Mickey Mouse must have felt a bit like this, midway through the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode of Fantasia. In the remake, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan plays the role of the runaway broom conjured up by President Barack Obama, who wanted a fresh set of allies to advance a 21st-century foreign policy that rejected U.S. hegemony. Now his inventions have taken on a life of their own, and the White House is awash in a flood of trouble.
The volatile Turkish leader was supposed to have been a key U.S. partner in a new world order founded on diplomacy rather than force. Obama reached out to him repeatedly, first in a high-profile pilgrimage just after taking office and most recently to mediate a secret nuclear fuel deal with Iran. But Erdogan has a different agenda, which a group of Turkish diplomats recently characterized as “neo-Ottoman.” He sees an opportunity to become the Mideast’s regional hegemon, as well as Russia’s strategic partner in oil and gas transmission. And to succeed he wants to rally the region’s extremists to his neo-Ottoman cause.
“Even despots, gangsters and pirates have specific sensitiveness, [and] follow some specific morals,” Erdogan said of Turkey’s erstwhile ally Israel, accusing the Jewish state of “piracy” and “war crimes.” He also vowed that Kurdish rebels who seek autonomy from Turkey will “drown in their own blood.” Evidently, Erdogan interpreted U.S. expressions of dependence on Turkish good will as an invitation to say and do whatever he wants.
Turkey’s public embrace of Hamas—which the European Union and the United States consider a terrorist organization—has undercut traditional U.S. allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The biggest loser might be the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. After a year of riding point for the Obama Administration’s Mideast policy, Abbas was cut off at the knees when Obama buckled to Turkish demands over Gaza.
The White House declared after the flotilla debacle that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was “unsustainable” and “must be changed” and announced a new $400 million Gaza aid package that will help resuscitate Hamas. Visiting the White House days later, Abbas reportedly begged Obama not to lift the Gaza blockade, which was sponsored by the Bush Administration after Hamas gunmen slaughtered Abbas’ security people during the June 2007 Gaza coup in order to squeeze Hamas into “reconciliation” with the Palestinian Authority.
U.S. enemies can get away with a great deal more than they dreamed only a year ago. When Obama proclaimed to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2009 that “no one nation can or should try to dominate another nation,” the message to world leaders in the audience recalls Robin Williams’s 1970s nightclub impression of Jimmy Carter addressing the world on the eve of World War III: “That’s all, good night, you’re on your own.”
With the United States seemingly committed to a general strategic withdrawal, the rest of the world has begun a wild scramble for position in a post-U.S.-dominated world. Every wannabe and used-to-be power has seen the opportunity to realize long-simmering ambitions that had been frustrated by decades of Cold War and another two decades of U.S. hegemony.
“America has no influence now, because it’s not doing anything,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Italian daily La Repubblica last month. The United States is not to be engaged, but simply replaced, the Syrian leader said.
Turkey’s Erdogan sponsored the Gaza blockade-runners in order to make Hamas into a Turkish rather than an Iranian attack dog. Turkey has aligned with Iran, in open defiance of Washington’s desultory efforts to “isolate” the Tehran regime but with a view toward contending with Iran for leadership of the Muslim world.
In just two years Obama has become a figure of astonishment and contempt. In every field of foreign policy—Middle East peace, nuclear proliferation, dealings with the Russians, the Korean peninsula, relations with Japan, management of Latin America— the once-stable pillars of U.S. foreign policy are melting down.
Erdogan is the runaway broom of the sorcerer’s apprentice. He cannot be appeased, for he has staked his political future as well as his country’s position in the world on the extremist card. Obama now searches in vain for the magic formula that will put the Turkish broom back in the closet. And the water keeps rising.