Our monumental Turkey blunder: Who put the American exceptionalists back in charge?

The Pentagon has just tipped this nation into another uncertain, dangerous alliance on short-term tactical grounds

Published July 28, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak before a meeting in Ankara, Turkey (AP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speak before a meeting in Ankara, Turkey (AP)

Take a hard, careful look at what the hawks in the Obama administration—and it is crawling with them—have just done by bringing Turkey into the fight against the Islamic State. Given the blur the campaign against ISIS has become, with allies and adversaries running every which way, it may be hard to discern that this is any kind of big mess, but it is very big. Deeper we go into the quagmire we have made of the Middle East, dragging all and sundry with us.

The agreement President Obama sealed in a telephone conversation last Wednesday with RecipTayip Erdoğan, Turkey’s erratic leader, is nothing if not complex, but at its core it establishes two new realities.

One, the U.S. now enters the Syrian conflict in support of who knows whom. Even warmongers such as Sen. John McCain, and the neoliberal interventionists that populate the State Department all too densely, have failed over several years to identify which insurgent groups fighting the Assad regime in Damascus we are supposed to fund, train and arm. A year or so ago, Patrick Cockburn the Independent’s astute Middle East commentator, asserted that this search for the worthy “moderates” in Syria was a fantasy: They do not exist, Cockburn pointed out. Americans eager to arm somebody against Assad conjured “moderates” out of the old “freedom fighter” narrative.

After a lengthy effort the Pentagon has identified 60 insurgents as truly worth training out in the open, and no, there are no missing zeros. (You would think these people would be embarrassed to publish such a ridiculous number.) The CIA has trained many more covertly, and, per usual, many or most of these now fight on the side of radical Islamist groups such as Al Nusra.

Things grew yet more complicated with the rise of ISIS last year. Having demonized Assad—Assad, Washington’s one-time ally—it took a while to get over the embarrassment. But those in the Obama administration intelligent enough to recognize that Assad had suddenly become a de facto asset against the Islamic State appeared to prevail.

In these circumstances we make common cause with Turkey?

Erdoğan’s No. 1 ambition remains, by much evidence, deposing Assad; defeating ISIS is secondary in his priorities—if, indeed, it is that. Turkey’s record as a conduit for weapons and anti-Assad foreign fighters into Syria is beyond question. Even since the accord Erdoğan signed with Obama last week we have indications that his view of ISIS is at the very least ambivalent.

Second point. This agreement effectively licenses the Erdoğan government to break a two-year cease-fire with Turkey’s Kurdish minority, arrest dissident Kurds wholesale and begin shelling Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria. In effect, Erdoğan now has American approval to attack one of America’s most loyal allies against ISIS in northern Iraq in the service of his domestic political conflicts.

We must try to rewrite the old adage to accommodate this absolutely wild arrangement. The enemy of my unstable tactical ally is my enemy even if he is my friend. Doesn’t quite make sense, does it? Exactly right: It makes none.

The big payoff for Washington in this pact is that American fighter jets will now fly missions into Syria and Iraq from two bases in southern Turkey. The logic is purely tactical but plain: Turkish bases are far closer to zones of conflict in Iraq and Syria than bases in the Persian Gulf are; surveillance planes and bombers can spend less time commuting and more finding and bombing targets.

The initial report of the accord in the New York Times noted, “The agreement was described by one senior administration official as a ‘game changer.’” Think about this. Put the two new realities just outlined next to the military expedient of having bomber bases closer to the warfront.

Are the Times and this unnamed official kidding? If they insist, it is a game-changer, all right: The Pentagon has just tipped this nation over into another highly uncertain alliance on short-term tactical grounds—How many of these over how many decades?—and in the bargain President Erdoğan scrubs a fragile peace with Kurds in place since 2013, effectively resuming a 30-year confrontation that cost 40,000 lives.

There is only one way to make any sense of this drastic plunge in the wrong direction: The Obama administration is a house deeply divided on the foreign policy side, the hawks having more power than is good for any of us, and we have just witnessed their victory in the Syria and ISIS crises. After seven decades of military superiority, these people simply do not know how to act abroad other than with force.

A few weeks ago in this space, Andrew Bacevich, the policy critic known around here as “the dissident colonel,” urged that we think of the conflict ripping through so many Islamic-majority nations as a single “war for the greater Middle East.” The thought clarifies without simplifying. It brings historical perspective into the picture—always useful: The war that now spreads like a California fire began with the Carter Doctrine in 1980, when our first post-Vietnam president declared the Persian Gulf a strategic interest warranting military intervention when judged necessary. We have been reading chapters in the same long book ever since.

This is how I take the news that Turkey has just been recruited—as in cajoled, coerced and bribed, in that order—to join the fight against ISIS as a combatant.

I do not usually celebrate when wars spread from one nation to another, and I do not this time. Apart from this general principle, the Obama administration has just shown us that the shelves where sound, imaginative foreign policies ought to be stocked are even barer than we may have thought.

