Jun 14th 2010

Israel vs Turkey: Which Serves US Interests Better?

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

In light of Turkey's reaction to the Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla last week, media pundits and policy wonks are already underlining the demise of the US-Turkish special relationship. The growing chorus of critics miss one vital point. Turkey was criticizing Tel Aviv's military overkill off the Gaza coastline, not Washington's.

So closely aligned have we become to Israel since the Reagan era, we now find ourselves reacting on behalf of the government of Israel. Instead of basing our policy determinations and official statements on the US's national security interests, we find ourselves uniquely defending the indefensible over and over again -- expending precious global political capital on Israel and attracting the whispered derision of even our allies.

In their book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt claim that "since 1982, the US has vetoed 32 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members."

By another count, between 1984 and 2006, the US has used its UN Security Council veto privilege 27 times on resolutions criticizing illegal Israeli actions or demanding Israel's adherence to international law - even when the resolutions were consistent with our own official policy. In all 27 instances, we were the solitary veto in the Security Council.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the last time a permanent member cast a lone veto was France, which refused in 1976 to recognize its former colony Mayotte as part of newly-independent Comoros.


Turkey and the US: Different Tactics, Same Goals
A recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine underscores this destructive mindset in Washington. Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations points out: "In the abstract, Washington and Ankara do share the same goals: peace between Israel and the Palestinians; a stable, unified Iraq; an Iran without nuclear weapons; stability in Afghanistan; and a Western-oriented Syria. When you get down to details, however, Washington and Ankara are on the opposite ends of virtually all these issues."

Where do they diverge? Cook follows by saying: "For the first time in its history, Ankara has chosen sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demanding that Israel take steps to ease the blockade of Gaza or risk unspecified 'consequences.'"

It may be prudent to point out here that even Washington has made statements advocating an easing of the Gaza blockade -- same goes for the European Union and every other nation that weighed in publically after Israel's deadly attack on the flotilla last week. Considering that the main flotilla ship was registered in Turkey and that the dead activists are Turkish citizens, it is only natural that Ankara takes a strong stand on this issue.

The fact is that the US and Turkey have a great many goals in common in the broader Middle East -- differences on how to achieve them do not fundamentally mean being at odds. Cook jumps to the conclusion of many American observers when he confuses Turkey's tactics with its strategic interests and then goes on to assume that our shared tactics with Israel means that our strategic interests are one and the same with the Jewish state.


Israel as a Strategic Liability
Two days after the flotilla tragedy, veteran foreign policy expert Anthony Cordesman wrote in an article for the Center For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled "Israel as a Strategic Liability:"

"America's ties to Israel are not based primarily on U.S. strategic interests. At the best of times, an Israeli government that pursues the path to peace provides some intelligence, some minor advances in military technology, and a potential source of stabilizing military power that could help Arab states like Jordan. Even then, however, any actual Israeli military intervention in an Arab state could prove as destabilizing as beneficial.

Cordesman continues with this critical point:

"The fact is that the real motives behind America's commitment to Israel are moral and ethical. They are a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, to the entire history of Western anti-Semitism, and to the United States' failure to help German and European Jews during the period before it entered World War II. They are a product of the fact that Israel is a democracy that shares virtually all of the same values as the United States."

I must first firmly note that I do not agree with Cordesman's assessment of "shared values" between the United States and Israel. This term is more myth than fact. I certainly do not advocate the occupation, killings, collective punishment and systemic racism that has colored most of the Jewish state's history, nor do most Americans I know. I think this phrase more honestly represents a certain - shall we say - blind identification with other "white cultures." Look at how far behind the pack we were in condemning the institutional racism of Afrikaner-ruled South Africa.

Let me also note that "moral" and "ethical" responsibility for the Jewish Holocaust should fall firmly on the shoulders of the Germans, and not us. "Israel" is not synonymous with "Jews" - all Jews do not identify with Israel, nor are all Israelis Jewish. Israel is a state created by a political, colonial-settler movement that has created more conflict than good for both Jewish and non-Jewish populations the world around. This is a state that - more than sixty years after its violent inception - does not have defined borders, is based on the very exclusivity we universally abhor since the second World War, is highly militarized and entirely dependent on US support for its continuity, and is probably the least safe place for Jews to live today.

But I digress.

Cordesman points out some carefully-worded realities. Israel is no longer the useful ally of the Cold War - a bulwark against Soviet satellites in the Mideast and the threat of regional nationalist movements blocking our ability to access and profit from the area's precious oil resource.

Instead, today Israel is a very real strategic liability. We have lost all influence and credibility in the Mideast because of our inability to broker peace and play fair in the region. Furthermore, Israel and its staunch US neocon friends can take responsibility for the colossal error we made in invading Iraq in 2003. Today, they are just as responsible for the war drums against Iran. Certainly, we have relied in great part on Israeli generated intelligence for much of our interactions with groups and nations that Israel opposes - groups and nations we also unsurprisingly find ourselves confronting, often on behalf of Israeli interests.

Would we be facing down Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and Syria if it were not for Israel? Would they even be foes? Hezbollah and Hamas came into existence entirely as a result of Israeli occupation. We take issue with Syria because it refuses to recognize Israel - which is fully understandable as Israel has been occupying Syrian territory since 1967. The whole brouhaha over Iran's nuclear program is largely because Israel, having started the Mideast's nuclear race, doesn't want anyone else to threaten its regional hegemony and its qualitative military edge.

When was the last time any of them targeted Americans as a matter of policy?

Israel harms us each and every time it make a move in the Middle East. The "no-space-between-us-and-Israel" sound bites made by our sycophantic politicians is the problem -- the whole international community buys into this view that we sanction and support all of Israel's actions -- and because so many of these are illegal, we also look like hypocrites when we challenge transgressions of other regional states.

Turkey: Actions Not Words
And then there is Turkey: a NATO member since 1952; the world's 16th largest economy; second largest standing armed force in NATO with over one million soldiers; a founding member of the United Nations, OECD and the G-20 major economies; a major trading partner of the European Union -- more than 50% of its imports and exports; abundant in natural resources, minerals, oil and gas. The list goes on.

A Rand Corporation study published in February 2010 concludes the following:

"A strong security partnership with Turkey has been an important element of U.S. policy in the Mediterranean and the Middle East since the early 1950s. It is even more important today. Turkey stands at the nexus of four areas that have become increasingly critical to U.S. security since the end of the Cold War: the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus/Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf region. In all four areas, Turkey's cooperation is vital for achieving U.S. policy goals."

Diplomacy rules in today's Turkey. In the past decade, Turkey has solved most of its outstanding regional conflicts by pursuing a policy of "zero problems" with its neighbors, in the process signing record breaking trade agreements that have boosted its economy and increased its influence exponentially in the international arena.

The US, on the other hand is neck deep in three wars, has lost the global influence it enjoyed a decade ago, confuses diplomacy with brinkmanship, and is mired in one of the worst economic crises in its history.

There are few countries that have served global security and stability better than Turkey in recent years. We have a lot to learn from them. Changing our failed policies and living up to our public declarations will make us more honest and useful. In the "strategic interest" contest between Israel and Turkey, I suspect we will ultimately find more shared values with Turkey -- but only if we can break the dangerous hold Israel has over us.

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