By Hossein Amiri

Erdogan’s policy toward the West is ‘transactional’: analyst

June 7, 2016

TEHRAN – American analyst Jim Lobe says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dealings with the West are primarily shaped by transactional benefits.

“It’s pretty clear that Erdogan regards his relationship with the U.S. and other western powers as primarily transactional, and he’s willing to bargain over policy,” Lobe tells in an interview.

Lobe also says the U.S. policy toward the Middle East “is influenced by many, many factors and interests, and the result is a degree of incoherence and inconsistency that many outsiders find difficult to understand.”

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: It seems that the U.S. in trying to keep itself away from the tensions in the Middle East. What are the reasons for this?

A: When you speak about the “U.S.,” you of course realize that there are many contending factions with different interests that are constantly jockeying to gain greater more influence over policy. If you’re speaking about the Obama White House, for example, there clearly is a preference for minimal intervention in the Middle East and, ultimately, probably an “off-shore balancing” strategy that moves U.S. military forces somewhat over the horizon but still available for immediate deployment into the region in the event that the balance of power within the region shifts in a way that is seen as contrary or threatening to U.S. interests. The obvious example is the creation of a Rapid Deployment Force in and around the (Persian) Gulf after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 or the deployment of massive numbers of U.S. troops and other forces after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. If, on the other hand, you’re talking about the Pentagon, it clearly has an interest there in maintaining bases in the region. If you take Bahrain as an example, there were undoubted people in the White House and the State Department who believed that it should be sanctioned for its repression of the democratic movement there in 2011 and afterwards. But no serious sanctions were imposed due to the fear that the Pentagon could lose its basing rights for the Fifth Fleet (and, of course, because of fears that it would alienate the Saudis).

If you’re talking about Republicans in Congress or the Republican Party more generally, they of course strongly criticize any move that could be considered a “retreat” from the region (or anywhere else in Eurasia) because they have developed a political narrative that Obama wants to reduce the U.S. military presence in the region (or even hand it over to Iran!) and that that’s extremely dangerous to U.S. security and constitutes “appeasement” of “radical” and anti-American forces there, be they Al Qaeda, ISIS, Iran, Hezbollah, etc. At the same time, however, there remains a strong desire among the grassroots of the party to have as little to do with the region (and “Muslims” in general) as possible. This became clear when so many Republican congressmen opposed military action against Assad following the 2013 chemical weapons attack. When they went to their home districts during that crisis, they found virtually no support for military intervention. After the ISIS beheadings of western journalists, on the other hand, Republicans turned more hawkish again, but, less than two years later, it’s not clear if that remains the case today.

 In other words, the U.S. policy toward the region is influenced by many, many factors and interests, and the result is a degree of incoherence and inconsistency that many outsiders find difficult to understand given Washington's status as the world's most powerful nation. But precisely because a global superpower has so many different interests at stake, reconciling them into a coherent strategy is an extremely difficult challenge.

Q: In the light of the fact that aggressive policies by the U.S. allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been criticized by international organizations, how the U.S. can handle such a challenge?

A: There is little question that both countries have become more assertive in the region than they were prior to the Arab Spring. Again, however, U.S. policy has not been consistent in dealing with their increased assertiveness – especially with regard to Syria and Yemen, of course – because of the many competing interests that have to be reconciled. I think the Obama White House is frankly embarrassed and defensive about U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and has long been quietly urging Riyadh to get serious about reaching a political settlement with the Houthis and giving them a real share of power in any new political arrangement. At the same time, however, it believes it still has to support the Saudis to reassure them that Washington is not “tilting” toward Iran following the JCPOA. So it hasn’t yet been willing to apply really serious pressure on them to stop the campaign. Also, remember that U.S. military contractors, which can’t sell anything to Iran under law (except maybe Boeing commercial jets), make billions of dollars from sales to Riyadh and other Sunni-led (Persian) Gulf states, and they don’t want to risk losing those contracts to European or other rivals. The defense industry, which relies heavily on exports, is an immensely powerful lobby in the U.S.

As for Turkey, it’s pretty clear that Erdogan regards his relationship with the U.S. and other western powers as primarily transactional, and he’s willing to bargain over policy. Thus, he finally granted the U.S. access to Incirlik airbase for use against ISIS and appears now to be more effective in sealing the border between Turkey and Syria to reduce the flow of ISIS and al-Nusra fighters and supplies. But that cooperation appears to be the quid for the quo of Washington’s acquiescence in -- or silence about -- Erdogan's renewed campaign against the PKK and, more generally, his repressive policies against his opposition at home. Remember, also, that Turkey belongs to NATO, and its geo-strategic position vis-à-vis Russia, Iran and the Near East has always been very important to Washington.

In any event, the U.S. finds itself in a position where it can’t “dictate” to either Turkey or the Saudis about what they may see as “existential” issues. And, to the degree that Washington is unwilling or unable (due to domestic political opposition) to apply massive military force in the region in the same way George W. Bush did when he invaded and occupied Iraq, its influence on the various parties there is necessarily limited.

