Almost no one in America cares about foreign affairs, especially not for Barack Obama’s foreign affairs. For he has made of almost his entire conduct of peace and war an amateurish mess, crude, provincial, impetuous, peaceably high-minded but stupid—and full of peril to the world, to its democracies, to the United States itself. If only he had the consistency of George McGovern, we would know that Obama is not really interested in other countries and movements friendly to us and our political ideas; actually, he has some sympathies for enemy states, as the 1972 Democratic candidate for president did for both the Soviet Union and North Vietnam. This is not Obama. He believes—or at least believed—that he can change the world by earnest talk with foreign leaders who share not a single philosophical tenet of egalitarian individualism or representative constitutionalism. Of course, it was not only flabby, earnest talk that he brought to the table. It was also a certain haughty sycophancy before alien potentates and despots whom he thought persuadable through blandishments and obsequy about just how central they were to world peace. Or to whatever.
Among the president’s enthusiastic 2008 followers there appears to be no recognition that he has failed at every foreign venture he has attempted. Indeed, the question of Darfur, the litmus test issue for young true-believers in the campaign that never quite became a presidential venture, has been spun off to a principled do-nothing bureaucrat who has not been able (or, for that matter, tried) to persuade any African or Arab government to treat the Sudanese president, indicted on charges of genocide by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, as being subject to arrest wherever he goes, which he is. There is no embarrassment when this head of state arrives anywhere in the region, and there is nothing that embarrasses Omar al-Bashir, neither mass murder nor rapine nor the theft from his people of some $9 billion in cash, according to WikiLeaks documents. Darfur, which should have been the simplest rendezvous with destiny, was unceremoniously dropped from the president’s agenda. Given this, why should we have expected anything more of Obama on more intricate matters? As for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she travels around the world with all kinds of truisms that have not the semblance of conviction behind them, let alone the threat of force to back them up. So she is mostly talk. Hosni Mubarak was “family.” That was a choice she made. Unlike with her brothers, this family was not. With Bashar al-Assad, it was a little different. Hillary and her boss had the idiot idea that the monstrous president of Syria was a key to Arab-Israeli peace—or, if not a “key to,” a “prerequisite for.” He has now brutalized his own people so ruthlessly that, if ours were a parliamentary system, Obama would long ago have had to resign. He actually grasped nothing about the Syria in which he invested so much of his cachet.
Obama’s Middle East adventures began in Turkey, where he set out in the third month of his term to fix American relations with the Muslim world. Some informed people say (although I cannot swear) that the president’s initial ambition/intention was to go to Tehran and break, so to speak, with his own and Ahmadinejad’s hands the nuclear impasse. Such a visit, bound to fail, would in any case have derailed the always fragile but enduring relationship between the United States and Riyadh, where sits the temporal, if unofficial leader of all Sunnis and the absolute ruler of the Saudi oil kingdom. Instead, Obama went to Turkey, which also seemed a bit odd to the Arabs. Though Sunni Muslims, the Turks are, after all, not Arabs. Moreover, the Ottomans (that is, the Turks) had lorded over the Arabs since the second decade of the sixteenth century, almost exactly four centuries before 1917, with the sultan calling himself the Caliph of Islam and the Servant of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Chutzpah! as the Jews might say.
Why Obama wanted to make himself party to the ongoing destruction of the Ataturk revolution or of Kemalism I do not really know. Still, what has been happening in Turkey over the last decades and especially since 2003, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister, is a struggle between imperfect but secular democracy and representative Islamic government with mob support. The drift is toward Muslim fundamentalism in schools, in the legal system, and in the wider culture, which means a clamping down on the liberal tenets that had made the country an ongoing open society. But not entirely, not quite. For example, there have been several attempts at military coups, serious ones. And perhaps most important for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, it has produced during the last decade a prosperity not known in Europe outside the Scandinavian countries. I suspect, however, that the president’s affections for Turkey are derived more from its religious character than from its prosperity or from its eroding republican virtues.
