Monday, November 28, 2011

Iran's nuclear ambitions trigger massive Mideast arms race

I have a piece on Iran’s nuclear ambitions here where I try to figure out what factors push Iran to go nuclear that vociferously but I end up suggesting that Iran’s nuclear aspirations are also triggering massive arms race in the Middle East. It is a call for policy-makers to consider what actually the primary motivation is for Iran to continue with its nuclear program despite sanctions. Answer to that, I believe, will make it easier to prevent the Islamic republic from getting one of these dangerous toys.

Friday, November 25, 2011

States fake their foreign policies are moral

Domestic developments in a number of Middle Eastern countries now a subject of discussion among foreign ministers, international platforms and foreign affairs forums. It is an extraordinary period in which domestic ideologies and policies affect foreign dealings of states. It is very rare in history, if any, and to my knowledge, I remember no single event when states harmed their relations with other countries based on domestic policies.

Today, the Arab Spring taught us that states improve or kill their relations with nations based on degree of human rights records. Turkey lost its friends such as Syria and Libya as their cruel leaders started killing their own people. France and the U.S. were also forced to severe their ties with old friends like Tunisia and Egypt after feeling pressure from their citizens. These developments have challenged an orthodox view that states behave based on their national security interests, not morality, or principles. Even a claim that “instability elsewhere affects us” does not ring true. It is certain that unrest in Syria or Libya does not necessarily detrimental to U.S. or Saudi interests but both states heavily invested to replace hardliner decrepit leaders that killed their own people daily to maintain their seats.

It is always easy to sell hawkish foreign policy to people if values of an adversary stand in contrast to your country’s principles. Both Soviet and American leaders harangued to their people for decades how evil the adversary was – the most effective way to uninterruptedly sustain bellicose rhetoric in foreign policy. But conduct of both Soviets and Americans in foreign affairs purely rested in their national interests: the U.S. supported any type of government that was anti-government during the Cold War. Even U.S. President Richard Nixon and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger embraced Chinese mass killer Mao Zedong in the heyday of Cold War, who was ruling his country with communist iron fist.

The Middle East is an important region for Russia, China, Europe, Turkey and the U.S. because the region is a primary source of energy to world’s most advanced industrial spots. Independent variable here is energy, dependent variable is who is securing the flow of energy. For other nations, it is not important who is providing them strategic goods such as oil and gas – it is important that they make sure the oil and gas is flowing uninterruptedly.

But isn’t it immoral foreign policy practice if nations stand by any type of government that is a source of stability in the region? It is indeed. And the reason why states lash out against regimes that are brutally massacring their own people is to avoid being seen as calculating pragmatist states.

Many challenged realists in the face of the Arab Spring that states, as a matter of fact, do care about morality. For reasons mentioned above, to save their ties with other dictators, nations are forced to abandon and forsake leaders that have gone astray.
Lucky those states whose national interests also go hand in hand with moral principles.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Don’t fool us; missile shield is all about Russia not Iran

I was chatting with colleagues from my newspaper Alyson Neel and Erduan James today over how states behave in an anarchic international system under certain circumstances and we agreed in unison that the Cold War is an ideal laboratory for most type of research related to that.

I am happy to see that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has launched a debate on Wednesday that looks more or less like a typical Cold War wrangling over the anti-aircraft missile defense shield.

Since the chaotic demise of the Soviet Union, Russia and the U.S. had hard times in closing gaps between each other and this is something we should not be surprised of: domestic politics hardly change foreign policy strategies. But the primary and underlying reason behind ever-fresh standoff between Russia and the U.S. is definitely missile defense shield that both former President George W. Bush and the incumbent one tried to install in Russia’s backyard.

U.S. President Barack Obama had an attempt to what he named “reset” relations between the two subtle foes and he might have attached big significance to eating hamburgers in an American restaurant as a way to bury decades of hostilities. Suffice it to say that neither of Obama’s efforts to repair ties with Russia yielded a significant return.

Medvedev threatened the U.S. and NATO on Wednesday to deploy missiles to target the missile shield in Poland and Romania if Washington falls short of convincing Russia that the missile shield is aimed at Iran, not Russia. He added that he still hopes for a deal with the U.S. on missile shield, underlining that the U.S. and its allies were shrugging off Moscow’s call to cooperate on this defense plan that annoyed Moscow for years. Russia wants written, legal guarantees that the shield is not directed at Russia but other countries, particularly Iran.

NATO did not a good job last year during its Lisbon summit, fooling everyone that Iran is posing an existential threat to NATO member states and that deployment of missile shields in Romania and Poland and early warning radar system in Turkey is worth building as an effective way to intercept ballistic missiles from Iran. Flourishing ties between Iran and Turkey then put Turkish officials on the defensive and Turks adamantly opposed specifying Iran as a target in the shield.

