When U.S. forces found themselves beset by a growing insurgency in Iraq following their lighting overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the most obvious parallel that came to mind was Vietnam: an occupying army, far from home, besieged by a shadowy foe. But Patrick Cockburn, the Independent’s (UK) ace Middle East reporter, suggested that the escalating chaos was more like the Boer War than the conflict in Southeast Asia.
It was a parallel that went past most Americans, very few of whom know anything about the short, savage turn of the century war between Dutch settlers and the British Empire in South Africa. But the analogy explains a great deal about the growing influence of a country like Turkey, and why Washington, despite its military power and economic clout, can no longer dominate regional and global politics.
Take the current tension in U.S. –Turkish relations around Iran and Israel.
The most common U.S. interpretation of the joint Turkish-Brazilian peace plan for Iran, as well as Ankara’s falling out with Israel over the latter’s assault on the Gaza flotilla, is that Turkey is “looking East.” Rationales run the gamut from rising Islamicism, to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ explanation that the West alienated Turkey when it blocked Ankara from joining the European Union (EU).
While Turkey’s rise does indeed reflect internal developments in that country, its growing influence mirrors the ebb of American power, a consequence of the catastrophic policies Washington has followed in the Middle East and Central Asia.
From Ankara’s point of view, it is picking up the tab for the chaos in Iraq, the aggressive policies of the Israeli government, and the growing tensions around the Iranian nuclear program. As Sedat Laciner, director of the International Strategic Resource Center in Ankara, told the New York Times, “The Western countries do things and Turkey pays the bill.”
While the Cold War is over, argues Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, “a new global” order has yet to emerge. Until those “mechanisms” are in place, “It will therefore fall largely to nation-states to meet and create solutions for the global political, cultural, and economic turmoil.”
Davutoglu’s observation about “a new global” order is an implicit critique of a United Nations’ Security Council dominated by the veto power of the “Big Five”: the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China. Increasingly countries like Turkey, Brazil and India are unhappy with the current setup, and either want a place at the table or a reduction of the Council’s power. The latest Iran sanctions passed 12 to 2 to 1 in the Council. They would have failed in the General Assembly.
Internally, Turkey is putting its house in order. It has returned the once all-powerful army—four coups in as many decades— to the barracks, shifted power away from Istanbul elites to central and eastern Turkey, eased up on domestic repression, and even begun coming to terms with its large Kurdish minority. Legislation before the parliament would allow Kurdish language television stations and establish a commission to fight discrimination.
Externally, Turkey is following what Davutoglu calls a “zero problem foreign policy.” It has buried the hatchet with Syria, and reached out to Iraq’s Kurds. Of the 1200 companies working in Iraq’s Kurdistan, half are Turkish, and cross border trade is projected to reach $20 billion this year. And the Kurds have something Ankara wants: 45 billion barrels in oil reserves and plentiful natural gas.
Turkey has expanded ties with Iran and worked closely with Russia on energy and trade. It has even tried to thaw relations with Armenia. It has mediated between Damascus and Tel Aviv, brokered peace talks between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and Serbians and Bosnians in the Balkans, and tried to reduce tension in the Caucasus. It has also opened 15 embassies in Africa and two in Latin America.
Its foreign policy is “multi-dimensional ” says Davutoglu, which “means that good relations with Russia are not an alternative to relations with the EU,” an explicit repudiation of the zero-sum game diplomacy that characterized the Cold War.
Turkey’s ascendancy is partly a reflection of a political vacuum in the Middle East. The U.S.’s traditional allies in the region, like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are increasingly isolated, distracted by economic troubles, paranoid about internal opposition, and nervous about Iran.
This growing influence has not been well received by the U.S., particularly the recent deal to enrich Iran’s nuclear fuel. But from the Turks’ point of view, the nuclear compromise was an effort to ratchet down tensions in a volatile neighborhood. Turkey is no more in favor of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons than is the U.S., but as Laciner says, it also doesn’t “want another Iraq.”
Of course there is an element of self-interest here. Turkey gets 20 percent of its gas and oil from Iran, and Tehran is increasingly a valuable trading partner. Indeed, Turkey, Iran and Syria are considering forming a trade group that would also include Iraq.
Ankara’s falling out with Israel is attributed to the growth of Islam, but while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party does have a streak of Islamicism, Turkey’s anger at Israel is over policy not religion. The current Israeli government has no interest in resolving its dispute with the Palestinians, and leading members of the Netanyahu coalition have threatened war with Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
A war with any of those countries might go regional, and could even turn nuclear if the Israelis find their conventional weapons are not up to the job of knocking out their opponents.
Ankara has much to lose from war and everything to gain from nurturing regional trade agreements and building political stability. Turkey has the 16th largest economy in the world and seventh largest in Europe.
Turkey has begun working closely with other nations who would also benefit from a reduction in international tension. Ankara’s partnership with Brasilia is no accident. Like Turkey, Brazil’s economy is humming, and Brazil has been key in knitting together Mercosur, the third largest trade organization in the world. It has also played no small part in helping South America to become one of the most peaceful regions in the world.
The U.S., on the other hand, has drawn widespread anger for its support of the Honduran government, expanding its military bases in Colombia, and its increasingly unpopular war on drugs. If much of the world concludes that regional powers like Turkey and Brazil are centers of stability, while the U.S. seems increasingly ham fisted or ineffectual, one can hardly blame them.
The British eventually triumphed in the 1899-1902 Boer War, but what was predicted to be a cakewalk for the most powerful military in the world turned into the longest and most expensive of Britain’s colonial wars. In the end the British won only by herding Boer women and children into concentration camps, where 28,000 of them died of starvation and disease.
All over the colonial world people took notice: a ragtag guerrilla force had fought the mighty British army to a stalemate. The Boer War exposed the underlying weakness of the British Empire, just as Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that the era when powerful countries could use force to dominate a region or the globe is over.
“The world is not going to take the diktats of the powers that have run it for the past two or three hundred years,” political scientist Soli Ozel of Bilgi University in Istanbul told the Financial Times.