Alienated affection: Israel relationship is costing the U.S. its alliance with Turkey

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Israel and its U.S. lobby’s insistence on unquestioning U.S. support for Israel in its brutal and illegal conduct toward Palestinian and Turkish civilians has cost the U.S. a major, strategic ally, Turkey, and has severely undermined U.S. foreign policy goals, strategy, and power in the Middle East .

President George W. Bush has been accused of having the most disastrous foreign policy in U.S. history. Unfortunately, President Obama’s apparent inability to stand up to Israel’s U.S. lobby may have created a foreign policy catastrophe that exceeds even that of his hapless predecessor by costing the U.S. the loss of Turkey as our main strategic ally in the region, and by drastically reducing U.S. influence and power in the Middle East.

If this sounds implausible, consider the following: Turkey just recently concluded a public but covert military air combat training exercise with the Chinese in Turkey in which the Chinese flew their jet fighter aircraft from China to Turkey, refueling in Iran. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao just made a state visit to Turkey after which both countries concluded a strategic cooperation agreement. China will build a 4500-kilometer railroad to Turkey, along with two high-speed rail lines, plus oil pipeline systems from Iran to Turkish ports. China has agreed to sell military equipment to Turkey, and is also developing a surface-to-surface rocket-launching system together with Turkey. Turkey’s foreign minister is visited China this week, working out details of its new strategic relationship. Turkey has also strengthened its ties with Russia, Iraq, Syria and Iran, and refused to support the most recent UN resolution imposing sanctions on Iran.

Turkey has ceased all cooperation with its former close ally, Israel, including closing its airspace to Israeli planes, ceasing all cooperative military exercises, ending intelligence sharing with Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and has changed Israel’s status from a close ally to a strategic threat. Turkey has strongly condemned Israel for its brutal conduct against Palestinian and Turkish civilians in Israel ’s December 2008 Gaza invasion, and the recent Gaza aid flotilla incident, accusing Israel of committing state terrorism. Turkey has also accused the U.S., formerly its strongest ally, of supporting an international terrorist (Israel) for failing to condemn Israel’s atrocities, and for its monetary, military, and diplomatic support of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and illegal settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

In less than two years, Turkey has changed from being a strong U.S. ally and NATO member to a country pursuing an independent path toward strategic relationships with countries that are either adversaries or potential adversaries of the U.S. How did we get to this point?

Turkey’s Importance as a Major U.S. Strategic Ally 

Turkey , a nation of 73 million Muslims, has been a major strategic ally of the U.S. for some six decades since the beginnings of the Cold War, providing the U.S. with military bases and a forward bulwark against Soviet expansionism into the Middle-East and the Mediterranean . Turkey fought valiantly alongside the U.S. in the Korean War, and risked nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis by allowing the U.S. to station nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles in Turkey , on the Soviet Union ’s doorstep.

Turkey has the second largest military force in NATO and occupies one of the most vital geographic areas in the world, bordering the Mediterranean, Greece, Bulgaria, the Black Sea, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It has the second fastest growing economy in the world, behind only China . Most important, Turkey is a stable, moderate, secular, Muslim democracy and provides a model template for success for the many Muslim nations in the Middle East and South Asia that suffer from instability, autocratic rule, religious extremism, and poverty. 

Turkey also provides the U.S. with an invaluable entrée into the Muslim world and a proven ability to conduct effective diplomacy and mediation among Muslim nations such as Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Turkey permits the U.S. to use a critical military air base and transportation hub at Incirlik, in southeastern Turkey While strong militarily, Turkey has been successfully moving to reduce tensions with all of its neighbors, including traditional rivals such as Greece, Armenia, Syria, and Iraq, and, in addition, has also moved to defuse the conflicts with its minority Kurdish population. It has also taken steps, in part with Brazil , to reduce the conflict between Iran and the West. In short, Turkey , under its strong civilian leadership, has become a major strategic player in the world economically, politically, and diplomatically, and a vital player and asset for the U.S. and its European allies in the Muslim world and in the Middle East and South Asia.

It is difficult to imagine an ally of greater strategic importance to the U.S. in the Middle East than Turkey . Its loss is a major blow to U.S. vital national security interests. 

The Gaza Disasters and the Loss of Turkey

In December of 2008, the U.S. and Turkey remained strong, close NATO allies. Israel and Turkey also had a strong strategic alliance in which they cooperated on intelligence matters, and conducted joint military training exercises; Israel had the use of Turkish airspace for training and operational use; Turkey purchased weapons systems from Israel ; trade and tourism between the two countries was booming. Turkey was also mediating the disputes between Syria and Israel in the hope of resolving their differences and achieving a permanent peace treaty for the two countries.