In fact, the president seems to have assumed that he would have a magic touch with all Muslims. But the fact is that, after two and one half years, he has a magic touch with none. Indeed, he has been a flop with virtually every Islamic society in which he has tried to score. And no one can say he didn’t try. Turkey is the most complicated case. It aspires to membership in the European Union. Europe, however, doesn’t want it. No one can pretend that the grounds are other than demographic: The EU is not happy about absorbing an additional 70 million Muslims as citizens or even quasi-citizens. The recent Danish imbroglio over reimposing border controls (either in violation of the Schengen Agreement or not in violation) is one instance of this resistance. The recent French barring of Libyans and Tunisians from crossing the frontier from Italy is another case of resistance. Maybe the bloodletting enormity in Norway will temper such state acts—though not for long. Still, Turkey makes the second largest troop commitment to NATO, and its soldiers have participated in both the Afghan war and in Libya to the extent, at least, that the alliance’s troops have been fighting on Qaddafi’s turf at all and more certainly than American forces have. Islam was never a problem with NATO. But that was largely because it was not yet the clerisy that was in charge at home.
Turkey will not be much of a democracy for long. It is already quite close to being a clerical state—and a clerical state that cannot make peace with its Kurds (who are also Muslims) or with its own exterminationist history against the Christian Armenians, of whom perhaps 1.5 million were killed, and maybe two million. Not, of course, that the secular Turks were ever able or willing to bridge or erode these defining chasms either.
Nonetheless, the separation of church and state was the defining characteristic of the new Turkey that came into being nearly a century ago. It is true that there was an exchange of populations between the new Turkey and the new Greece, between Muslims and Orthodox Christians—not, by the way, what is now called “ethnic cleansing” to shore up the shabby and utterly ahistorical Palestinian argument that being moved five miles (or 15 and 50) constitutes a fate just short of carnage. (Many such population movements were engineered in the years after World War II, from Eastern Europe to Germany, back and forth between India and Pakistan, from Formosa, Korea, and Manchuria to Japan, much of it entailing great suffering but very little of the historical mortgage brandished against Israel by Arab propaganda.)
“There is growing concern that the secular order in Turkey, based on laicism and the strict separation of church and state, is in danger,” writes the distinguished Turkish-German commentator Baha Gungor in a short essay titled, “Where are you going, Mr. Erdogan?” in Deutsche Welle:
Last Friday evening, the former head of the Turkish armed forces, General Isik Kosaner, alongside the commanders of the army, air force and navy, made for a domestic political earthquake of unseen magnitude in Turkey: They requested early retirement. Only Necdet Ozel kept his post as high commander of the paramilitary gendarmerie, a relatively junior position within the military.
In the meantime, Ozel was named chief of the army as well as temporary commander of the Turkish military. The shock waves will still be felt for a long time, despite all reassurances from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul. The highest military council convened on Monday under Erdogan’s chairmanship, but there were five empty chairs at the table made for 14.
The dissatisfaction of the military proved too great—more than 250 middle- and high-ranking officers currently sit in pretrial detention for alleged coup plans against Erdogan. They share the fate of journalists and intellectuals who have been sitting in prison—some for up to two years—not knowing exactly what they are accused of. That’s why there is already doubt that the joy at a breakthrough against the Turkish military, one of the last bastions of anti-democracy in the country, is in fact misplaced.
The armed forces were namely a counterweight to the growing influence of religion in the government and society. There’s growing concern that the secular order in Turkey, based on the principle of laicism and the strict separation of church and state, is in danger. The revolutionary modernization and related westward orientation of the Turkish Republic, begun by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is crumbling.
Where are you going with this, Mr. Erdogan? Where will the prime minister start, after his electoral victory of nearly 50 percent elevated him to a virtual democratically legitimate autocrat? The growing pressure on dissidents, on critical voices and on the media does not bode well. Should Erdogan's conservative religious Justice and Development Party win over a handfull of opposition lawmakers, he will rewrite the constitution and, with an approval in a voter referendum, be able to form a presidential republic out of Turkey.
With three coups since 1960 and further interferences in the democratic process under threat of more revolt, the Turkish military has not always served the country well. However it did constitute a guarantee against the turn away from western norms, from democracy and the rule of law. This guarantee is no longer there.
It was not surprising that Washington failed to engage with Ankara in last year’s provocations against Israel with the flotilla of ships trying to interfere with the Gaza blockade. Yet, in the post-takeover period, the U.S. tried and succeeded in fanning down the reflexive anti-Israel diplomacy that can be summoned in the U.N. at a moment’s notice. When the second wave of the flotilla was being launched a few months ago, however, Washington was simply irrelevant. Israel did its own diplomatic work with its new ally, Greece, and with Cyprus. The flotilla simply flopped, with Turkey actually cooperating in the failure.
For years, Turkey had been allied with Assad in his tremulous ventures with Iran and Lebanon, even though this put some strain on Erdogan’s Sunni loyalties, which were fundamentally at odds with the Tehran regime and the Shia insurgency of Hezbollah in Beirut. Now, of course, it is no longer an insurgency. For the truth is that Hassan Nasrallah is the governing figure in Lebanon. But, if Assad falls, Hezbollah falters. And, if both of these occur, Iran will be cut off from its past victories, which provided for it a long unofficial frontier right on the north of Israel. There are some signs that it is disturbed by Assad’s brutal response to what is, after all, a Sunni uprising, the victory of which it would not at all welcome. But countenance, it might. The rub for Ahmadinejad and for his actually more powerful antagonist Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is what Erdogan does.
Amir Taheri wrote in Al Arabiya on June 17 that a fight is brewing between Turkey and Iran over the future of Syria. It is not by any means a struggle for the freedom of the Syrian population. It is a struggle over an Arab population between two non-Arab regimes, one Persian, the other Turkish. Erdogan has already laid down the gauntlet. Taheri quotes him: “Today Turkey is offering a model to the Muslim world. … Turkey wants to become a voice for Muslims throughout the world.” Turkey has an advantage over Iran in that, like the great majority of Syrians, it is overwhelmingly Sunni. Whether Erdogan’s words will turn out to be more than words it is perhaps too early to know.
But what we do know is that Obama’s words (and Clinton’s, too), from the first demonstrations in Damascus to the latest in Hama, are morally inappropriate. Instead of applying its own rough sanctions to the Syrian regime, the U.S. has weighed in with paper sanctions on paper money that belong to people close to the Assad apparatus who doubtless did not wait to retrieve their assets from banks accessible to the American government. Still entranced by international institutions, Washington has allowed months to go by until a vague, even meaningless “presidential statement” (not even a resolution) altogether without teeth was passed by the U.N. Security Council two days ago. Of course, it was a compromise—not that the initial measure had any particular teeth in it either. So what did U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice get Beijing and Moscow to agree to? According to a piece in the Christian Science Monitor by Howard LaFranchi, to condemn “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by Syrian authorities” and to express “grave concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria.” Yes, and what would that do? Nothing. Except for the continuation of the siege of Hama. And the siege has continued through the day and night. But, after all, the president of Syria has murdered only about 200 denizens of that accursed city. His father murdered tens of thousands. Is this not progress? And anyway, the dead are all Sunnis.
Can you believe it? In the Los Angeles Times of July 21, Paul Richter reported that the Obama administration actually “softened its criticism of Syria” and “stopped short of calling on President Bashar Assad to resign and has toned down its rhetoric.” This is an ethical and political transgression of the worst order, short of murdering the Syrians ourselves. Maybe the president thinks he can still get Bibi Netanyahu to cede the Golan Heights to the dictatorship—and maybe that would stop the insurrection. Inshallah!
