Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | November 17, 2010

Party Like It’s 1571

As U.S. power recedes, a restive, assertive Turkey is among the old geopolitical patterns beginning to reemerge. Turkey lives in a tough neighborhood; her leaders will always seek some level of strategic and military autonomy. But 2010 has seen a series of developments that go further than that. Modern Turkey’s posture today is just about one military deployment shy of “power projection” – a dimension of national power that has been, in the period since World War II, the province of select members of the G-8.

The events of this year put in interesting context Prime Minister Erdogan’s announcement on Monday, in advance of the upcoming NATO summit, that Turkish participation in a NATO missile shield would be conditional: a Turk must command the missile defense system if it is to have components on Turkish soil. Depending on how it plays out in negotiation, this stipulation could have an import similar to France’s withdrawal from the NATO military command structure in the 1960s – that is, it could be a source of friction for the alliance but not a defeat for its common security purposes.

It’s not certain that such optimism is warranted, however. Turkey’s demonstrations of strategic independence have come in a flurry over the past six months. Last week, the Turkish military hosted a Special Forces drill with its Chinese counterparts, the second military exercise ever held between the two nations. The first was an air force exercise conducted in Turkey in September and October 2010. The Chinese fighters heading for that exercise stopped to refuel in Iran.

Greece was already paying close attention to Turkey’s military posture after the Turkish navy deployed a general-purpose task force to the Mediterranean from May to July. Turkey hasn’t deployed a naval task force for a general-purpose patrol since she was the seat of the Ottoman Empire prior to World War I. In the NATO era, long-distance deployments by the Turkish navy have been for NATO operations: alliance exercises, commemorative port visits, and contingencies in the Adriatic Sea or off Somalia. The unprecedented task force deployment this year included visits to Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Italy, along with a pointed collection of port calls in Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia. Athens was especially concerned when the Albanian parliament passed a bill allowing Turkish troops on its soil prior to the Turks’ visit to the Albanian naval base at Durres. That visit reportedly included more than 1100 Turkish marines embarked in the navy ships.

But Greece had been alarmed even earlier when a Turkish submarine visited Albania following a NATO exercise in February and March. Turkey’s intensification of ties with Albania – a predominantly Muslim relic of the Ottoman occupation – is taking a decidedly military turn. Russia, dependent on Turkish impartiality for her maritime access from the Black Sea, is taking notice as well. In September, the Russian Black Sea Fleet deployed an amphibious landing ship to the Mediterranean for the first time since the 1980s, with an intensive schedule of “port calls in Greek and Montenegrin ports.”

In general, Russia and Turkey are jockeying to see which one can hold his enemy closer. Turkey’s outreach to China comes in the context of a longstanding, Ottoman-era interest in Central Asia, which modern Turkey has expressed largely through parliamentary resolutions backing old ethnic Muslim allies. The move to hold military drills with China, however, is an unmistakable signal. It has lent color to a Central Asian rumor that Turkey has concluded a military basing agreement of some kind with Azerbaijan. And apparently, the Turks have at least agreed with the Azeris to build missiles together.

Russia must obviously be concerned about the influence of an increasingly Islamist Turkish government in Central Asia and the Caucasus, where Moscow’s biggest worry is Islamist insurgencies. The U.S. and NATO have their own concerns. At the top of the list is the possibility that Turkey’s sponsorship of the Mavi Marmara flotilla in May was just the opening salvo in a campaign to destabilize the Levant. Besides the question of general maritime security in the Eastern Mediterranean, NATO may be called on to extract UN missions from Lebanon or the Sinai Peninsula if eruptions ashore can’t be contained. The real possibility that Turkey and NATO aren’t after the same thing in the Levant is already in view.

We are not anywhere near the situation of 1571, when the Ottoman imperial navy deployed 280 ships to establish its mastery of the Mediterranean over the combined fleets of a few Western city-states and confederacies. In that year, the memory of the West’s defeat at Constantinople in 1453 was still fresh and the Ottoman Empire’s star was in the ascendant. The Ottomans’ resounding naval defeat at Lepanto, off the coast of Greece, might have been decisive in the maritime realm, but on land the Ottoman forces continued to occupy and forcibly convert much of the Balkans and Southeastern Europe for another three centuries. That, of course, does not describe the current situation.