Israel’s brutal bombing and shelling of civilian noncombatants in its invasion of Gaza in December 2008, and in its violent capture of a Gaza aid ship in May of 2010, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed, at least five execution-style, by Israeli commandos, deeply angered the Turks. These events, coupled with subsequent UN investigative reports that confirmed Israeli atrocities against civilians and other war crimes in both incidents, ultimately caused Turkey to end its close strategic alliance with Israel . The U.S.’ unquestioning support of Israel in both incidents, even after both later UN investigative reports confirmed Israeli atrocities toward civilians, caused Turkey to be highly critical of the U.S., and ultimately caused it to reduce its strategic alliance with the U.S. and seek, or at least consider, new strategic relationships and agreements with potential U.S. adversaries such as Russia, Iran, and, of greatest and most recent concern, China. 

The strength and effectiveness of Israel ’s U.S. lobby in influencing U.S. foreign policy in matters related to Israel was demonstrated by Congress and the Obama administration’s unqualified support of Israel ’s excessively brutal actions toward civilians in its Gaza invasion and capture of the Gaza aid flotilla in the face of worldwide approbation of Israel . An unfortunate and apparently unforeseen byproduct of the lobby’s actions was the loss to both the U.S. and Israel of the support of a critical major strategic ally, Turkey.

The loss of Turkey as a major U.S. ally will change the balance of power in the Middle East and do serious harm to U.S. vital national security interests in that region, and to Israel ’s as well. It is inconceivable that the U.S. would allow a strategic relationship with an ally as vitally important as Turkey to be undermined by supporting brutal and unlawful conduct on the part of a far less strategically important ally, Israel . Yet, because of the overwhelming strength and influence of Israel ’s U.S. lobby on the Obama administration and Congress, that is precisely what has occurred.

The Israel Lobby’s Role in the Loss of Turkey as a Key U.S. Ally

The Israel Lobby, headed by the American-Israeli Political Action Committee, or AIPAC, acts in a variety of ways to protect and promote Israeli interests in this country. Any Israeli action, such as the Gaza invasion or the capture of the Gaza aid flotilla, is immediately condoned and praised, discussion and debate are stifled, and dissent is punished. While it is beyond the scope of this article to address the lobby’s strategy and methods in any detail, these are well-known and well-documented. After the Gaza incidents, letters or resolutions supporting Israel ’s actions were immediately forthcoming from either the U.S. Senate or the House, or both, and were typically signed or approved by astonishingly overwhelming margins, typically 75 to 90 percent.

There is never any debate in Congress or investigations by congressional committees into Israel ’s actions and whether or not they might have a negative effect on U.S. foreign policy interests. Any member of Congress that publicly questions, let alone disapproves, any action taken by Israel , quickly suffers the consequences. For instance, 54 members of Congress, many of whom were running for reelection, were attacked for supposedly being “anti-Israel” because they signed a letter that labeled Israel ’s invasion of Gaza as “de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip” and pressed for “immediate relief for the citizens of Gaza .” Yet, the charge of collective punishment, a war crime, was later well documented and confirmed by a balanced and competent United Nations investigating committee.

The problem isn’t whether a member of Congress can be criticized for a statement made or action taken, but whether healthy debate about U.S. foreign policy interests is being stifled by the aggressive actions of a lobby that acts in the interest of a foreign government, namely Israel . When Turkey , a major U.S. ally, criticized Israel ’s brutality toward civilians in both the Gaza invasion and the Gaza aid flotilla capture, Congress should have at least debated the issue, particularly since there was widespread televised evidence of the conduct and worldwide universal criticism of Israel ’s actions during and after both events. Instead, Congress showed unquestioning support for Israel , without investigating or even inquiring about the facts related to either incident. 

Later, when two separate UN investigations of these incidents developed overwhelming evidence of Israeli war crimes and atrocities toward civilian noncombatants, Congress again immediately sided with Israel and conducted no inquiry or investigation into the incidents, or the allegations and evidence provided in the UN investigations. The Obama administration also sided with and provided unquestioning support for Israel , describing the investigations as biased. The fact that a major strategic ally and fellow NATO member had suffered the death of nine of its citizens in the Gaza aid flotilla incident, and that the UN investigation described at least six of the deaths as illegal summary executions seemed an unimportant detail to the Obama administration.

