Unholy Alliance

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on July 23, 2010


In his newly published book, veteran New York Times reporter Steven Kinzer embraces the increasingly de rigueur view of those who like to consider themselves enlightened foreign policy thinkers to suggest that the United States ought to ditch Israel as an ally. Specifically, he argues that Turkey and Iran would make better allies for the United States in the Middle East than would Israel and Saudi Arabia.  Kinzer’s argument is that Turkey and Iran both have partial democracies and would be better placed to ensure stability in the region. But his view is decisively refuted by the radicalized nature of both the Turkish and Iranian governments. Just as Turkish and Iranian domestic policies are antithetical to Western ideals, Turkish and Iranian foreign policies are antithetical Western security interests.

In overlooking the personal deficiencies of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kinzer risks propagating a distinctly inaccurate image of leaders he would have the United States rely on to advance American security interests and ideals. This turning of a blind eye to Erdogan’s and Ahmadinejad’s shortcomings as reformers—along with the West’s general inclination to overlook the anti-reform credentials of the alleged Malaysian reformer Anwar Ibrahim—will only serve to set back the cause of political and societal reform in the Muslim world.

To be sure, Turkey’s status as a regional mini-power can no longer be doubted.  It has expertly made itself a force to be reckoned with in the Muslim world, after decades of secularized ambivalence towards Muslim nations in the conduct of its foreign policy. In the wake of the May 31st Israeli raid on the flotilla that was steaming towards Gaza, relations between Israel and Turkey, once friendly, and a model for what future relations between Israel and other Muslim countries could be, have gone into deep freeze.

The impact of Turkey’s newfound coldness towards Israel has not gone unnoticed in the international community. Of course, even before the flotilla incident, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been making unfriendly noises in Israel’s direction, but relations were never as bad as they are now. Indeed, on 5 July, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for the first time threatened to break diplomatic ties with Israel.

Davutoglu’s stance has attracted what ought to be a surprising amount of approbation in the world of diplomacy. From London to Paris, Istanbul to Kuala Lumpur, it has become acceptable and laudable to attack Israel for its actions against the flotilla, and while the Israelis may have been either incompetent or heavy-handed in their actions, factors that might be offered in defense of Israel’s actions have been resolutely ignored by Israel’s critics.

While Turkey’s acts of disdain towards Israel might not be considered antithetical to American sensibilities, it is becoming increasingly clear that the country’s other foreign policy initiatives—especially its recent “brokering” in partnership with Brazil of a “nuclear accord” with Ahmadinejad—amount to a direct challenge to the United States and its allies. Kinzer may believe the current Turkish and Iranian regimes amount to benevolent democracies, but he should contemplate the possibility that even if we accept that a particular country is democratic, that does not mean that its interests will be automatically aligned with those of other democracies, and democratic republics.

When it comes to the specific status of Iran, Kinzer should reconsider his classification of the country as a democracy in light of Iran’s yearlong crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators in the aftermath of the Iranian presidential elections in 2009.  And he should consider some of the similarities between statements made by the Turkish government and Erdogan’s “good friend” Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president’s repeated rantings about wiping Israel off the face of the earth are, after all, of a piece with  Davutoglu’s preposterous and offensive comparison between the Israeli raid on the flotilla possibly bringing succor to Hamas, and the September 11th attacks.

Given this context, it is puzzling to hear President Obama warn that if Turkey fails in its bid to join the European Union it will somehow be pushed into the arms of Syria and Iran and other state sponsors of terrorism. Like Iran, Turkey has a track record of both rhetorical and financial support for Hamas, which has distinguished itself by murdering Israeli women and children in terrorist operations. Like Iran, Turkey is bent on antagonizing and isolating Israel. Despite Erdogan’s recent efforts to cultivate an image as a temperate and moderate statesman, the fact remains that his governing Justice and Development party (AK Parti), and others like it in the Muslim world, have more in common with Hamas and Ahmadinejad than with mainstream political parties in both the European Union and the United States. In warning that Turkey might become increasingly radicalized, has the White House perhaps missed the possibility that Turkey already is increasingly radicalized?

Similar amounts of radicalization can be found in the person of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a close friend of Erdogan, who has embraced a public persona as an anti-Semite, and a fervent critic of President Obama’s sanctions against Iran. In fact, he attacked his own prime minister last month for having agreed with President Obama that sanctions should be placed on Iran. Like Erdogan, Anwar is regarded by some elites in the US and UK as a reformist ally. But as in the case of Erdogan, a close look at Anwar’s record ought to cause American policymakers to ask whether Anwar really does embrace reformist values.

While serving as Deputy Prime Minister in Malaysia from 1993-1998, Anwar tried to topple then Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad, himself an anti-Semitic demagogue who made Anwar his protégé. When the attempt to unseat Mahathir failed Anwar was imprisoned for corruption and sodomy. Needing international support to regain power, Anwar has spent the last five years meticulously cultivating a benign image among some of the most influential individuals in the Western world. He describes himself as “a leading proponent of greater cooperation among civilizations” and “an authoritative voice in bridging the gap between East and West.” In private conversations with journalists, he outlandishly compares himself to Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. His efforts have been adopted as a cause célèbre by various American and British human rights advocates.

However, following Erdogan, Anwar has been fiercely critical of the Israeli raid, dubbing it a “brutal act,” and organizing a disturbing march to the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur where Anwar supporters burned Israeli flags and posters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To say the least, this is unexpected behavior from an opposition leader who pitches his coalition as a new kind of secular political movement, dedicated to bridging ethnic and religious differences.

When one gets past the cosmetics of his public persona, one sees that Anwar has forged a coalition including PAS, a militant Islamic party that advocates the introduction of shari’a law. PAS wants to legalize stoning, the mandatory wearing of full burkas, and the amputation of hands for theft.  Unsurprisingly, the extremist fringes of PAS are identical to the extremist core of Erdogan’s Justice and Development party.

Anwar has been an apologist for Erdogan’s excesses for many years, and even wrote glowingly about him in the Washington Post during the Turkish election of 2007. “This is a government clearly committed to the process of preserving democracy at great costs while taking concrete steps to dispel the misperceptions about parties with an Islamic tag,” Anwar wrote of Erdogan’s administration.

Birds of a feather flock together. So, for that matter, do faux reformists.

Anwar, like Erdogan, also supports Iran’s activities.  And like Erdogan, who last month claimed that Hamas had never engaged in terrorist acts, Anwar has a special fondness for Hamas. According to the respected counter-terrorism expert Ilan Weinglass, the Malaysian has ties to both the Muslim Brotherhood and supports Hamas. “A quick glance at his website reveals a prominently featured photo of Ibrahim together with Yousef Qaradawi, a leading Islamist scholar who is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and supports HAMAS,” Weinglass wrote on his blog. The connection between Anwar and terrorist groups is not merely pictorial; Weinglass goes on to detail at length the degree to which Anwar cavorts with—oh, how shall one put this politely?—unsavory folk.

Erdogan, Ahmadinejad, and Anwar may be many things, but they most certainly are not reformist friends and allies on which the United States can rely.  Steven Kinzer, and others like him would do well to no longer labor under misapprehensions concerning the potential for a Western embrace of Iran and Turkey. And while President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and other Western leaders are clearly in a tight spot over Turkey, the West should beware of certain supposed Muslim reformists bearing diplomatic gifts.

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