tails wag our dog. In this case, so many states and groups are involved in and around Syria’s civil war with interests so peculiar to themselves, so interwoven with one another, and so differently tangential to America’s that it would have been surprising had US policy not succumbed. Herewith, one instance.

America’s own interest in our safety requires convincing all the region’s potentates, minor and major, that any terrorist act against Americans that comes from their jurisdictions or for which we attribute responsibility to them will result in their annihilation. That is why the US is committed physically to annihilate ISIS. But ISIS survived as long as it did largely because Turkey provided logistical space for it, and because Qatar paid for it.

Even as US troops lead a coalition of the willing to finish it off, Turkey conditions US logistics on the US essentially join it in limiting the Kurds. At the same time, Turkey helps fortify Qatar against the demands of the Gulf Cooperation Council that Qatar stop supporting terrorists, in part by shutting down the al Jazeera television network which has done so much to foster it.

Were US policy strictly to pursue America’s interest to make an example of terrorists and those who enable them, it would inform Turkey of our intent to do that as we think best, remind Erdogan that our relationship with Turkey depends on what Turkey does for us, and ask him to consider the consequences of open enmity to America.

As for Qatar, US policy would applaud the GCC’s demands regarding al Jazeera. That is because, while America values being able to fly out of Qatar’s al Udeid air base to kill terrorists by the dozen, it will no longer tolerate Qatar’s operation of a TV station that recruits terrorists by the thousand.

But no. The US foreign policy establishment considers Turkey and Qatar to be allies so valuable as to warrant placing good relations with them ahead of the reasons why we deal with them in the first place.

Qatar hosts an air base of ours. Turkey does that too, and is inherently very important. Sure. But what is Qatar’s net effect for us? Turkey’s present malignant regime turns that importance against us. Pretending it were not so only make us partners in the harm done us.

None of this is to suggest that US policy embrace the Saudi-Egyptian alliance that seeks to monopolize the Sunni side in the Sunni-Shia war under an anti-terrorist banner. Unfortunately terrorism is the Muslim world’s default tool in international relations. Saudi Arabia is the mother-house and nursery of Wahhabism, which motivates more terrorists than any other ideology.

Egypt, under Nasser, invented al Fatah, the grandaddy of modern terrorist groups. But today, Saudi Arabia, and above all Egypt, fear Sunni movements like ISIS, and are even more afraid of ones based on the Muslim Brotherhood, like Hamas, which get support from both Sunni and Shia. And they fear Iran. That is why they are at odds with Turkey and with its financier, Qatar.

US policy should be limited strictly to making use of these fears to serve the American people’s chief interest in such countries and in their quarrels: preventing harm to ourselves.

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.

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