The key, critical question is whether Israel ’s U.S. lobby’s actions forcing congressional and executive branch approval and support for Israel ’s brutal and illegal treatment of civilian noncombatants caused Turkey to change its policies toward the U.S. , reduce its commitment to its alliance with the U.S. , and take steps contrary to the vital national security interests of the U.S. The answer, unfortunately, is yes. The public statements of Turkish leaders since these incidents, strongly criticizing the U.S. failure to criticize Israel and support Turkey and the rest of the world in sanctioning Israel, plus the strong actions taken by Turkey that negatively impact U.S. interests in that region, after the U.S.’ failure to provide that support, demonstrates that causal link. Turkey ’s frustrations and disillusionment with U.S. uncritical support for Israel along with its failure to move aggressively toward achieving a two-state solution, had reached a breaking point.

While it would be easy to adopt the Israel lobby’s view that Turkey ’s actions are those of an increasingly radical and Islamic regime, there is little evidence to support such a view. Turkey , in fact, has taken the moral high ground in criticizing Israel ’s brutal behavior toward Gazan and Palestinian noncombatants. Turkey had little to gain by entering this fray, and much to lose, both in its relationship with Israel and with its longtime ally the U.S. Nonetheless, it has taken a strong public position against both Israel’s actions and U.S. enablement and complicity in those actions, and it is clearly not about to back down.

The Consequences of Inaction / Unless the U.S. can reengage with Turkey , allow the UN to sanction Israel for its Gaza atrocities toward civilian noncombatants, and move to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a major, even cataclysmic shift in the balance of power in the Middle East could occur. Turkey , Syria , Iraq and Iran could assume control and assert power in that area in place of the U.S. ’ traditional “moderate” allies of Saudi Arabia and Egypt . Both China and Russia are interested in gaining economic and political influence in the northern Persian Gulf area and are lukewarm toward or unwilling to support strong sanctions against Iran. China , in particular, sees that area as the most important source of oil and natural gas in the world, and would be willing to pay almost any price to gain influence in that area and access to its oil.

For those who remain nostalgic about Israel , our supposed great friend, strong ally, and strategic partner in the Middle East, imagine the following scenario: China offers Turkey billions of dollars in development aid for oil and gas pipelines, ports, railways, and other infrastructure projects. In return it receives a long-term exclusive lease for Incirlik air base and a major naval base on Turkey ’s Mediterranean coast. Turkey then withdraws from NATO and improves its trade ties with Iran , Iraq , Syria and Russian and forms an alliance with these countries, and perhaps including Lebanon and even Jordan . Such an alliance would control much of the oil resources in the Persian Gulf . Russia and China would both benefit from this arrangement, China most of all by gaining access to Iranian and Iraqi oil and natural gas resources. China would also gain a significant strategic position in southern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf with a major air base and naval base in Turkey . 

The U.S. and NATO would be suddenly faced with a major strategic competitor in what had been largely their own private Mediterranean lake. With the loss of its Incirlik air base, the U.S. would no longer have easy air access to its conflicts and interests in the Middle East and South Asia . European Union countries would be facing a potential loss of Persian Gulf oil and gas resources. Israel would be even more isolated strategically, now facing the might of Turkey against any incursion it might contemplate against Lebanon , Syria , or Iran . The U.S. would be in the unenviable position of having to defend Israel against not only Turkey but potentially China and Russia as well.

While the above scenario may not be imminent or even likely, the reality is that Turkey has become so disillusioned by the U.S.’ inability to fulfill its role as the dominant player in the Middle East that it has decided to forge its own path, independent of the U.S. and its NATO allies. Turkey clearly sees U.S. Middle East policy as feckless and dominated by Israel and its U.S. lobby, and unlikely to change. It no longer views the U.S. as a strong, reliable, trustworthy partner and ally, but as a weakened giant unable to control small allies like Israel even when its vital national security interests are under threat. That view of the U.S. , as a feeble, declining giant, unable or unwilling to defend its vital interests, may well increasingly be shared by many of our allies and potential adversaries. If so, that is a dangerous trend indeed, and one that we need to stop.

Clearly the U.S. desperately needs to reevaluate its foreign policy goals and relationships in the Middle East . Faced with the loss of a Turkey , a foreign policy disaster of epic proportions, it needs to do so immediately. President Obama should begin his post-election administration by conducting a major reevaluation of U.S. Middle East policy, beginning by appointing an independent, bi-partisan commission of distinguished elder statesmen and states women to review U.S. Middle East policy and the effect of Israel and its U.S. lobby on influencing that policy. Continuing down a byzantine path of a U.S. Middle East policy influenced or even directed by Israel and its U.S. lobby is a recipe for further foreign policy disasters and a cataclysmic decline in U.S. influence in the world. This is an outcome that even Israel and its lobby should fear.

This post is similar to a post by Gil Maguire at his IrishMoses blog.

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