The Ottoman Empire successfully ruled in the Middle East for 300 years. It eventually collapsed under its own corruption and intense pressure from the West. The Turkey that emerged became a kind of cross roads between the Eastern, Islamic, world and Western Europe. They were seen for years as a southern bulwark in the NATO alliance against spreading Soviet influence. This position pretty much evaporated with the end of the cold war and the EU’s refusal to admit Turkey as a member. The sudden influx of Muslim emigrants to Europe and the cultural impact that it represented surprised the Europeans who began to see it as a threat. In the ensuing years, since the dissolving of the Soviet Union, Turkey has struggled with its national identity and has attempted to reassert itself as a leader of the Islamic World. Memories of a time when the Ottoman’s ruled with a iron fist most of what we now call the Middle East and their troops occupied territories from Athens to Tehran are reawakening.
A once secular Turkey has been seeing an Islamic transformation for the past decade. In 2003, Turkey would not allow U.S. troops to use Turkish bases in efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from Iraq. The state-run Turkish television aired anti-American dramas, like "Valley of the Wolves," in which our soldiers appear as blood-crazed killers who bullied, abused and suppressed poor Iraqi civilians. Just this month a Turkish Islamic group -- the "Humanitarian Relief Foundation," identified by Western intelligence agencies with terrorist sponsorship – was instrumental in organizing the recent Gaza flotilla. It was obviously hoping for the sort of violent, well-publicized confrontation with the Israeli Defense Forces that followed. In the wake of that confrontation, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, immediately issued veiled threats to Israel. He then badgered President Obama and the United States, Turkey's NATO ally, to condemn the Israeli interdiction. While the world piled on in its criticism of Israel, there was also a sort of stunned silence over the actions of Turkey, without whose help the blockade-running flotilla would never have left a Turkish port.
It does not end there. Turkey has reached out to Iran and Syria. Both of which sponsor terrorist groups and have given aid to insurgents in Iraq. Turkey and Brazil recently offered to monitor Iran's nuclear program, sidestepping American and European efforts to step up sanctions to stop Tehran's plans to get nuclear weapons.
In addition, we have heard Turkey’s Prime Minister make anti-Israel attacks that often match those of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah's Hasan Nasrallah. The former Turkish Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, once blamed the Jews for starting the Crusades, and for instigating World War I to create Israel. He also described them as a "disease" that needed to be eradicated. (Does that sound familiar?)
What is behind the Turkish change from a U.S. ally, NATO member and quasi-European state into a sponsor of Hamas and an ally of Iran and Syria? The Cold War is over. Turkey no longer guards the southeastern flank of Europe from the advance of Soviet communism, lessening its importance within NATO. Its Muslim population grows, while more secular European and Aegean Turks have lost influence. Turkey senses a growing distance between Tel Aviv and Washington, and thus an opportunity to step into the gulf to unite Muslims against Israel and win influence in the Arab world. The Turks identify more with the old transnational Ottoman sultanate than with a modern, secular and Western nation-state. The Prime Minister even brags that he is a grandson of the Ottomans. He announced that Turkey's new goal was to restore the might of the Ottoman Empire. Islamic Turkey fancies itself a window on the West, absorbing technology and expertise from Europe and the United States in order to empower and unite the more spiritually pure Muslims across national boundaries.
Hypocrisy is alive and well as Turkey tolerates no criticism about its own violations of human rights in suppressing its Kurdish population. It decry’s Israel about occupied land but is silent about the Turkish absorption of much of Greek Cyprus. It laments a divided Jerusalem but says nothing about the segregation of Nicosia. Erdogan accuses Israel of human rights violations, but to this day no Turkish government has ever acknowledged the genocide of the Armenians. In fact, Erdogan has even threatened to deport Armenians from Turkish soil.
Turkey's new ambitions and ethnic and religious ambitions are not compatible with its NATO membership. The United States should not be treaty-bound to defend a de facto ally of Iran or Syria, which are both eager to obtain nuclear weapons. European countries foresaw the problem when they denied Turkey membership in the now fragile European Union, fearful that Islamists would have unfettered transit across European borders.
The United States should make contingency plans to relocate from its huge Air Force base at Incirlik (a facility that Turkey has in the past threatened to close). We should brace for new troubles in the Aegean region and Cyprus, as a bankrupt Greece is now alienated from both the United States and northern Europe -- and yet increasingly vulnerable to a return of Ottoman regional ambitions.
Since Turkey seems intent on returning to the theocratic sultanate that ran the Eastern Mediterranean for more than three centuries, we should be paying much closer attention to Turkey’s activities and taking steps to protect our interests and allies in the region.