In 2003, Turkey voted not to allow American forces to enter Iraq through its territory. Taking further distance from the United States, Erdogan has protected Iran from sanctions and cooperated with Brazil in a vain effort to gain the world’s acceptance of the Iranian nuclear program. In April 2009, Turkey was the first Muslim country that Barack Obama visited as president. In his main speech there, he declared that “the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam” and also that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation” (he added that the nation isn’t Jewish or Muslim either, but the qualification tends to get lost in amazement at the apologetics). Calling Turkey “a critical ally,” he boosted its EU membership — though this surely was none of his business — and he further rhapsodized about some future all-embracing “modern international community.” Mention was not made of persecuted minorities, mythical conspiracies, or wrongful arrests. Secular Turks could only draw the unwelcome conclusion that Obama was telling them that the U.S. actively supports Islamism in their country. In Erdogan’s interpretation, the U.S. was abandoning its interests in the region. Here was the invitation to restore the glory of the pre-Atatürk era, when Turkey was the preeminent Muslim power: He would be the neo-Ottoman sultan.
Quite probably, Erdogan is venting anti-Israel fury only as a pretext for neo-Ottoman heroics. At any rate he chose the crucial moment for it with his customary calculation. The World Economic Forum was held in Switzerland in January 2009, a couple of weeks after the Israeli campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, was sitting next to Erdogan when the latter accused him of murdering children on beaches. “When it comes to killing,” he fulminated in front of television cameras that ensured maximum publicity, “you know it too well.” Peres was too polite or too slow to answer that Turkey has killed Armenians and Kurds in far greater numbers than Israel has killed Arabs in all its wars put together. This staged incident gave Erdogan the requisite Muslim credentials in Iran and Arab countries, and he has followed up by sponsoring Islamists trying to run the Gaza blockade from Turkish ports.