The Istanbul-Moscow Axis of Evil

I logged over 15,000 air miles in the past three weeks, my ports of call including Moscow, Kiev, Istanbul, and London. I enjoyed opportunities to exchange views with informed leaders of government, business, and think-tanks. Changes -- many repugnant to believe -- are proceeding rapidly in each country I visited. I choose to focus on changes in Turkey and Russia which are harmful to the national interests of the United States.

Turkey presents the more immediate concern. Atatürk's secular republic, established after the Ottoman collapse in World War I, was long hailed as the enlightened model for Muslim countries. Turkey is pivotal because of its location as the boundary between Europe and the Middle East (remember, Napoleon said that "geography is destiny"), its large population, industrial capacity (15th-largest economy in world), and formidable army (second-largest in NATO). For more than a half-century after World War II, Turkey anchored NATO's front-line southeast flank against Soviet/Russian aggression and even (until 2004) against Saddam Hussein. Turkey evidenced democratic values in striking contrast to the Muslim despotisms in neighboring Iran, Iraq, and Syria, the latter two countries sometimes abetting Kurdish terrorism against Turkey.

The Dismantling of Atatürk's Secular Republic

That rosy view of Turkey has vanished. Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan and his AK Party are dismantling the foundations of the secular republic and pursuing Islamist domestic and foreign policies. This process is facilitated by the corrupt ineptitude of sclerotic secular political parties. It was also facilitated by the oafish bungling of European Union officials. EU officials titillated Turkish desires for membership but were blindsided when Europeans predictably balked at making 72 million Turks citizens of Europe and extending the borders of the EU (which aspires to be a United States of Europe) to the suburbs of Damascus and Baghdad. Europeans remembered what Napoleon said. Turks, a justifiably proud people, resent Europe's rebuff.

Exacerbating their misjudgments, EU officials insisted that the powers of the Turkish army be curbed. This suited Erdogan because he knew that the army was the historic guardian of secularism. Aggravating the exacerbation, the Europeans insisted that Turkey empower its AK-dominated Parliament to assume powers of the courts to protect the secular republic. All this was coming to a head while I was in Istanbul. The Parliament was able to abolish some but not all judicial prerogatives. Other initiatives -- including court-packing proposals reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt's, which enflamed Americans in the 1930s -- may be submitted to referenda in coming months. Turkish friends told me that although it is a long shot, Erdogan's remaining Islamist constitutional initiatives could yet be defeated by voters.

Turkey Confirms Vacuity of Obama's "Engagement" and Joins Up with State Supporters of Terrorism

The domestic Islamist transformation of Turkey -- a country with  vast secular population, excellent universities, emerging civil society, and a previously free press (now being intimidated) -- is tragic enough. But the transformation of Turkish foreign policy increasingly presents a clear danger to American interests. The "zero problems" foreign policy of AK Foreign Minister Davutoglu advertises friendliness with proximate neighbors. In practice, this means allying with rogue states Iran and Syria (whom even President Obama recently saw fit to designate a state sponsor of terrorism). Worse, Turkey now embraces terrorist murder squads like Hamas and Hezbollah and fetes their leaders as honored guests. Turkey hosted Sudanese President Bashir, who is under indictment for crimes against humanity by the International Court of Criminal Justice. Turkey's new alliances have left in tatters -- but not yet completely shredded -- its traditional military alliance with Israel. Turkish-Israel ties were important because they brought together two countries that were military powers and the only democracies in the region. I have sat through disconcerting meetings in which Erdogan likened Hamas terrorists to "boys throwing rocks at helicopter gunships." 

A country with a worldview that demonizes resistance against terrorism is a problematic member of NATO, which was founded to protect democratic values proclaimed by Roosevelt and Churchill in the Atlantic Charter. It also exposes the danger in Turkey's present role as a non-permanent member (backed by the U.S. in elections) of the U.N. Security Council. I was not surprised upon return to the U.S. to find that Turkey and Brazil cooked up a scheme to avert sanctions against Iran. The Turkish-Brazilian announcement of "ending" the Iran crisis with possible enrichment in Turkey of some Iranian uranium galvanized our State Department to announce that it had secured Russian and Chinese agreement on a weak sanctions resolution, but this was a lie intended to mask exposure of the complete failure of Obama's "engagement." Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov knocked the wind out of our State Department's sails by stressing that the resolution is far from complete and adding that "[o]ur position on Iran is to give them another chance." 

In my conversations with U.S. officials, I have found dismaying unawareness of the consequences of the ugly reality that Turkey is now a functional ally of Iran and not of the United States. Our officials are hardly aware that while Erdogan and Obama have fulsomely flattered each other, Erdogan uses his controlled media to incite populist hatred of the U.S. The Turkey-Brazil machinations have confirmed the vacuity of Obama's Iran policy. Perhaps our government will begin to understand what Turkey has become. A Turkish deputy defense minister came to my farewell brunch on the Bosporus. Upon my return to the U.S., I was the dinner guest of Turkey's Ambassador in Washington, a brilliant diplomat and friend of democracy. Both tried to convince me that Turkey aspires to lead the Islamic world in a moderate direction and to deny nuclear arms to neighboring Iran. To this point, they have not convinced me, but at least dialogue continues.

