Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Turkish relations

Turks Show Kerry Who’s the Boss

President Obama’s brokering of what we were told was a rapprochement between his friend Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considered a great diplomatic achievement. But even though the United States continues to act as if that phone call actually did change something, virtually everything Turkey has done in the weeks since that conversation has served to expose this claim as a fraud. The latest instance of the Turks throwing cold water on these expectations came yesterday when the Erdoğan government rebuked Secretary of State John Kerry for having the nerve to ask that the Turkish leader forebear from undertaking a state visit to Gaza.

The Turkish insistence on going ahead with a gesture designed to prop up the Islamist dictators of Gaza shows that the entire premise of Kerry’s plan for a new bout of Middle East peace negotiations is based on false hopes and misperceptions. While Kerry already seemed to be setting himself up for failure with the Palestinians, the umbrage expressed by Ankara seems to indicate that more is wrong here than the new secretary’s faith in shuttle diplomacy. It’s not only that the administration seems blind to the realities of the Middle East. The former senator, who thinks of himself as a skilled and sophisticated envoy to the world, is handicapped by his blind faith in diplomacy and determination to ignore the power of Islamist ideology. And as this latest spat with Turkey illustrates, that failure may lead to Kerry making a bad situation even worse.

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President Obama’s brokering of what we were told was a rapprochement between his friend Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considered a great diplomatic achievement. But even though the United States continues to act as if that phone call actually did change something, virtually everything Turkey has done in the weeks since that conversation has served to expose this claim as a fraud. The latest instance of the Turks throwing cold water on these expectations came yesterday when the Erdoğan government rebuked Secretary of State John Kerry for having the nerve to ask that the Turkish leader forebear from undertaking a state visit to Gaza.

The Turkish insistence on going ahead with a gesture designed to prop up the Islamist dictators of Gaza shows that the entire premise of Kerry’s plan for a new bout of Middle East peace negotiations is based on false hopes and misperceptions. While Kerry already seemed to be setting himself up for failure with the Palestinians, the umbrage expressed by Ankara seems to indicate that more is wrong here than the new secretary’s faith in shuttle diplomacy. It’s not only that the administration seems blind to the realities of the Middle East. The former senator, who thinks of himself as a skilled and sophisticated envoy to the world, is handicapped by his blind faith in diplomacy and determination to ignore the power of Islamist ideology. And as this latest spat with Turkey illustrates, that failure may lead to Kerry making a bad situation even worse.

The question of Erdoğan’s proposed visit to Gaza is no minor point. Erdoğan’s pose as the savior of the Palestinians is rooted in Turkish ambitions to expand their influence and once again become the fulcrum of the Muslim political world. But that effort will require keeping the fires of conflict burning bright between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry’s hopes of restarting peace negotiations was probably doomed anyway, but the Turkish effort to strengthen Hamas vis-à-vis the corrupt and faltering Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank will make it impossible for the latter to even think about taking steps to make peace possible. So long as Hamas can count on Turkish backing, there will be no hope of productive negotiations, let alone peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry did the right thing by publicly trying to restrain the Turks from involving themselves in Palestinian politics. But he did so while laboring under the false assumption that the friendship between the American president and the Turkish prime minister was so strong that Erdoğan’s freelancing in the region was an aberration rather than a fundamental principle of Ankara’s policy. The blunder here was not in what he said. But by journeying to Turkey to make the request without any real idea that it would be respected he demonstrated to everyone in the region that he was not a force to be reckoned with. Having told Kerry that Erdoğan’s travel plans are none of his business, any hope of persuading the Turks to avoid inflaming the situation has been effectively spiked.

The point here isn’t that Kerry created a dangerous problem. That was Erdoğan’s fault. But by blundering about the region and allowing himself to be first stiffed and then publicly spanked in this manner, the secretary has diminished his influence as well as that of the United States.

This is an administration that once turned a minor housing start announcement in Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Biden into a major diplomatic contretemps in which it claimed Netanyahu had insulted it. But it is now finding out what it really means to be insulted by a nation that calls itself an American ally, and the result is far from pretty.

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