But Turkey deploying military force into the Mediterranean for her own national purposes is a reversion to a pattern that predates the Great War. Deploying naval force sounds the echoes of an even earlier time.  It is, moreover, an inviolable axiom of geopolitics that nations do not change their naval postures because they are happy with the status quo.  Erdogan, with his penchant for claiming Jewish historical sites for Islam, cozying up to Syria and Iran, and promising naval support for blockade-busting flotillas, has already signaled the portents of his brand of Islamism. The trend of his navy’s activity has meaning, and the meaning isn’t a positive sign.

Over on the other side of Asia, Russian resentments from more than a century ago are cropping up in Moscow’s overall Far East posture, and specifically in Russia’s dealings with Japan.  Those historical resentments have a strong maritime element to them. Watch the seas in the coming years.  They will be a key harbinger of fresh rumblings on the international fault lines long held dormant by the Pax Americana.  Geography hasn’t changed; American will has.

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.” She writes a weekly column for Patheos.



  1. I guess that the recession of US power began with the invasion of Iraq, because that’s when Turkey asserted independence from US control by refusing to allow Turkish territory to be an invasion route.

    But generally you’re correct in noting that Turkey seeks to regain much of its past influence throughout the Middle East. Reassertion of Turkish regional power based on geographic position and Turkey’s increased and increasing affluence has been the vision of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu not only since he entered the government in 2002, but long before then when he was teaching and writing.

  2. I’m surprised that you don’t mention Turkey’s sharp turn towards Jihadism. That would seem to be an important part of the picture.

    • I’m surprised that you think that “Turkey’s sharp turn towards Jihadism.” exists.

      I trust that you’re talking about some Turkish citizens and not the government.

      • Erdogan won’t be rushed,
        But Turkey’s being trussed,
        For immersion in the pot,
        Where the oil’s good and hot.

  3. You trust wrong. I mean the government, undoubtedly with the support of a large chunk, perhaps a majority, of the population. It’s silly to se Turkey as an ally, or even potential ally, at this point (against whom would they fight alongside us?), but I know better than to question the inertial motion of NATO. It will crack up on its own soon enough.

    • adam, maybe you and I are understanding different things by your use of “Jihadism.”

      Are you suggesting that the Turkish government are among those who believe that
      violence and terrorism are justified to realize their political objectives and that those objectives call for overthrowing all democracies and any other governments that aren’t ruled by the most fundamental and literal interpretations of Islamic scripture as the organizing principal of life on Earth?

      • “Are you suggesting that the Turkish government are among those who believe that
        violence and terrorism are justified to realize their political objectives”

        As Pipes says, I think they would prefer to see Islamists take over peacefully, but they certainly support those (like Hamas and Iran) who believe the latter. I doubt they are far from believing it themselves.

        “and that those objectives call for overthrowing all democracies and any other governments that aren’t ruled by the most fundamental and literal interpretations of Islamic scripture as the organizing principal of life on Earth?”

        I don’t see why they need to take a stand on this question of principle (for all I know, maybe Turks in or close to the government do go this far)–they are gravitating towards those who believe this, and what reason could they have other than preferring that vision to others?

      • “Are you suggesting that the Turkish government are among those who believe that violence and terrorism are justified to realize their political objectives. . .”

        Virtually all chiefs of state believe that. The important question is whether the system of government around them inhibits their exercise of their psychopathic impulses.

    • Here’s one version of the argument:

      I don’t suppose it would be too hard to gather quite a few more. But, if anyone wants to argue, what’s the alternative case? Where does secularization stand in Turkey? Is Turkey moving towards the West or toward Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas? What is the explanation for Turkey’s role in the vilification of Israel in the Mamara incident?

