Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Turkey is again America's buddy, but why?

Turkey has won many accolades from the West for a renewed alliance with the U.S. and for playing a key partnership role with its friends in NATO in handling complex situation surrounding the Middle East as unrest rocked the region more than a year ago. 

Some pegged this turnabout to Turkey’s what they claim “failed foreign policy of zero problems.” Soner Çağaptay, in his op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, attempted to explain why Turkey has decided to rebuild its what he said more beneficial alliance with the West.

He noted that far from confronting Washington on a range of issues, Ankara is embracing its membership in NATO while working closely with Washington on Middle East issues, including Iran and coordinating Syria policy.

He asserted that Ankara's slowly drifting away from the West since early 2000s almost upset Turkey's “unique identity” that resulted in a period of increasingly cold relations with the U.S. and embraced the Middle East in a bid to become a regional power.

“This strategy, however, did not exactly make Ankara a formidable power in the Middle East,” Çağaptay claimed in his article.

According to Çağaptay, Turkey came to realize that its strategic value to the Middle East is not rooted in the fact it's a Muslim power but that it is a Muslim power with strong ties to the US and the ability to sit at the table with the Europeans.

Çağaptay is wrong. Turkey’s increasingly good relations with the U.S. is not about Turkey’s “realization” that it is has more strategic value if it has strong ties with the U.S. and NATO. Turkey’s renewed alliance with the U.S. could be explained by its “threat perception.” U.S. partnership benefit Turkey in countering Iran's ambitions in Iraq and Lebanon, in getting rid of Assad and containing French expansion in the Middle East. This was not the case in 2010 and might not be in 2013.  

Moreover, Turkey’s return to the Western world only means good relations with the U.S. Turkey’s European Union membership bid is stalled, its ties with NATO ally France are on hold and it is dissatisfied over European role in the Arab Spring.

Turkey had secured lucrative businesses in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran and Gulf countries by having good and sometimes personal relations with Arab and Iranian rulers. Escalating tensions with Israel made it popular among Arab public. U.S. policies were then detrimental to Turkey’s interests in the region. It bluntly supported Israel, asked Turkey to cut its business with Iran and sever ties with Hezbollah and Hamas. This was in contrary to Turkey’s business interests and its argument that it has ability to talk to every actor in the region.

U.S. also asked Turkey to install a component of NATO missile defense system and publicly declare that it is aimed at Iran. Obama was planning to deflect Russia's attention from the radar system by mentioning Iran in the hope to maintain his "reset" policy but this would cost Turkey's good relations with Iran.   

As Turkey’s business interests were in danger in Libya, Egypt and Syria due to the political instability that swept across the region last year, Turkey found the U.S. as a trustworthy partner that could help reduce Turkey’s damage. Inability of the U.S. to communicate with countries experiencing instability, cooperation with Turkey in these areas was beneficial. 

These were the circumstances that brought NATO allies together and these ties might be severed if Turkey again feels threatened by U.S. policies in the region.

Çağaptay talks about Turkey’s “act alone” strategy and asserts that the Arab Spring has exposed its limits. Turkey has never had such a strategy. In contrast, it wanted to maximize cooperation with neighboring countries by burying hostilities. If “acting alone” means shunning cooperation with Western powers and the U.S., it was necessary. Western engagement in the Middle East two years ago directly contradicted Turkey’s national and business interests; acting with them would be a misguided policy.

He also talks about new rivalry of Turkey with Iran because of the developments in neighboring Syria. Turkey’s adversary with Iran is not new. Turkey had good relations with Iran in the past few years because Israel and the U.S. squeezed the Islamic republic and this imperiled Turkey’s foreign policy interests.

Today, Iran’s growing influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon makes it necessary for Turkey to side with Washington to counter Iran’s ambitions. This is what balance of power in the region necessitates.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Deterrence is a lie! (if it is Iran)

Fareed Zakaria joins a chorus of intellectuals urging President Barack Obama to lay off “all options on the table” talk with respect to Iran as he smells a troubling trend driving up to a war similar to 2003  Iraq war campaign.