Q:  Some analysts believe that the interventionist policies by such allies are a result of Washington’s reluctance to get involved in the Middle East crises. What is your opinion?

A: I think Obama, at least has been very clear about what he wants to see in the Middle East. He said a couple of years ago in an interview with The New Yorker:

It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other. And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.

He has since repeated that theme, calling for Iran and Saudi Arabia to learn to “share the neighborhood” and move their conflict to at least a Cold War. I think he thinks this is the only way to begin stabilizing the region. Of course, this implies a new security structure in the (Persian) Gulf that both the Saudis and Israel, among others, find very threatening in light of the fact that they’ve been able to take advantage of Washington’s almost unconditional support for them since 1979. (For the Israelis, it goes back even further, of course.) If the region were restabilized under a new security understanding or structure, then the U.S. could more confidently move toward an “off-shore balancing” strategy of the kind it used in the Persian Gulf until the Islamic Revolution, although certain interests, such as various parts of the military and the Israel lobby, would almost certainly resist such a radical change in Washington’s posture there.

“If (Hillary) Clinton wins (presidential election), I anticipate that the U.S. will uphold the letter of the JCPOA but will also be far more inclined than Obama to make reassuring gestures to Israel and Saudi Arabia and its allies. I think that would amount to a containment policy vis-à-vis Iran, but not so aggressive as to risk seriously alienating the Europeans, India, and other powers that want to establish closer economic and even strategic ties with Tehran.”

 Q:   What is your prediction of the U.S. policy toward the Middle East after the presidential elections?

A: It is far too early to answer that question, because we don’t know what the election results will be. If Clinton wins, for example, I anticipate that the U.S. will uphold the letter of the JCPOA but will also be far more inclined than Obama to make reassuring gestures to Israel and Saudi Arabia and its allies. I think that would amount to a containment policy vis-à-vis Iran, but not so aggressive as to risk seriously alienating the Europeans, India, and other powers that want to establish closer economic and even strategic ties with Tehran.

 

With Trump, it’s really anybody’s guess, because he contradicts himself so frequently and doesn’t appear to have any deeply held ideas about the region (or almost anything else). I think he’s a wild card, but not in a way that is likely to promote a more stable region. Much, of course, would depend on who he picks as his closest advisers, since he clearly knows almost nothing about the region or foreign policy or foreign policy making. The staunchly pro-Israel neoconservatives are clearly unhappy with him now (except the Islamophobes among them). But the fact that Sheldon Adelson, who has probably become the biggest single funder of Republican presidential political campaigns and of the more extreme elements in the “Israel Lobby” and who is very close to Netanyahu, has decided to contribute heavily to Trump's campaign may yet result in a change of mind if Trump wins and appoints neocons to key posts, as George W. Bush did in 2001. Much also depends on whether the Democrats are able to win a majority in the Senate. That would also affect U.S. Middle East policy, as the Democratic electorate appears to have become increasingly skeptical of strong U.S. support for Israel. The fight at the Democratic Convention later this summer over the party's platform regarding U.S. Middle East policy should be very interesting and may offer some indication of what a Clinton presidency could do, especially if the Democrats win back the Senate. My own feeling, however, is that a Clinton victory would likely lead to some rightward adjustment -- bit not a repudiation) of the Obama policy and less reluctance to intervene militarily in the region, such as, for example, by creating some kind of “no-fly zone” along certain parts of the Syrian border.

 

Q: Some scholars say the Middle East has lost its importance to the U.S. If you think so, please give you reasons for that?

A: I think the fact that the U.S. is itself producing much more energy and has reduced its energy dependence on the region has become an important factor. In addition, Putin’s more assertive actions in Eastern Europe (annexing Crimea, etc.) and China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea (which underlines the importance of Obama’s so-called “pivot” to the Asia/Pacific) have created serious foreign-policy challenges whose effect is to diminish in a relative sense the importance of the Middle East on the elite foreign-policy agenda.

But I also think that the fact that all of the U.S. adventures in the region since the 2003 Iraq invasion are widely perceived as having turned out poorly has left Americans with a very bad taste for the region and a general desire to leave it to its own devices. I think you’re seeing that in Trump’s rhetoric, for example. He’s all for bombing the hell out of ISIS, but nothing more. “Nation-building” has become a dirty word for the electorate. The region is widely seen as far too chaotic, irrational, hate-filled, and ungrateful for the “innocence” and “benign” intentions of the United States, which, of course, sounds silly if you are yourself a Middle Easterner or are somewhat acquainted with the region's recent history and the U.S. role in the region dating back at least to 1953. In other words, there’s a feeling that there’s nothing we can really do to make things better there, so what’s the point of trying? (Or listen to the lyrics of Randy Newman's song from the 1970's called "Political Science.") This perception, which you can find more frequently at the grassroots than at the elite level inside the Washington Beltway, still has a serious impact on politics and policy.

 

 

 

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