* * *

I lost my grip on the policies Obama and Secretary of State Kerry advance around the time the latter went to Sochi to smoke the peace pipe with President Putin. That was mid-May. It was an excellent move, as noted at the time, but other than characteristic. It was Kerry’s State Department that cultivated the coup in Ukraine a year earlier, and his people who continued favoring a military solution in the face of Franco-German efforts to work with Putin toward a perfectly achievable negotiated settlement.

Kerry went many extra miles to broker an accord between Israel and Palestine, only to break his pick on the intransigence of the self-destructive Israeli leadership, and as I read it he apportioned blame properly afterward. O.K., but amid all that his people green-lighted the Egyptian coup two years ago this month, whereupon Kerry praised the blood-soaked al-Sisi for “restoring democracy.”

The Iran deal signed in Vienna a couple of weeks ago is an absolute monument to the policy innovations that are necessary if America is to do well in our post-American era. It is breakout thinking, unambiguously forward-tilted. Indulging a taste for mindless Americanisms, What’s not to like?

And now State, the White House and the Pentagon think it is a good idea to drag Turkey, whose loyalties and ambitions are plainly compromised, into the fight against ISIS? Trying to follow the Obama-Kerry strategy in the Middle East starts to remind me of a too-long ride on Tilt-a-Whirl.

Exchanging notes with a friend the other day, he suggested that Russophobic hawks pushed Kerry aside after the Sochi démarche. I have no trouble with the thought and apply it well beyond the continuing confrontation with Russia.

I urge that we credit this administration with a halfway honorable vision—halfway because factions within it point the nation out of the exceptionalist discourse but make no provision for getting us decisively beyond it. For want of power, guts or desire, Obama and Kerry simply have not faced-off with entrenched cliques at the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and State that have accumulated ridiculously too much say in shaping and executing foreign policy.

Obama’s new pact with Turkey is a plain-as-day illustration of the point. I start with who negotiated it.

Obama named John Allen his special envoy last year to manage what we are calling the coalition against ISIS. It was Allen who wangled the deal wherein U.S. fighter jets will now operate from southern Turkey. To be clear, the BBC called the negotiating process “arm-twisting.”

Consider who this man is: Here is Allen’s State Department biography. He retired from the Marine Corps a four-star general after commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan for a year and a half. In a 38-year career, Allen held senior positions in NATO and the Defense Department, in the latter assignment advising on Marine Corps positioning in the Pacific (where the Marines are key to the American security structure).

By way of training, Allen’s degrees include  a bachelor’s from Annapolis, a master’s from the National Intelligence College and an honorary doctorate from the National Intelligence University. (He has another honorary doctorate, this one in humane letters, from Monmouth College, and one cannot quite make out where this fits.)

Allen is an operations man only recently out of uniform, in short. He is versed in military strategy, tactics, intelligence and not much else (unless we count “humane letters”). What is a soldier with this narrow a purview doing negotiating a deal with a leader whose position on Middle Eastern questions is as politically, ideologically and, indeed, religiously charged as Erdoğan’s?

Second question: What kind of deal did the Obama White House expect Allen to produce? Third: What kind did it want?

All the answers lie in the deal Allen got. It is a military deal, nothing more. As such is it a near-perfect specimen of what Washington gets in consequence of the militarization of foreign policy that has proceeded more or less unchecked since Truman armed the Greek monarchy at the start of the Cold War in 1947.

Apart from relocating American warplanes, the pact also mobilizes Turkish F-16s to begin their own bombing runs as part of the coalition Allen oversees. In this the Erdoğan government wasted not a minute. The day after the Obama- Erdoğan telephone call, Turkish tank and artillery units shelled militants across the border into Syria for the first time; Turkish fighter jets began bombing runs into Iraq and Syria the next day. The latter continue.

Only this week has the State Department provided more than boilerplate to explain the new modus operandi. One understands—or tries to. Based on what is coming out now, it looks as if the parties to be spared embarrassment reside at State and in the White House.

Erdoğan is a hard read. He is not wrong on everything. He interests me because he puts one of the Middle East’s most fundamental questions on the table: How is the region to reconcile democratic, pluralist aspirations with a faith that, like Christianity for many centuries, claims a place in politics, law and the public sphere altogether? Israel has a variant of the same problem.

But Erdoğan’s record in office is the kind of awful only the CIA and the Pentagon can set aside: Hugely corrupt, abusive of civil liberties, censoring of the press and critics—the list is long. To focus on the germane, Erdoğan is a closet Islamist, if this is not too glib a summary, a secularist on paper with a strong consciousness of past greatness to be reclaimed. And he is inconstant—another attribute American intelligence and the Pentagon never much mind when choosing their friends.

