The New Wannabe Ottomans

by Victor Davis Hanson
Turkey is not acting like a U.S. ally.

A Turkish Islamic group — the “Humanitarian Relief Foundation,” often associated by Western intelligence agencies with terrorist sponsorship — orchestrated the recent Gaza flotilla. It was hoping for the sort of violent, well-publicized confrontation with the Israeli navy that later followed. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately issued veiled threats to Israel. He then badgered the United States, Turkey’s NATO patron and ally, to condemn the Israeli interdiction.

While the world piled on in its criticism of Israel, there was also a sort of stunned silence over the actions of Turkey, without whose help the blockade-running flotilla would never have left a Turkish port.

Erdogan’s hysterics emphasized the Islamic transformation of a once secular Turkey that has been going on for well over a decade. In 2003, Turkey forbade passage to U.S. troops in their efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from Iraq. State-run Turkish television instead aired virulent anti-American dramas, such as Valley of the Wolves, in which our soldiers appear as little more than blood-crazed killers who dismember poor Iraqi civilians.

Lately, Turkey has reached out to Iran and Syria. Both habitually sponsor Mideast terrorist groups and have aided anti-American insurgents in Iraq. Turkey and Brazil recently offered to monitor Iran’s nuclear program, sidestepping American and European efforts to step up sanctions to stop Teheran’s plans for a bomb.

Erdogan’s anti-Israel attacks often match those of his newfound friends, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah’s Hasan Nasrallah. Former Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, remember, once blamed the Jews for starting the Crusades, and for instigating World War I to create Israel. He also described them as a “disease” that needed to be eradicated.

What is behind Turkey’s metamorphosis from a staunch U.S. ally, NATO member, and quasi-European state into a sponsor of Hamas, ally of theocratic Iran, and fellow traveler with terrorist-sponsoring Syria?

The Cold War is over. Turkey no longer guards the southeastern flank of Europe from the advance of Soviet Communism, lessening its importance within NATO. Its Anatolian Muslim population grows, while more secular European and Aegean Turks have lost influence. Turkey senses a growing distance between Tel Aviv and Washington, and thus an opportunity to step into the gulf to unite Muslims against Israel and win influence in the Arab world.


Erdogan clearly identifies more with the old transnational Ottoman sultanate than with Kemal Ataturk’s modern, secular, and Western nation-state. Indeed, he has bragged that he is a grandson of the Ottomans and announced that Turkey’s new goal is to restore the might of the Ottoman Empire. And so, like the theocratic Ottomans of old, Erdogan’s Islamic Turkey fancies itself a window on the West, absorbing technology and expertise from Europe and the United States in order to empower and unite the more spiritually pure Muslims across national boundaries.

Of course, Turkey tolerates no criticism of its own violations of human rights in suppressing its Kurdish population. It lectures Israel about occupied land but is silent about its sponsorship of the Turkish absorption of much of Greek Cyprus. It laments a divided Jerusalem but says nothing about the segregation of Nicosia.

Erdogan often accuses Israel of human-rights violations, but to this day no Turkish government has ever acknowledged culpability for the genocide of the Armenians. Far from it: Not long ago, Erdogan threatened to deport Armenians from Turkish soil.

Where and how does all this end?

Turkey’s new ambitions and ethnic and religious chauvinism are antithetical to its NATO membership. The U.S. should not be treaty-bound to defend a de facto ally of Iran or Syria, which are both eager to obtain nuclear weapons. European countries foresaw the problem when they denied Turkey membership in the now fragile European Union, fearful that Anatolian Islamists would have unfettered transit across European borders.

In response, the U.S. should make contingency plans to relocate from its huge Air Force base at Incirlik — a facility that Turkey has in the past threatened to close. We should brace for new troubles in the Aegean region and Cyprus, as a bankrupt and often anti-American Greece is now alienated from both the U.S. and northern Europe — and yet increasingly vulnerable to a return of Ottoman regional ambitions.

The Shah of Iran’s pro-Western, secular transformation failed and led to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s anti-Western Islamic revolution; we are seeing something similar in Erdogan’s efforts to turn Ataturk’s Turkey back into the theocratic sultanate that ran the Eastern Mediterranean for more than three centuries.

If Erdogan is intent on a suicidal reinvention of Turkey into a pale imitation of Ottoman hegemony, we can at least take steps to ensure that it will be his mess — and none of our own.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.