      Here’s Claire Berlinski:

      If Turkish citizens are taking to the streets to denounce Israel, who can blame them? Here’s what they’re reading in the Turkish press. Yasin Aktay of Yeni Safak, a popular figure on the talk-show circuit, writes: “Israel is contrary to logic, to human rights and to democracy.” Ali Bulaç, a columnist for Zaman, describes Gaza as “a concentration camp that in reality surpasses the Nazis camps”. In Ortadogu, Selcuk Duzgun warns: “We are surrounded. Wherever we look we see traitors. Wherever we turn we see impure, false converts. Whichever stone you turn over, there is a Jew under it. And we keep thinking to ourselves: Hitler did not do enough to these Jews.” Abdurrahim Karakoç of Vakit adds: “It is impossible not to admire the foresight of Adolf Hitler…Hitler foresaw what would happen these days. He cleansed off these swindler Jews, who believe in racism for a religion and take pleasure in bathing the world in blood, because he knew that they would become a big a curse for the world…The second man with foresight is evidently Osama bin Laden…It was Hitler yesterday, and it is Osama bin Laden today.”

      Berlinski thinks that this Islamist inspired total demonization of Israel comes from the government and that most Turks are indifferent to it. She’s obviously right about the first part; I’ll withold judgment on the second. After all, someone elected the government.

  4. Berlinski has it backward. Israel’s actions have long been made to appear worse than they are throughout the world, and that Israel is far more unpopular for its policies among the Turkish population than among the ruling class.

    I see Erdogan rather cynically using anti-israeli rhetoric to garner more popularity instead of fabricating it.

    • You may be right on that. Berlinski lives and works in Istanbul and seems, from what I have seen, to view the Turkish people sentimentally. But this distinction doesn’t matter very much in terms of Turkey’s turn toward jihadism–in the end, the exact mixture of cynicism, populism and conviction involved is an interesting, but secondary issue. What matters is where they are heading and the government certainly isn’t trying to moderate any popular Islamist impulses.

  5. adam, I still think that you’re seeing Turkey move away from the West and toward the Middle East, away from secularization and toward a more openly Islamic society, and are taking 2 + 2 and getting 22.

    Middle eastern and islamic does not add up to “Jihadist”.

    You and I may not like the direction that Turkey is moving, but they went as far “western” as they could get, got told by Europe that Turkey was never gonna get their EU membership approved without going a whole lot further, and now their playing the cards that they have.

    They’re nothing like the jihadists of AQ or the fundies of Iran or Saudi Arabia, but they’re blocked to the west and aren’t going to gain further economic growth except by looking to the ME and CE.

    • Even if you’re right (which I don’t concede), how many ways of playing those cards will there ultimately be? How do you go about forming allies, cultivating clients and competing with other centers of power (Iran, Saudi Arabia) without consolidating your jihadist, Jew and America-hating credentials?

      • I think that you are a little right and a little wrong in how far Turkey is going to be pulled into the craziness of Iran/SA.

        Turkey is far too deeply westernized, too stable, and too powerful to be pulled all the way in that direction. This is going to be more like the attraction between similarly sized bodies. Turkey is going to move those crazy societies toward them as much or more than the other way.

        Some time ago, I wrote something about how Turkish soap operas (of all things) was one of the most widely watched set of stuff in the Gulf and how much tourism it was generating for Turkey from the women in those places.

        If you believe as much as I do that our culture, even filtered through the Turkish nation, has infinitely more to offer than does that of the Gulf, perhaps you’ll consider that it’s not all bad that Turkey is going to penetrate those closed societies more than we currently can.

        • It seems to me that Egypt was also once too Westernized and even stable to give too much ground to Islamists. Now the Copts are terrorized regularly, all the women go covered, and there seems to be a consensus that the Muslim Brotherhood would win in a free and fair election. And, of course, one of contemporary Islam’s main arguments in its favor is all our culture has to offer. Anyway, we have no control and probably very little influence over what the Turks do. All I’m saying is that any country that funds, organizes, and then exploits incidents aimed at inciting more hatred against Israel is certainly no ally. And I’m not even mentioning their refusal to let us pass through in the invasion of Iraq.

          Wasn’t one example of Turkey’s regionally attractive culture a movie (something with “Wolves” in the title, and starring Gary Busey) prominently featuring American Jewish doctors harvesting organs from Iraqi victims of US imperialism, or something along those lines? But I’m sure their soap operas are much more benign.