Does Erdoğan align Turkey on the Sunni side of the Sunni-Shia rivalry for Middle Eastern primacy? Yes but let us try to get this right. He had good relations with Syria, Iraq and Iran for many years; he backed Assad when Bush II turned against him for not supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the rising influence of Iran and Shia forces in Iraq, combined with Assad’s attacks on his own people, appears to have pushed Erdoğan off what fence he was sitting on: Turkey is nearly 90 percent Sunni, and Erdoğan is nothing if not a political animal.

Until last week, Washington could cut no deal with Erdoğan because the Turkish leader insisted (1) that Assad had to go before ISIS and (2) he wanted a no-fly zone established in northern Syria so that anti-Assad militias of many stripes could train. The U.S. found neither condition acceptable. Since last year ISIS has correctly been Obama’s priority.

Until last week. Speaking at a security forum in Aspen after the agreement was announced, Allen said of the no-fly zone, “No. It was not part of the discussion.” It took the BBC’s Mark Lowen a few hours to sort out the semantic ruse: The agreement provides for a “safe area” in northern Syria, not a no-fly zone. On Monday, cat out of the bag, American officials finally acknowledged plans for a “buffer zone,” or an “Islamic State-free zone,” and we will have to see what this amounts to: There is simply no saying now.

Point 1. The Obama administration is dead wrong to give the Pentagon’s tactical preferences this kind of priority by entering into another of the sloppy, ill-considered alliances that produced the Afghanistan war, the al-Maliki regime in Baghdad and, at a short remove, ISIS itself. This is why Allen’s background is important to understand: You do not get anything other than this out of these people.

Corollary thought: We commit still more deeply to a military solution to the ISIS crisis that has no hope of resolving anything on its own. ISIS has to be countered, yes, but American bombers, and now Turkish, will not get the job done without a comprehensive strategy to assist as Middle Eastern populations stabilize themselves socially, politically and economically. Where is the holistic, broadly informed thinking? Without it, the fight against ISIS comes to pointless destruction and suffering.

The Kurds are a separate problem but also a measure of Erdoğan’s intent. An attack on a town in southern Turkey called Suruc last week was blamed on ISIS and took 32 lives. PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, accused the government of colluding with ISIS and retaliated by killing a Turkish policeman.

Then came the agreement with Washington, and Turkish authorities have since arrested hundreds of “extremists.” On Sunday afternoon a source in Istanbul wrote, “About 20 supporters of Daesh [the Arabic for ISIS] were taken in and about 200 were Kurdish militants.”

How is that for a telling proportion? Here is the same source on the Turkish F-16s airborne since Friday: “The Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq were much heavier and more numerous than on the Daesh positions in Syria.”

That is to put it too mildly. Of eight air raids flown last Friday, three targeted ISIS units and the other five Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria. And shame, shame on the government-supervised Times for its report in Saturday’s paper: “Turkey Strikes 3 ISIS Targets in Syria With Jets,” the headline announced. You had to read three paragraphs in to discover the five attacks on Kurds, and these were “not independently verified.” Sure thing.

That veil has now been ripped off. American officials are busily getting it around that, yes, Turkey has a right to attack dissident Kurds who oppose government oppression.

No, I say. There is no ground for backing Turkey as it discriminates among right-wing Kurds, conservative Kurds and the leftist PKK, which is emphatically not now a terrorist organization by any sound definition, if it ever was. The party willingly entered into the 2013 ceasefire with a view to negotiating a federalist settlement with Ankara; it is now on the front line in the fight against ISIS.

Here is a detail I urge readers to bear in mind as Turkey comes into the American coalition. On Monday, Turkish F-16s bombed Kurdish fighters active in Syria just after they had secured new territory from Islamic State forces. Turkish officials later said the mission against the Kurds had been a mistake.

Do you have confidence in that explanation? I have none. If the incident can be taken as a crystallizing moment, the Obama has just signed on for more trouble.

The choreography attaching to the accord authorizing Turkey’s entry into war as a combatant is, as often, so careful and predictable as to be self-evident. On Sunday Ankara announced that it had requested a meeting of NATO ambassadors to consider its new circumstance. The outcome was obvious from the first.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Norwegian secretary-general, suggested Monday that Turkey was unlikely to get “any substantial NATO military support.” This was a straw man: Material support is not what the Erdoğan government wants. In its fight against ISIS and the Kurds—against both, note—it wants “solidarity and support from our NATO allies,” as the foreign ministry in Ankara later made clear.

Legitimacy, in other words. And it got it Tuesday in Brussels, where Stoltenberg announced, “We all stand united in condemning terrorism, in solidarity with Turkey.”  See the problem? Not “united against ISIS,” but “united in condemning terrorism.”

Erdoğan understood. Within hours he declared that no peace process with the Kurds is possible—and then urged parliament to strip legislators with ties to the PKK of immunity from prosecution. An Istanbul source wrote Tuesday afternoon to say that some sitting parliamentarians have already been arrested.

It has our name on it. Same book, new chapter, as depressing as all the others.


By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

MORE FROM Patrick L. Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Editor's Picks Isis John Kerry Media Criticism New York Times Reciptayip Erdoğan Turkey