His column in The Washington Post aims to assure the conservative wing who has already started to beat the drums of war that deterrence usually works, even if it concerns Iran. He says when he was in college in the early 1980s, he invited Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, to give a speech on campus. He recalls that U.S. colleges were hotbeds of opposition to the Reagan administration and a series of students stood up and started chanting a single line as he spoke: “Deterrence is a lie!”

These leftist groups were then opposed to Reagan administration’s policy of containment with the Soviet Union, unaware of the fact the president’s containment would lead to chaotic collapse of the Soviets in a couple of years.

Zakaria says it used to be those on the right who would patiently explain the practical virtues of deterrence in 1980s but today they reject this scenario regarding Iran.

He notes that conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and others denounce containment and deterrence and claim that it would lead us instead to a policy that culminates in a preventive war.

People on both sides understand the dangerous consequences of pointed strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities but they definitely consider these “collateral damages” less scary than Iran with nuclear bomb.

According to Zakaria, the prospect of destruction produces peace and its record is remarkable. History is a great guide: “Great powers went to war with brutal regularity for hundreds of years. Then came nuclear weapons, and there has not been a war between great powers since 1945 — the longest period of peace between great powers in history.”

But why deterrence cannot work in Iran’s case? It is simply because scaremongers regularly attempt to portray Iranian leadership as morally corrupt, irrational and suicidal. But history again suggests otherwise. Iran has never fought a war with any Western powers. Its insurgency against Russian and British occupation in first and second world wars was minimal. There is hardly any piece of news in the Western media speaking about “Iranian suicide bomber” or “Iranian terrorist” in the past few decades.

A recent survey by Reuters/Ipsos showed that 56 percent of Americans would support U.S. military action against Iran and 39 percent of Americans opposed military strikes if there were evidence that Iran is building a nuclear bomb. 53 percent of Americans say they would back U.S. military action if it led to higher gasoline prices, while 42 percent said they would not.   

Iranian regime is a successful survivor in an increasingly hostile neighborhood of self-help. It faces little domestic opposition that could affect its foreign policy decision-making in an irrational way and it clearly understands its red lines. An attempt to frame Iranian regime and its rulers as “irrational” is not helpful and even counterproductive. Soviets’ Stalin and North Korea’s late dictator were way more brutal and merciless than the current Iranian leadership. But they could be easily and successfully deterred -- without any war talk.

Constant portrayal of Iran's leadership as irrational helps conservative narrative that nuclear weapons are dangerous toys at the hands of Iranian rulers. And that’s the main reason why Americans believe that Iran with nuclear weapons must be stopped – even if it significantly hurts their daily lives.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Who is stronger: Azerbaijan or Turkey?

Cengiz Aktar, who is known for his pro-Armenian stance among Turkish public, tried to handle a sensitive issue in his column on Wednesday, which is rarely discussed.

He basically claims that the Turkish influence in the Arab world has no match in the Caucasus. Quite to the contrary, he then goes, it is now Azerbaijan, which is asserting its influence over Turkey. He is providing a famous example from Turkey’s unfinished business of normalization with Armenia that has become a failed attempt in 2009 after both Turkey and Armenia proposed a set of preconditions to implement the twin protocols on establishing diplomatic ties.

Azerbaijan opposed the normalization, which included opening of borders between Armenia and Turkey two months after the protocols are ratified by parliaments. Azerbaijan explicitly said it is contrary to its national interests.

Aktar also suggests Turkey’s oil and gas interests with Azerbaijan as a reason why Turkey hesitated going down the road of burying a century old hostilities with its arch foe. According to Aktar, one of the reasons why Turkey decided to end normalization process with Armenia is Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He implied that siding with Azerbaijan in the conflict is basically "blindness" stemming from Turkey's overconfidence.

The Turkish columnist says thanks to Turkey’s recent relative economic and diplomatic success, it now appears more and more to be an over-confident country. “The reason behind the inability to develop policies is the blindness triggered by that overconfidence,” he claims.

Aktar is correct in suggesting that Turkey's energy interests, internal opposition, discontent from Azerbaijan and its luxury to consume its increasing power killed its Armenia initiative.

He is right on the spot when he says Turkey’s overconfidence has derailed some of its policies, made it a sponsor of unnecessary policies that in fact brought little benefit, if any.