The question is if a war breaks out between Iran and Israel/U.S., why on Earth Tehran would bomb Warsaw or Vienna? It is beyond doubt that Israel has a sufficient capability to intercept any ballistic missiles from Iran. Why would NATO allies want to specifically stress Iran as a target in the missile shield if it is not about deflecting Russia’s attention? Russia consented last year to the deployment of missile shield in three countries as the West assured Moscow that it will cooperate and jointly run the shields. That did not happen and NATO refused to work with Russia on this.

Russians also requested a written legal document from NATO, indicating that the missile shield is not against Russia’s nuclear arsenals yet with no avail.

Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin seems angrier than any Russian on this issue. He accuses Washington of “openly lying” about its missile defense plans. "We won't allow them to treat us like fools. Nuclear deterrent forces aren't a joke."

It is clear now that NATO has no choice but press ahead with missile defense plans to get Eastern European allies under its security umbrella at the expense of its already worsening ties with Russia. NATO could also give written guarantees to Moscow that the missile defense is not really about Russia. Seriously, who cares what is on paper? Hitler also shook hands with Stalin and signed many papers how to divide Europe just before the World War II. What we saw at the end of the day was a Soviet Union flag in eastern side of Berlin.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Turkey eventually gets it right on Syria

In the harsh judgment of Turkish foreign policy, I yesterday blasted Turkish diplomats over overlooking a possibility that Turkey may consider military action in Syria once the current tensions escalate into a potentially devastating phase.
Turkish diplomats told a group of journalists that Turkey could consider a buffer zone in case there is huge influx of Syrian refugees fleeing violence in Syria and pour into Turkey. They also said Turkey could participate even in military intervention yet only with international community and under United Nations mandate. 
Turkey also now rightly considers that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will go and all its Syria strategies are based on this assumption. Turkey was reluctant to cut ties with Damascus  until August and did not seek ways to get rid of Assad as of last week. Pro-Assad protesters stormed Turkish diplomatic missions and more importantly, Turkish flag was burned -- something that steered this process reasonably well and provided a major impetus for this development.
Building friendships based on personal attachments and trust is the main reason that makes decision-makers act late and make their judgments mostly flawed. In my previous post, I urged Turkish leadership to forsake policies that are aimed at increasing pressure on Assad and instead hold consultations with its partners on how to effectively deal with the situation in case military intervention comes into play. The reason why everyone -- NATO, Western nations and Turkey -- is ruling out Libya-style military intervention in Syria is because they think they are going to decide on this. Turkey and its partners will not decide to start a war with Syria; they will more likely be drawn into. The most you can say is that there are scattered signs that things are getting there slowly. This is the reason why nations must talk how to invade Syria rather than ratchet up pressure in the hope that Assad will feel the heat of sanctions and eventually relinquish power.  
Aaron David Miller discusses in some detail in his latest New York Times op-ed why states must not attack Syria. He said the scale of risk in any intervention in Syria is altogether of a different and greater magnitude, as are the consequences of getting mired into that Arab country. He warned that military intervention in Syria could trigger a conflict of catastrophic proportions and in the shadow of war and violence, everything could spin out of control in the region.
What he didn’t yet fully comprehend was that the overall discussion of military intervention in Syria is not something nations want to do; it is a development that seems will be realized.
It is everyone's wish that Assad will soon step down to save his nation from another war but his insistence to stay on power no doubt will make military intervention more likely. And states must focus more on military strategies during possible military operation in Syria not on ineffective sanctions. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Turkey’s leadership not fading but emerging

It is now famous hobby among observers to document what they say “demise of Turkey’s zero problems foreign policy” in a “I told ya” style. They are largely claiming that Turkey’s foreign policy of zero problems – a disguise to claim a responsible regional leader – is falling apart in the face of uncertainty that encircled Turkey’s foreign policy decision-makers as they are confused over an appropriate way of responding to recent developments in the Middle East.

Observers largely ignored the fact that it is not Turkish foreign policy that is peeling but an ideology that has naively driven the country into an utopian land of friendships that yielded no benefits. Demise of ailing foreign policy for a rising regional power means the country is now more exposed to conduct a successful foreign policy that marries with realities on the ground. Eloquent speeches Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was delivering over the past few years where the gap between rhetoric and action widened only consumed Turkey’s credibility on the world stage.

Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy, undoubtedly, seemed out of touch with realities on the ground and the country’s zero problems doctrine took it down a slippery slope once the challenges have become inevitable. Underlying this strategy was the view that a borderless Middle East, one in which Turkey arrogates to itself the regional role of setting standards, would allow people freely trade with each other and contribute to the prosperity of each nations. A win-win.