  6. Since Erdogan has a distinctly Ottoman flavor, Sultan in all but title, and THe Russian bear prowling
    on the periphery, it’s like 1768 and 1781 all over again, Odessa was a predominantly Moslem enclave, not that long ago,

  7. This is what you’re thinking of Adam;

    • Yes that’s it–apparently it was wildly popular in Turkey! Our allies.

      • The success was mostly due to the incredible popularity of Gary Busey.
        He’s mega, mega-box office over there.

        • And Turkey’s Parliamentary Speaker Bulent Arinc (“absolutely magnificent”; “an extraordinary film that will go down in history”) is no doubt a huge Billy Zane fan (he was pretty good in “Titanic”).

  8. adam — regarding the turn to jihadism, what I referenced in this piece was the turn to Islamism by the Erdogan government, which is marked and unmistakable.

    I think it will be important in the coming days to make a particular distinction. I would reserve the word “jihadism” for the kinetic arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, for Hizballah and Hamas, etc. In general, jihadism — in my view — should be used to describe the action of the non-state actors, in part because the elements of jihadism can be more clearly distinguished when it’s not a state doing the acting. Another part is that jihadism is destructive and negative. Its purpose is not the organized purpose of an autocratic state, to impose a transformative order or remake the political or social landscape. It manifests differently depending on who the actor is and what the situation is. It looks like “Talliban” among the cutthroat tribes of Afghanistan, but like itinerant nihilism among Arabs of nomadic tribal ancestry — and yet again like a comprehensive by almost humorously narrow weltanschauung, cultivated through an endless series of “conferences,” among the settled-urban ethnic groups with ancient histories, like the Egyptian clerics of Cairo and the Iranian clerics of Qom. Its raison d’etre is vindictive destruction.

    This doesn’t mean non-state jihadism and state Islamism aren’t motivated by a list of common factors. But state Islamism is, first and foremost, STATE Islamism. It will act like a nation-state seeking its advantage rather than like a tribal thug or a suicide bomber. Iran has been the big example of state Islamism up to now, but Turkey is bidding to be another, and history and circumstance say it will be, in the long run, a rival to Iran.

    The Ottoman emperor was characterized as Allah’s Shadow on Earth. The Ottoman Empire was all about the rule of Islam. Turkey has a long history of Islamic political leadership, and the prospect with Erdogan is of a new attempt to resurrect political Islam — an attempt different from the ayatollahs’ Shi’a concept, and the various Arabist concepts roiling around. Turkey going Islamist adds a major actor in the dynamic of political rivalry in Islam. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, Turkey once WAS the ruler of the entire Islamic world.

    • I’m sorry, I did miss your reference to Erdogan’s government’s Islamism–even if I had read more carefully and noticed it, I think I would have still commented that it is a lot more important than you seem to be suggesting here. It also seems to me that Islamism and jihadism are both forces that upset traditional great and mid-level power considerations.

      I think the distinction between jihadism and Islamism will turn out to be less important than you say here. Controlled, “rational” state-driven Islamism will lead to the cultivation of clients, the incitement of masses and the generation of confrontations that can’t be controlled. It won’t be like the Ottoman Empire at all, and radical Islam has been globalized and dramatically homogenized by the advent of the mass-mediated propaganda centered in Saudi Arabia in particular. So, the possibility of putting some more manageable “Turkish” stamp on all this seems to me very little to depend upon.

    • Has a large scale conglomerate state ever been assembled other than by an outright conqueror wading through a sea of blood?

      • Sully, Sully. All large-scale conglomerates have been assembled in SELF-DEFENSE. That has been the justification in every single case.

        And if you were unlucky enough to live on the frontiers that were being raided and menaced, it always seemed like a pretty good one.

        • I wasn’t referring to the purported justification but rather to the actual mechanics of putting together a state encompassing a wide variety of formerly independent states. Today we have Europe, all of 40 or so years into the effort, trying to combine peacefully. Where are the similar agglomeration that was achieved in the past without the operation of a conqueror? Do we really expect the Arabs, Turks and Persians to come together peacefully? Are we certain that the Europeans will pull off the project?

          • The Hapsburg Empire was assembled, pretty much, peacefully (“You happy Austria marry”… and all that) although their, let’s say less than entirely successful, efforts to keep it together weren’t quite completely bloodless. (Indeed, Don Juan, the victor at Lepanto had some rather considerable difficulties in his subsequent – and by no means bloodless – assignment in the Netherlands.

