Someone else always wants the mantle of leadership disavowed by the self-effacing great power. In the case of the intervention in Libya, the NATO ally now showing the greatest energy in that regard is Turkey. The Recep Tayyip Erdogan government spent most of March opposing foreign intervention in Libya. On Thursday, however, the Turkish assembly voted in a closed-door session to join the NATO effort there, and Erdogan has now jumped in with both feet.
Most NATO participants are sending one or two warships to enforce the naval embargo of Libya; Turkey is sending four frigates, a supply ship, and a submarine. Turkey has reversed course on the use of its airfields to support NATO operations in Libya, offering the major base at Izmir as a command center for the air forces. (A base in Italy would make more sense, so I’m skeptical about this offer being accepted.)
According to Al-Jazeera, Erdogan announced this weekend that Turkey would take over the operation of the civil airport in Benghazi to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid. In case it’s not clear, the tactical centrality of that position is unsurpassed. Whoever occupies it will have a significant capacity to shape the support to the groups opposing Qaddafi. We may hope NATO will assign at least two nations to operate the Benghazi airport; perhaps Italy or Greece will recognize the unwisdom of consigning the whole task to Erdogan’s Turkey, even if France and Britain don’t.
Erdogan proposes, moreover, that Turkey function as mediator between the parties in Libya, a role he is willing to undertake on behalf of NATO, the African Union, or the Arab League. Regional observers identify some spite for Nicolas Sarkozy in this Turkish activism, after the French president excluded Turkey from the Libya conference he sponsored in Paris on March 19, the day the air strikes began. The African Union declined to attend that conference, feeling that its membership had been insufficiently consulted on the European plans for an intervention. From its own first round of negotiations with a Qaddafi delegation this weekend, the African Union has produced a “roadmap” to reconciliation and free elections in Libya, which lacks only buy-in from the Libyan opposition and explicit support from other governments. (In other words, it’s not worth much, at least for now.)
In the absence of U.S.-led multilateralism, the messy business of leaders-for-a-day is inevitable; Britain and France, according to European editorial perceptions, have each overplayed a hand. Turkey may be doing so with its attempt to put itself at the center of mediation and logistics for the Libya intervention. The Arab press is certainly suspicious, and Western observers (including U.S. diplomats in Turkey) have been concerned about “Neo-Ottoman” aspirations in the Erdogan government for some time.
But if Erdogan is overplaying his hand, that won’t be established without a hardening of divisions within NATO. The longer the Libya intervention goes on, the greater will be the opportunities for Turkey – and eventually other interested parties – to inaugurate new patterns of force deployment and influence. Only the U.S. has the stature to neutralize such ventures in their early stages, but it is increasingly clear that the Obama administration sees no need to.