June 8, 2010Pax Indicageopolitics

The First Law of Middle Eastern Geopolitics

For much of the last six decades, the Palestinian ‘cause’ has really been a Palestinian ‘card’ used by regional powers in the region aspiring for pre-eminence in the Middle East.

This is an unedited draft of my Pax Indica column for Yahoo! (2010-2011)

You probably think it is about the Palestinian people.

Well, it is about them. But for much of the last six decades, the Palestinian cause’ has really been a Palestinian card’ used by regional powers in the region aspiring for pre-eminence in the Middle East. This is the First Law of Middle Eastern Geopolitics—if you want to be the leader of region, you must first show your support for the Palestinian cause by poking Israel in the eye. The Second Law is that once you have played the Palestinian card, you can move on to your real agenda.

Egypt—once the leader of the Arabs” in the 1960s—fought two wars with Israel before settling for a peace deal with Israel in the 1970s. It now gets large sums of money in aid from the United States. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran then pressed its claims for leadership of the region, and promptly used Syrian and Lebanese proxies to strike Israel. Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbours didn’t like the idea of a radical Shia regime grabbing the mantle of regional leadership and Saddam Hussein stepped up to challenge the Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. He even lobbed several Scud missiles towards the Jewish state, in return for which he received Yasser Arafat’s endorsement. Iraq lost the war. So did the Palestinians actually, who became suspect in the eyes of the Kuwaitis and other Gulf Arab states. With both Iran and Iraq under sanctions in the 1990s, the mantle of leadership of the Middle East fell upon the sophisticated shoulders of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis, unlike previous claimants to Middle Eastern leadership, didn’t launch tanks, proxies or missiles at Israel. Instead they launched a roadmap. It went nowhere—although, as they say in diplomatese, it is still on the table. Meanwhile the Iranians got caught working on a nuclear weapons project. The worried Saudis let it be known that they might not be averse to Israeli jets flying over their airspace just in case, you know, the Israelis want to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. That’s because Riyadh calculates that balancing the Iranians is more important than is midwifing a Palestinian state. Despite appearances and rhetoric, the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel are aligned over preventing Iran from dominating the region.

Neither Egypt nor Iraq qualify for a place at the top of the Middle Eastern league today. Thanks to the US wars that weakened its two big neighbours, Iran and Afghanistan, Iran is certainly a contender. So is Saudi Arabia. Last week, Turkey announced that it has joined the race, and, in accordance with the diktats of the First Law, played the Palestinian card. The flotilla was a strategic masterstroke—the moment it set sail, Turkey won and Israel lost. If it had been allowed to pass through, Turkey would be seen has having broken Israel’s will. If the flotilla were stopped, Turkey would be the leader of an international chorus condemning Israel for blockading the Palestinians.

Turkey,” Samuel Huntington wrote in The Clash of Civilizations, has the history, population, middle level of economic development, national coherence, and military tradition and competence to be the core state of Islam. In explicitly defining Turkey as a secular society, however, Ataturk prevented the Turkish republic from succeeding the Ottoman empire in that role.” One of the most astute-if controversial—political scientists of the 20th century, Huntington noted that [at] some point, Turkey could be ready to give up its frustrating and humiliating role as a beggar for membership in the West and to resume its much more impressive and elevated historical role as the principal Islamic interlocutor and antagonist of the West. But to do so it would have to reject Ataturk’s legacy…” This was in 1996, six years before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) came to power.

The AKP government is indeed engaged in a battle to overturn Ataturk’s legacy—secularism is out, Islamism—of the mild’ variety, we are assured—is in. Military dominance is out, democracy is in. And in foreign policy, alignment with the West is out, neo-Ottomanism is in. Ahmet Davutoglu, political science professor, AKPs foreign policy strategist and the current foreign minister, believes that Turkey must project power across its traditional sphere of influence. Last year, when the Chinese government cracked down in Xinjiang in the face of unrest between the Uyghur minority and the Han majority, the strongest international condemnation came from Ankara. Turkey has also sought a role in stabilising Afghanistan-Pakistan, ending the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme and brokering a deal between Israel & Syria.

Yet it was only when Turkey floated the flotilla to Gaza that people took notice. The successor to the Ottoman empire had announced its arrival. Turkey’s move towards becoming the dominant power in the Middle East is, however, is by no means guaranteed. As my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran told me, Western speculators can exploit Turkey’s vulnerable bond and currency markets and bring the country down some notches. There is a small chance that the military-secularist old guard could yet eject the AKP from power. In all likelihood though, Turkey will be an important—if not the most important—player in the Middle East.

The re-emergence of Turkey as a major power offers India the opportunity to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. This calls for India to reorient its relationship with Turkey and identify common interests—managing China’s influence in Central Asia, for instance—and convert them into cooperative initiatives. That will also require Turkey to look beyond its relationship with Pakistan. In fact, this is the issue that will answer the big question: is Davutoglu’s neo-Ottomanism merely pan-Islamism or is it about Turkey’s national interests? If it is the former, then Turkey will allow its relationship with India to be constrained by its ties with Pakistan. Not so, if it is the latter.

There are many more Pax Indica columns here

What about the Palestinians, you ask? Well, it took the Economist all of 74 words to describe the contours of a solution. That solution, which will give the Palestinians their own state, requires both Israelis and the Palestinians to compromise. To be constructive, international intervention must push both sides towards compromise. Demonising one side emboldens the other to be more inflexible than it might otherwise be. Yet that is what the flotillas have done. Turkey got its glory, Israel is in the dock and the United States doesn’t know what to do. The people of Gaza don’t get anything more than schadenfreude.

Do you still think it’s about the Palestinian people?



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