Green Room

Party Like It’s 1571

posted at 6:47 pm on November 17, 2010 by

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 The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions” and as The Optimistic Conservative.  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

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Wow. Great analysis and lucid writing. The Turks have a good littoral force. The proposed F-100 class frigates look like a much better design than the USN LCS variants.

The good news is that the US Navy has always treated the Turkish Navy with respect.
Belay my last.

NaCly dog on November 17, 2010 at 7:09 PM

For decades the Turks have been trying to assimilate many things Western…while at the same time walking a tight rope with regard to things Eastern. They have succeeded beyond what most believed possible.

Our relations with Turkey have been on a decline for well over 20 years.

In that growing vacuum, Turkey has done what any nation with an eye toward the future would do…look outside the box.

Despite the fact that Turkish soldiers were among the first on the ground in Afghanistan, and Turkish intelligence provided many many assets for both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Turko-Israeli military and intelligence contacts were fairly strong for a few decades…our government, our Congress, the public, has made far too many public condemnations of Turkey for events that transpired nearly 100 years ago, or otherwise belittled Turkey in just about any forum.

Turkey has every reason to deal with Russia, China and any other player in the region. They are an autonomous nation, not a puppet of the United States…which is how we’ve been acting with them for decades. They saw how we were powerless when Georgia was attacked by Russia. They see how powerless we’ve become with regard to Iran. And with Al-Qaeda, and Islamofacism in general.

So, they are doing it their way, on their own, for very good reasons. They are the only ally they have that they can trust…

Will Turkey reach global power or even a quarter of what it had under the height of the Ottoman Empire? Probably not. But there will be a major shift to Central and South Asia as a power center in the next several decades. And we will be on the outside looking in.

In the very near future, Turkey will be a major player in the region, and will do so without us…and will do so without regard to us or what we desire or demand.

That is the reality of emergent Turkey.

Another great J.E. Dyer submission.

coldwarrior on November 17, 2010 at 8:00 PM

That is the reality of emergent Turkey.
coldwarrior on November 17, 2010 at 8:00 PM

This all makes sense from the perspective of the power politics of nations, but Islam remains the ulterior motive with no excuse.

Feedie on November 18, 2010 at 2:05 AM

Feedie on November 18, 2010 at 2:05 AM

Ulterior motive?

No longer privy to the behind story, I’ll have to wait and see, for know.

Does Turkey have an ulterior motive? Banner of Islam and all that? Will Turkey embrace Islam on the level it once did? Become like Saudi Arabia, Iran or any other fundamentalist state? It may, and may do so sooner than later.

But, the saving grace for now, and for now may mean a year or two or a decade, is that urban Turkey is still quite secular.

The largest segment of the population is under 25. Discos still operate in Turkey, in the cities young women enjoy equal education, co-ed universities are the norm, women are employed all across the spectrum, they have “raves” and have access to the internet and a lot of Turkish kids travel and seem to like what they see.

But, given the right circumstances, can Turkey be turned into an Iran? Yes.

That is the chilling aspect of creeping Islam.

So could the United States.

coldwarrior on November 18, 2010 at 5:29 AM

coldwarrior on November 17, 2010 at 8:00 PM
coldwarrior on November 18, 2010 at 5:29 AM

Good comments, as usual, coldwarrior.

Pan-Turkism is a longstanding meme, and I thought the thrust was to the east, into the former Soviet Unio. The Albanian interest is new to me.

Has the military of Turkey abandoned their role as the defender of Kemalist ideology? Drifting from secular governance used to bring on a coup. A modernized nation like Turkey has a lot to loose if they become more backward Islamic. You would think that the travails of the Iranian populous would give Turkey pause.

NaCly dog on November 18, 2010 at 7:00 AM

Has the military of Turkey abandoned their role as the defender of Kemalist ideology? Drifting from secular governance used to bring on a coup.

Erdogan is way ahead of that threat: 2008 arrests, 2009 arrests, 2010 arrests.

MTF on November 18, 2010 at 9:05 AM

Perhaps Turkey is well rid of those military coups of yesteryear, just as its well rid of the Sultanate.

audiculous on November 18, 2010 at 11:29 AM

audiculous on November 18, 2010 at 11:29 AM

Can Turkey be Islamic and an ally? Can the Turkish government be Islamic and not work against the West?