The Syrian tyranny is the most brutal, the most coherent, the most transparent in the entire Arab world. In comparison to the state personified by Assad, Mubarak’s Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Yemen and the mad Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya are milder. Alas, almost nobody noticed Obama’s sick courting of the oppressor.
But at least one Arab commentator, Khalaf Al Harbi, writing in the Saudi government daily Okaz, did. Titled “Obama—Get Out” (and put on the web by the Middle East Media Research Institute on July 29) it reads:
All last month, I kept my eyes out for Mr. Obama, who appeared so often at the outset of the ‘Arab Spring’ and suddenly disappeared, leaving the tyrants’ armored vehicles to wreak havoc in the land. I sought ‘Abu Hussein’ [i.e. Obama] everywhere [and] wondered where he was hiding—this man whose [face] did not leave the TV screen throughout the Egyptian revolution, and who had asked [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak to step down, appearing every five minutes to say to his erstwhile ally: ‘Get out today, not tomorrow!’
Obama got lost in the old neighborhoods of Damascus. He ‘dissolved like a lump of salt,’ as our brothers in Egypt say. [He did so] even though, [in contrast to] the U.S.’s [close] ties with Hosni Mubarak’s regime, U.S. relations with the Syrian regime [are weak], and even though the number of victims in the protests of the Egyptian revolution [was far smaller] than the number of victims in the protests now sweeping Syria’s cities.
In Egypt, ‘mother America’ pressured Hosni Mubarak to step down immediately, while in Syria, ‘mother America’ has pressured the opposition to engage in dialogue with the regime.
How is one to interpret this? Who supports whom, and who is against whom? What is Obama thinking? And why did ‘mother America’ become so hard of hearing the minute the cries broke out in Der’a, Hama, Homs, and Aleppo?
Obama is not the only one who uses a double standard [vis-à-vis the revolutions in Egypt and in Syria]. The Arabs as a whole are toeing his line. The press, the intellectuals, and the revolutionary parties all tried to coordinate [their positions] with the cries of the revolution of Egypt’s youth, raising Cain throughout the world when [Libyan ruler Mu’ammar] Al-Qadhafi began to oppress his people, and demanding that the president of Yemen step down when the revolution broke out there. [But] less than an hour after the bloody events began in Syria, they all fell silent, as if a raven were sitting on their heads and pecked at the bodies of the innocent.
When [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah praised the revolution of Egypt’s youth and then became an enemy of the youth in Syria, by asking them to adhere to their regime—it was not difficult to understand [his motives], nor was [it difficult to understand Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei’s stance. But the position of the U.S., which is not very different from that of Iran in both cases—the Egyptian and the Syrian—is difficult to understand. Where is Obama hiding?
We do not want him to say a thing. This time, we want to say to him: Obama—get out!
And one thing more. I was dismayed by the editorial in the last print edition of TNR. Demanding a harsher rhetorical policy towards Damascus, the editors forfeit the whole struggle in the next-to-last paragraph: “Our options in Syria are limited, of course.” (The “of course” was what really got me.) “Unlike in Libya, a military intervention is not possible; and the Syrian opposition, despite its bravery, may not yet be cohesive enough to be recognized as the country’s legitimate government.” This actually has it ass-backwards. The fact is that, as recent news has amply shown, the Libyan opposition is not as unified as some had imagined. And the regime, according to its heir-apparent Seif al-Islam Qaddafi (Dr. Qaddafi, thanks to the London School of Economics) may be negotiating with its oldest enemies, Muslim jihadists, who are alienated from the most liberal of the opposition. Maybe this is a fantasy. Maybe not.
Perhaps, in shame and in desperation, Obama will hitch up with his old friend Erdogan and undertake jointly to bring Assad down. There could be far worse results than that. But the president does not even have the courage to contemplate this step. It might work, after all.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.