Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan will visit President Obama in Washington tomorrow. A lot has changed since Obama and Erdogan met in the heady days of Obama’s April 2009 trip to Ankara (preceding his more-often-cited visit to Cairo). Back then, Obama praised his “personal friend” Erdogan as the key to solving problems in the Middle East. Erdogan eagerly wrapped that mantle about himself, while Obama sounded a rising theme of renewed American popularity and resilience in the Middle East as the natural consequence of his presidency. Today, Erdogan’s mantle is in tatters, and Obama’s deference has proven of little value to Turkey, the Middle East as a whole, or the United States.
Obama heralded his 2009 Ankara trip — his first presidential visit to any Muslim land — as “a statement about the importance of Turkey not just to the United States but to the world.” Obama practically nominated Erdogan as the leader of the Middle East, to whom it was only good sense to defer. Obama explained that, as both a NATO member and a Muslim-majority country, Turkey is “unique” and has “insights into a whole host of regional and strategic challenges that we may face.” Its “greatness” lies in its “ability to be at the center of things.” What was true of Turkey was especially true under the leadership of his personal friend Erdogan. Of Turkey, Obama said, “This is not where East and West divide — this is where they come together.”
For his own part, Erdogan basked in the praise. Indeed, he was already convinced of its essential accuracy. His great domestic political success made him the master of his own house and able to direct Turkish power and influence. He and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, trumpeted a new foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” by which they expected to make Turkey the ultimate arbiter both of the conflicts within the region and of the region’s conflicts with the world. Exercising the leadership Obama praised him for, Erdogan soon ambitiously sought to deflect American policy on issues such as Israel and the Iranian nuclear program.
But it was the advent of the “Arab Spring” in 2011 that seemed to offer the greatest field of opportunity for Turkey’s new leadership. Both Erdogan and Obama embraced the Arab Spring, and both saw Erdogan as its natural leader. Indeed, Erdogan and other Turkish officials were greeted as heroes in the newly “liberated” countries of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Meanwhile, President Obama reportedly told aides that “the best revolutions are completely organic,” and even when some difficulties developed in the early days of the Syrian demonstrations, Secretary of State Clinton declared with confidence that matters were safely in Turkey’s hands. American leadership, by implication, not only was not needed, but would be counterproductive. For it was the premise of President Obama’s policy — indicated in his Cairo speech — that American interference had in the past too often exacerbated rather than soothed difficulties in the Middle East.
Now, so soon after these hopeful early soundings, Obama and Erdogan will listen to each other with disappointment. The great friendship is bedeviled by the frustrated hopes and expectations of those heady early days. For today Erdogan hardly bears the mantle of an effective leader meriting Obama’s continued deference. Turkey flails about in the great regional struggles it faces — above all with Syria and Iran. Rather, it is Obama’s assistance that Erdogan urgently seeks.
If this is disappointing to Erdogan — and even perhaps humiliating — Obama feels similarly cornered. He has no appetite for taking a leading role in Syria. Indeed, his 2009 anointment of Erdogan was meant precisely to avoid such a role for Obama, there or anywhere else in the Middle East. Erdogan’s recent failures are failures not only for his own policy but for the president’s.
What has brought things to such a pass? A gross misreading of the Middle East and of Turkey’s influence in it. Not only have East and West failed to “come together,” in Obama’s phrase. Rather, the East has revealed its increasingly sectarian — that is, Sunni and Shiite — and increasingly bloody divide. This is the most salient result of the Arab Spring at present, if not ultimately — and not only in Syria, but increasingly elsewhere in the region. The spiraling struggle has drawn in additional Muslim states — including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Egypt.
Moreover, despite Obama’s early praise, Erdogan’s “insights” into the region’s strategic challenges have proven no more beneficial than our own. Erdogan never held the regional hand that he and Obama proclaimed. Neither Persian nor Arab lands embrace Erdogan’s vision of renewed, neo-Ottoman leadership. Their revolutions proceed without regard to him. Today, Erdogan looks to American strength to pull him back from the Syrian vortex. And what will he find across the table? A president more interested in a domestic vortex of his own. Already in the past week the president held at bay appeals for the kind of vigorous American action in Syria that Erdogan would seek.
In retrospect, Obama’s April 2009 words sound not as a swell heralding a weighty partnership, but as the first chords preceding the soft padding of American withdrawal. Odds are that neither Erdogan nor Obama will like the discordant next movement or the crescendo to come.
— Hillel Fradkin is the director of the Center for the Muslim World and Lewis Libby is the senior vice president at the Hudson Institute.