This grand strategy – designed only for peaceful times -- has been pursued through an array of liberal initiatives in which Turkey started to reap its economic fruits. If history is any guide, it will be evidently clear that there is no a quarter decade in the history of the Middle East when wars and conflicts did not prevail every kind of economic or social transactions.

And then a furious wave of unrest blew in like a fatal wind. Navigating in a region of fragile balance of power and vulnerable dictators is challenging and that is why, to borrow Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s phrase, there is “no mercy for the weak” and let me add – for the naive. Turkey’s leadership had later learned that maintaining good ties with Arab rulers is a sure path to a room full of trouble. Its decision-makers are still tossing back and forth the question of whether to pursue principled foreign policy at the expense of Turkey’s interests.

Steven A. Cook penned a piece in The Atlantic – surely better than anyone else who has written on this subject lately – claiming that Turkey’s dream of regional leadership has failed. Cook is correct is pointing to the fact that things are not developing in the way Davutoğlu envisioned but this is good news rather than a cause of concern for Turkey’s Kissinger.

Turkey has learned an important lesson from its interaction with leaders like late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: No one can be trusted.

The future now hinges on Turkey’s ability to reinvent its foreign policy strategy. Turkey’s prime minister and foreign minister drafted Turkey’s strategy in dealing with the unrest sweeping in Libya and Syria based on their trust and expectation that these leaders will heed Turkey’s recommendation. That did not happen.

Current crises and cracks in Turkey’s foreign policy strategy will surely heal its already bleeding foreign policy rather than damaging it. Turkey’s leadership is thus not fading in the region yet its rise will now be more conspicuous than ever.

Will Turkey invade Syria?

Many observers have recently stepped up speculations that Turkey is better positioned than anyone else in the Middle East to put an end to the eight-month conflict in Syria at a time when Turkey’s options have become increasingly clear that are limited.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu acknowledged Thursday that Turkey is not going to decide by itself on Syria and that it could only have a say -- a stark departure from Turkey's earlier position that Turkey is a primary responsible actor in Syrian affairs. He preferred to leave the leadership role to the Arab League instead and warned against creating an atmosphere where Syrians feel that new political system is imposed thanks to external pressures.

As Western sanctions and the latest Arab League initiative failed, observers turned their face to Turkey, who had cultivated relations from scratch with the Syrian government in the past few years. Left unresolved, however, is whether Turkey has a capability and will to further push ahead to squeeze the noose on the Syrian president.

Turkey, along with other players, is now simply seeking to steadily ratchet up the pressure on a regime that many have already ruled out as a possible survivor.

As to whether these sanctions have strong teeth to bite, the reality is that there are two feasible options on the table that could topple the Assad regime. Either strengthening insurgency will disorder army’s cohesiveness or other nations will rush to help Syrian rebels to bring down the decades-old ruthless autocracy. It is certainly a colossal blunder to expect Syria’s leader to relinquish power by ratcheting up pressure on him and on his cronies.

In the background of the ongoing calls on Turkey to intervene looms the shadow of an uncertain consequences if Turkey or its allies ever start waging such a perilous war. Turkey has become a largely ambitious country, bristling with self-confidence but it has started to realize that its options are limited, capabilities under constraint. It long claimed that Syria is its internal affairs and that whatever is decided over Syria’s fate, nod from Turkey was necessary. But the country has become weary of failed attempts to stop bloodshed in Syria and its appetite for such an engagement has dimmed.

It is now more than clear that Turkey will play a very important role in any possible and impending military intervention in Syria but that is not something Turkey will decide on its own.

Turkey’s increasingly deepening confrontation with Syria writ large lately but it hardly could translate into military intervention. Turkey now needs to discuss possible military operation against Syrian regime with its allies because that is where Syria is heading to. Waiting for sanctions to work will cost more Syrian blood and clock is both ticking against Assad and innocent civilians that are ruthlessly killed in streets.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Turkey deserves no blame for working with dictators

In his recent article published by Project Syndicate, Sinan Ülgen argues that Turkey’s now failed “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy lifted Turkey among “league of influential nations” but the Arab Spring exposed the policy’s vulnerabilities, and Turkey must now seek a new guiding principle for regional engagement.

He is correct in suggesting that Turkey’s zero problems foreign policy strategy has become unsustainable but he is wrong in claiming that the policy failed because dictators have started to tumble.

He asserts that Turkey cultivated unconditional relations with authoritarian rulers in the Middle East and when the Arab Spring put these despotic regimes in danger, Turkey was forced to pick sides and forsake its previous policy of maintaining good ties with autocratic regimes.

