The Obama administration has invoked Turkey as a model Middle Eastern country because of its hybrid system of political Islam and democracy. It is worth recalling that President Obama said Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip “has shown great leadership.” After British prime minister David Cameron, Erdogan has secured more time on the telephone with Obama than any other U.S. ally.
How has Erdogan reciprocated? Turkey, a NATO member, now seeks to spend $3.4 billion on a deal with China to purchase its FD-2000 missile-defence system.
According to Reuters, “The firm that makes the missile system, China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp (CPMIEC) is under US sanctions for violations of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act.” NATO and U.S. officials are justifiably alarmed, largely because the missile deal could allow the Chinese to infiltrate Western defense systems through cyber espionage and attacks.
Turkey has long been one of the weakest links in the effort to sanction Iran for its nuclear military program. The dangerously porous Turkey-Iran border has served as a free-trade zone for illicit “dual-use” technology transfers to Iran’s clerical regime. The merchandise can be used for military and civilian purposes.Moreover, Turkey’s opaque financial and banking system has been used to circumvent Iran sanctions.
Turkey, to its credit, has provided refuge to some 500,000 Syrians who fled Syrian president Bashar Assad’s war against his population. However, Erdogan’s fiery anti-Assad rhetoric has not matched his actions against Syria’s regime. He shifted the onus to the U.S. military to oust Assad. Erdogan’s powerful military could be the game-changer in ending the conflict; but he has shirked responsibility. All of this helps to explain why Erdogan is not a reliable partner for U.S interests in the Middle East.
The China-Turkey alliance has profound effects for American foreign policy. While the Obama administration seeks to pivot toward Asia, the Chinese are pivoting toward the Middle East and overtaking the U.S. in terms of trade volume. China-Arab business is now at $222 billion a year. Overall U.S.-Mideast trade amounted to $193 billion in 2011.
Anti-Western countries such as non-democratic China and Russia are filling the vacuum in the region. The Russians, Chinese, and Turks continue to enable Iran to pursue its drive to become a nuclear-weapons power. In short, U.S. disengagement from the Middle East is not only bad for American foreign policy but also for American business.
— Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal.