Turkey slouches toward Iran 

The details of Israel’s attempt to enforce the blockade of Gaza on Monday are less important than the consequences that will now begin to unfold.

These consequences are less about Israeli-Palestinian issues than they are about Turkey, whose Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told parliament that “today is a turning point in history. Nothing will ever be the same again.” This observation is probably the most important and to-the-point remark about the incident.

Israel and Turkey have had good relations for virtually all of Israel’s existence. These included military, economic and, most important, strategic cooperation. Whatever Turkish leaders saw in the importance of Israel to the moderate Middle Eastern politics they favored, there was no doubt of common cause with Jerusalem in limiting Soviet ambitions in the region.

This ended when Russia withered. Erdogan has been shifting Turkey’s course away from a secular state that looks westward to a religious one that looks to the east since he became prime minister seven years ago.

Domestic critics accuse him of leading Turkey toward establishing an Islamic state. “Iran is our friend,” Erdogan told the U.K.’s Guardian in October. Earlier the same year, he stormed out of the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland, telling Israeli President Shimon Peres that “I know well how you hit and kill children on the beaches.”

Last month, Turkey and Syria held joint military exercises for the second time in as many years. This is a significant change. In 1998, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was mediating to keep Turkey and Syria from going to war with each other.

The Islamists have the upper hand in Turkey today, and Israel’s flotilla attack, as Erdogan understands, is a custom-made tool in his hands for sealing the fate of strategic cooperation with Israel. But even this shrivels by comparison to broader issues.

A new alignment in the Middle East has been in the making since Erdogan came into power. Unlike his Ottoman predecessors, whose ambitions and outlook extended toward both Europe and Central Asia, Erdogan is focused to the east, specifically the Islamist east. The questions this opens rival in scope and magnitude to those that Iran’s Islamic revolution raised. 

Would an entente followed by strategic alliance between Turkey, Iran and Syria — including greatly increased support for Hamas and Hezbollah — end Lebanon’s existence as a buffer state on Israel’s northern border? What does so powerful an axis on or close to its borders mean for Israel’s future? How would such an axis use its weight to spread Islamism throughout other Central Asian states, and what would this mean for Russia, China and India? Would Turkish-Iranian cooperation strangle the Kurds between them, and what calamitous prospect does this hold for the northern third of Iraq, to say nothing of Iraq itself?

Should a Turkish state with Iran as a partner remain a member of NATO? Is there any reason to keep Turkey in NATO other than to try to prevent a war with Greece? And if Erdogan is right that the Mavi Marmara incident is “a turning point in history,” what reason is there to think that an alliance whose main business today is fighting Islamic radicals outside Europe would have any significant restraining influence over an Islamist Turkey in its age-old disagreement with Orthodox Greece?

Finally, and perhaps most puzzling, what does the Obama administration make of all this? Does it understand the effect of its policy toward Israel? Does it see that gradual diminishing of U.S. support for Israel encourages the suggestion advanced by Erdogan’s friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, that Israel can be wiped off the map?

Does the current administration believe that it can chip away endlessly at the U.S. relationship with Israel without such large consequences as the radicalization and strategic reorientation of what was once our most powerful Muslim-majority state in the region? President Barack Obama’s first trip abroad was to Europe, and his first stop was Turkey. How could it have turned into this? How did the U.S. miss the opportunity to pull Turkey into a strategic partnership consistent with that great country’s ambitions and capabilities?

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. This article is excerpted from The Weekly Standard.

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