Challenges from Russia: More Complex but Less Imminent

The challenges to U.S. foreign policy I found in Moscow are more complex but less imminent. This may sound strange after all the years of the Cold War, in which the USSR was Global Enemy Number 1. Smart Russians do not want to reignite even a Cold War with the U.S. Moscow was girding for its High Holiday period -- from May Day to the 65th anniversary of V-E Day. On Moscow's outskirts, I saw posters depicting the Hammer and Sickle as holiday symbols. These were banned from central Moscow, along with posters depicting Stalin. The Russian government wanted to make clear that the heroism -- and massive sacrifice -- of the Russian people defeated Nazism and that Stalin, whatever his accomplishments, committed unpardonable crimes. I witnessed restrained but effective dispersal of pro-Stalin demonstrators.

Well-connected Russians with whom I spoke regretted the dissolution of the Soviet Union and were opposed to assertions of U.S. military power in east Europe. But of more immediate concern were the problems of (1) Islamic terrorism (Russia's Muslim population may be as high as 20%), as evidenced in recent subway bombings, and (2) Chinese expansionism, particularly as threatening Russia's vast Far East -- three times the size of Europe -- which has a shrinking population of 7.5 million while hundreds of millions of Chinese live just across the border. China's economic engine is securing access to resources everywhere it can. Our hyped sanctions "deal" allows the Chinese exemption from energy sanctions on Iran (which, if implemented, would constitute real pressure on Tehran). Thus, Obama has achieved a double-whammy in foisting "sanctions" that are guaranteed to fail while abetting China in its competition with our country and the rest of the world to near-monopolize global access to resources.

Obama policies have encouraged Russians to believe we lack coherency. Obama caved in to Russian demands and reneged on a commitment to provide missile defense to the Czech Republic and Poland without getting anything in return, as acknowledged to me in a dinner meeting with David Sanger, chief diplomatic reporter for the NY Times, a consistent flack for the president. The Russians have played a clever cat-and-mouse game in fending off tough U.N. sanctions against Iran, but they have to this point practiced restraint in neither finishing the Busheir nuclear plant nor supplying Iran with the S-300 ground-to-air missiles (though an egregious lacuna in the proposed START treaty allows them to do so if they choose). A Russian announcement of new arms supply to Syria gives reason for vigilance, but I would be surprised if the Russians try to undermine Israel's security. Picking up some loose Arab money while annoying Washington is a familiar Moscow tactic. Obama's obsession with nuclear disarmament (we have now idiotically proclaimed that we will not respond with nuclear weapons to a massive biological or chemical attack by a hostile country) has aided the Russians in allowing them to destroy obsolete weapons while we destroy deployable stock.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which Obama and Russia's president signed in Prague in April so grotesquely favors Russian and undermines U.S. interests that our Senate may refuse ratification. Peter Brookes, former deputy assistant Secretary of Defense, provided worrisome details in a May 14 NY Post article, pointing out that "the Russians got a great deal" on the new treaty "at our expense." Obama seems to believe that unilateral U.S. shedding of strategic weapons will incentivize Iran and North Korea to obey U.N. arms resolutions. Watch the Senate ratification hearings. And who knows what the Russians made of Joe Biden's foolish remarks about diminished Russian power? In Kiev, I learned that the Russians have largely succeeded in forcing Ukraine -- with its 60 million people and strategic location -- back into relative servitude.

Does Our Government Understand the Implications of a Turkish-Russian Strategic Partnership?

Nature abhors a vacuum. Both Russia and Turkey perceive the naïve vacuity of our foreign policy. They, along with the rest of the word, heard Obama recently say that we are a superpower "whether we like it or not." Thus, I was not surprised to read upon returning to the U.S. that Russian President Medvedev had made a state visit to Turkey's Islamist President Gul. Medvedev proclaimed establishment of "a full -scale strategic partnership," which includes Russia's building a nuclear power plant, as well as energy pipelines, in Turkey. This is hardly a new Warsaw Pact, nor an existential axis of evil. But neither can it be dismissed casually by incantations of "engagement" or defaulting, as the Europeans do, to soft power.

A Russian-Turkish alliance stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea presents a new set of problems for American diplomacy. A NATO member in a "strategic partnership" with Russia is contrary to more than a half-century of NATO doctrine. The problem is magnified when the NATO ally becomes an ally of Iran and holds joint military exercises with Syria. My soundings in Moscow suggest that the Russian government comprehends these changing dynamics and the advantages they give to the Kremlin. I see no evidence that the same can be said of our government.