Turkey experts Mustafa Akyol, Soner Çağaptay, Gönül Tol also argued here, here and here that zero problems foreign policy failed because of the Arab Spring. They basically claim that zero problems foreign policy meant zero troubles with dictators.

The argument seems simple and appropriate at initial glance. But is there any state that puts democracy or human rights record as a precondition in building ties with another state? Those states who highlight and criticize lack of democracy in a country do so to make their already strained or bad relations more legitimate and seem to having foreign policy based on moral principles. How does Turkey deserve blame for improving its ties with neighboring countries? This should not be the source of guilt.

It is not Turkey’s fault to have good ties with authoritarian regimes, it is what nations do. Above all, who decides what is a “good government?” Every ruling structure has its own distinct fallacies and shortcomings.

It was, however, Turkey’s fault to build its foreign policy based on personal relationships, principles and naive assumptions that states can be trusted. Turkey worsened its relations with countries like Libya or Syria not because of brutal crackdown on protesters by Gaddafi and Assad regime. Turkey’s leadership decided to cut ties with these countries only after its foreign and prime ministers felt betrayed and insulted.

Turkey vociferously rejected the idea of military intervention in Libya and even opposed sanctions at the outset but it later dramatically changed its position only after realizing that Gaddafi shrugged off Turkey’s recommendations and not because he became a monster.

Turkey did not severed its ties with Damascus until August, when Assad forces had already killed more than 2,000, and Erdoğan dumped Assad as a friend only after he felt betrayed, lied and not because he became "evil mass killer." It was easier for Turkey to call on former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to step down because Turkish-Egyptian relations were driven by national interests not mutual trust.

A closer look at the nature and dynamics of authoritarian regimes, it is obvious to note that fallen dictators remained in power for decades. Alternative to Turkey’s close ties with dictators would be its previous foreign policy of isolationism that brought no benefit and it is unfair to accuse Turkey of cultivating relations with dictators and see it as a chief culprit in bringing down the zero problems foreign policy.

Iran will go nuclear; question is how to deal with it

This encounter between Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens and Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour in Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show presents two differing viewpoints between those who believe strike on Iran is becoming more inevitable than ever to prevent the Islamic republic from acquiring a nuclear weapon and those who believe sanctions and diplomacy is more effective way to bring Iran to its knees.

But there is one thing everyone seems to overlook: How to deal with Iran armed with nuclear bombs?

It has been increasingly clear that Iran will develop a nuclear bomb sooner or later and any possible Israeli or American strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities or covert sabotaging will only delay the country’s suspected nuclear program by three years at most along with tragic consequences for Israel and US interests in the Middle East.

Three countries in the Middle East who are believed to have secret nuclear weapons program present a fresh motivation for Iran to go nuclear even faster than Iranian leaders plan. Israeli fighter jets allegedly bombed Iraq’s nuclear facilities in Osirak in 1981 and devoid of any nuclear deterrence in Iraq eventually brought the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Libya’s late leader Muammar Gaddafi relinquished its nuclear program in 2005 in a bid to open up to the international community and largely because he felt his country is secure without nuclear weapons capability. It is beyond doubt that no country could dare to intervene in Libya this year if it had nuclear weapons.

Another glaring example is Syria, whose plutonium enrichment facilities were bombed by Israeli warplanes in 2007. Its embattled leader Bashar al-Assad now faces impending military intervention into his country due to already surfacing civil war there. It is also out of question that it will be hard to think of military intervention in Syria if it has nuclear weapons.

These three examples no doubt pushed Iran’s regime who is trying to survive at every cost to reconsider its nuclear program and if any effect, they will further motivate the Islamic republic to get nuclear weapons even faster.

Another motivation for Iran to go nuclear is increasing Israeli and American threats of possible military strikes on Iran. It is a simple math: the more threat a state faces, the more deterring capability the state will attempt to acquire. University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer tells his students in this lecture that he would advise Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to weaponize if he were his national security adviser in the face of increasing threats.

I was chatting this morning with Mark Fitzpatrick from International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) who has served in a number of US administrations for many years and who is one of the most prominent experts on nuclear disarmament with respect to Iran’s nuclear activities and I asked him if Iran will eventually go nuclear. He was sharp in his response: No strategy needed for Iran with nuclear weapons because it will not happen. As a measure of last resort, military strike will come into play.

Everyone in these days is speaking about how to stop Iran’s nuclear activities they suspect a disguise for nuclear weapons. But a smarter strategy would be to accept the fact that Iran will get the nuclear capability sooner or later and draw policies that will contain Iran from posing a security challenge for the West and neighboring nations.