            • Interesting.

            • not really all that peacefully.

              • Why? Max hooked up with Mary. Their kid Phil got together with Joan and then her bro Jonny had some health issues. Presto. Empire assembled. To be sure, there was a bit of back and forth in Italy and Chas’ conquistadoring subjects didn’t, invariably, come in peace but generally the ASSEMBLY, as, opposed to the DEFENSE of such empire, was quite peaceful.

              • You do raise a good point. In the days of kings marriages could be used to peacefully combine kingdoms, ala Ferdinand and Isabella. And people accepted rule by foreigners (more or less) because of the lip service paid to Divine Right. Those days are gone.

                What to we have in the modern age to compare with that other than religion? Is a Turk or Arab or Persian going to be able to sell the fact that he’s been inspired or commissioned by Allah or some such in the modern age?

  9. Read “Middlesex” for a brilliant novel with origins in that region.

  10. @cavalier, it starts with Rudy and his promised crusade and war with Otakar

    • True. Still, while that was the coming out party that stage of the Hapsburg ascendancy couldn’t be called Imperial other than in the very strictest formal sense and the foundation of their genuine preeminance didn’t really come about until some 200+ years later with the “peaceful” events I mention above. (And in any event the real bloody action at the time involved Chas of Anjous activities in Italy – although toward the end of that particular cluster of activity the Aragonese – in claiming Freddy’s legacy in Sicily – asserted themselves for the first time in Italy – an assertion that was later to become part of Chas V Spanish legacy and to contribute to some of the aforementioned back and forth. Although most of that was in the north).

      • despite my quibbles, I’m enjoying your Habsburgery (and the opticon’s addition)

  11. It’s amazing how peacefully an empire can be cobbled together when other empires find it cheaper to use that empire as a buffer than to deal directly with the problems it shields them from. Western Europe found the Habsburg Empire to be a great convenience.

    In the 19th century, evanescent coteries of nations found it convenient to let the Prussians unite “Germany.” That process relieved first one nation and then another of a laundry list of problems — and under Bismarck and von Moltke, the Prussians managed it with a minimum of disruption. (There was a lot of carnage, but it was concentrated and rapidly effective.) In the West, we tend to mainly remember 1871 and the ensuing tension between Germany and France — but this is principally because the same front was the scene of WWI and WWII.

    In a key way, however, the real legacy of armed German nationalism in the 19th century was not that it fated the continent to fight over the same things in the 20th, but that it made so many in Europe complacent about war itself. Bismarck and von Moltke kept wars short, limited, and effective — but, accomplished as they were, that was largely due to the fact that so many others found it to be in their interests to endorse the outcome Germany sought anyway. If that had not been the case, a colossal pan-European war would have been fought 40 years earlier.

    But Europeans in general thought the record of the period from 1848 to 1914 demonstrated that if a general was smart enough, he could use technology and tactics to do things quickly and cleanly. War had been mastered. That was the remarkable thing about August 1914: everyone thought it would be over quickly. That was how war had gone, in Europe, for decades.

    Wherever wars are limited and empires are easily assembled, it’s a good idea to look for who benefits from the outcomes being sought by force of arms.

    • My recollection is vague and I don’t have a copy handy, but I seem to recall Clauswitz* writing in several places about the varying intensity of war across successive eras and warning against just the sort of complacency (that war will continue to be conducted in the same manner that it has in the relatively recent past) you mention.

      *I believe the elder Moltke was a particularly enthusiastic devotee and perhaps even that his enthusiasm elevated the recognition accorded the then (relatively) less well know CvC.

  12. […] for a series of port visits.  Turkey, for the first time since Ottoman days (i.e., World War I), deployed a task force for a non-NATO “patrol” of the […]

  13. […] for a series of port visits.  Turkey, for the first time since Ottoman days (i.e., World War I), deployed a task force for a non-NATO “patrol” of the […]

  14. […] for a series of port visits.  Turkey, for the first time since Ottoman days (i.e., World War I), deployed a task force for a non-NATO “patrol” of the […]

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