What Aktar was offering as an explanation of such a change is true for many cases including this one. But he is erring when he claims that the outcome of such a policy shift runs contrary to Turkey's national interests. Turkey changed its Armenia policies not by carefully calculating its benefits and by realizing that Azerbaijan is a strategic asset; however, the outcome is in the best interest of Turkey. Setting aside all domestic pressure and emotional attachment to Azerbaijan, a carefully calculated pragmatic assessment would yield the same result -- something Aktar ignores to see.

If Armenia was awash with oil and gas and Azerbaijan was a burden, Turkey would act the same way because of internal opposition and Azerbaijan's dissatisfaction. Aktar’s argument would be correct in this scenario.

When states have too much power, they also have luxury to use this clout in adventurous ways and are easily influenced by domestic lobbying and politics. Kenneth Waltz aptly says “international politics is too serious a business” and he would be right if states had just enough power to defend themselves. Too much power is being abused, mostly by domestic political actors.

What Aktar is suggesting is true in many ways. Over-confidence and too much power is being abused and frequently corrupts. But Aktar should sit tight; Turkey was lucky that domestic political demands were in line with its national interests with respect to maintaining good ties with Azerbaijan.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Obama’s Iran doctrine misguided, increases likelihood of war

U.S. President Barack Obama has made it clear in the past few days that he will not countenance nuclear-armed Iran, a clear-cut red line – if not bluff. This also, in other words, means the U.S. is not even considering plans of containment after Iran gets a nuclear bomb.

There are many reasons why Obama’s premature Iran red line announcement is misguided at best. Let’s consider two scenarios with respect to the Iran’s nuclear imbroglio.

In the first case, also current US-Israeli policy, the U.S. and Israel declare that they will not tolerate Iran with nuclear arsenals. With this policy, war of devastating consequences is inevitable if Iran decides to go down the nuclear road. Even if Iran does not develop nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future, which it claims it doesn’t, preventive war is seen in the offing as trust deficit between Iran and the West is unlikely to be eliminated. In a nutshell, after the U.S. and Israel choose bite over bark, the war is either inevitable or highly likely. The astonishing part of this scenario is that it doesn’t solve Iran’s nuclear crisis; it might instead urge Iranian leadership to redouble their efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and even spur other countries to follow the suit to counter Iran.

Fortunately, Obama clearly understands that this rhetoric carries the seeds of war. In a related development, he said on Tuesday that diplomacy can still resolve the crisis over Iran's possible pursuit of nuclear weapons and accused his Republican rivals of "beating the drums of war."

In the second scenario, the U.S. and Israel avoid putting red lines and instead increase the intensity of international pressure to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. With this policy, no matter what Iran does, the West shelves war with Iran and hence avoids destabilizing Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestinian territories along with skyrocketing the price of oil amid global economic recession.

Containment is not new to the U.S. foreign policy; it has successfully contained major nuclear powers such as Soviets and China in the past, whose leaders were much more brutal and merciless. Containment of Iran will also make Iran decelerate its nuclear program and make compromises to rescue its crippling economy. If Iran still works tooth and nail to acquire a nuclear weapon, in the absence of U.S. or Israeli pressure, regional countries such as Turkey or other Gulf nations will counter Iran’s ambitions. They will eventually shoulder the burden of containing Iran. The lack of alacrity in regional countries to squeeze Iran into abandoning its suspected nuclear program is because the U.S. and Israel are doing much of the work.

After the Islamic republic gets the bomb, there are prospects that Iran and Israel may again become regional friends in the face of common Arab threat. Much of the Iran-Israeli standoff has to do with Iran’s nuclear ambitions; accepting to live with nuclear-armed Iran will clear the way for a possible Iran-Israel thaw. If history is any guide, it will be clear that war with Iran is more perilous than Iran getting a nuclear bomb. 

Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer and Robert Jervis have all made it clear that more nuclear weapons are key for stability and enhanced security. This is not to suggest that Iran should acquire a nuclear bomb but to advocate that US and Israeli leaders must lay off hawkish talk and concentrate more on containment – a better strategy to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb than war that could unleash unpredictable devastating consequences.

If Obama's "zero tolerance" policy is a bluff -- and he made it clear that it is not -- it will reduce U.S. credibility all around the world in case the U.S. doesn't take decisive actions once Iran declares it has nuclear weapons.