Audiculous, I can’t think of anyone that wants the Ottoman Empire back. And lord knows the US government and esp. the EU community has gone out of their way to piss the Turks off. Maybe sent Hillary with a reset button? Then the US and the Turks can all be friends, right?

NaCly dog on November 18, 2010 at 12:35 PM

Can the Turkish government be Islamic and not work against the West?


being “Islamic” doesn’t have one simple meaning and not every state that calls itself Islamic resembles Iran or Saudi Arabia.

consider Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait.
not all lovely places, but many other nations not working against the west and considered western are equally unlovely.

audiculous on November 18, 2010 at 1:10 PM

audiculous on November 18, 2010 at 1:10 PM

Thank you for your analysis. I’d like to believe it, but for some reason I see Turkey trending toward an Iranian axis, rather than a Saudi / Kuwaiti / Jordon axis.

NaCly dog on November 18, 2010 at 4:24 PM


I tend to think that Iran’s disgusting theocracy is heading for the dumpster within this next decade.

audiculous on November 18, 2010 at 4:55 PM

coldwarrior — I do think there’s some substance to the concern that we (the US) have erred somewhat in our approach to Turkey. This isn’t an “Obama” thing, per se; it’s been going on for quite a long time.

It’s not certain what would have been a better set of measures and outreaches, though. A number of bets were off with the end of the Cold War, which was when Islamism began coming to the fore. It started really alarming the secularist establishment in Turkey in the late 1990s, and right about then would probably have been the time for wise and positive engagement. But all sorts of little issues kept coming between us and the Turks, in spite of our long relationship.

In terms of Turkey’s cultural ties to the West, we pretty much left those to Europe, which in the end may turn out to have been our biggest error. There are things the EU is right about, when it comes to liberalization and the rule of law on Turkey, but the EU has been obstructionist and incapable of being satisfied as well (i.e., about the reforms needed for Turkey to join). Of course, the EU members have their own problems — e.g., with Turkish immigration and ultra-nationalists at home — and everyone isn’t going to be happy with everything. But we have tended to treat all these issues as if there is all the time in the world to let them fester.

As MTF says above, the Erdogan government — which is avowedly Islamic — has systematically undermined the former independence of the military by arresting and in some cases manufacturing charges against the senior officers. The constitutional changes voted on this year will undo the independence of the judiciary as well as the military staff. Complaints about intimidation of the press are mounting.

Meanwhile, regional commentators in Europe, Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East routinely refer to Erdogan as a “neo-Ottoman.” When it comes to identifying him that way, Yanks are late to the table.

J.E. Dyer on November 18, 2010 at 8:09 PM

Perhaps Turkey is well rid of those military coups of yesteryear, just as its well rid of the Sultanate.

audiculous on November 18, 2010 at 11:29 AM

Sultanate yes. But Kemal A would nod at a restoration of the secular Turkish republic from the evil hands of Erdogan.

AshleyTKing on November 18, 2010 at 10:39 PM

But, given the right circumstances, can Turkey be turned into an Iran? Yes.
That is the chilling aspect of creeping Islam.
So could the United States.
coldwarrior on November 18, 2010 at 5:29 AM

Thanks for the reply. If liberalism is our enemy within, then for Turkey, Islam is the enemy within on steroids. My guess is they are more ruthless in dealing with it, but I don’t have confidence secularists have the moral foundation to resist it for long.

but the EU has been obstructionist and incapable of being satisfied as well (i.e., about the reforms needed for Turkey to join).
J.E. Dyer on November 18, 2010 at 8:09 PM

My impression is that the EU doesn’t want it at all, and these are just roadblocks to fast suicide by Muslim immigration. They tolerate the slow kind better.

The bungling of relations with Turkey is a darn shame. During the Bush years, Turkey was touted as a “moderate” Muslim country, insulting both secular and Islamic factions. Again, a darn shame.

I’ve thought the same thing about our treatment of Russia. Never was I more embarrassed than when I saw Condi Rice yapping at them like a schoolmarm talking to third-graders. We can be tough and realistic about them, and at the same time have the respect due to a world power. We could’ve done many of the same things to help their former republics, but for crying out loud, don’t try to call it NATO.

Maybe these symbolic changes wouldn’t change much, but you never know.

Feedie on November 18, 2010 at 11:43 PM

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