Sunday, August 8, 2010

Escaping the Mideast Extremist Trap

Although Erdogan's refusal to grant Israeli right wingers a blank check is to be applauded as a tactical effort to restore some balance to Israeli behavior, Americans should be thinking much more deeply about the subtle threats to both U.S. national security and American democracy that will flow from a collapse of Turkish-Israeli relations. These dangers will be particularly severe if the U.S. blindly sides with an Israel still under rightwing control.

Turkey is a democracy struggling to emerge from the shadow of rightwing military rule; Israel is a democracy sliding into increasingly authoritarian rightwing expansionism. Each society needs the other’s moderating influence to support its own democratic aspirations. Each society suffers from its proclivity to repress an unwanted minority that it nevertheless refuses to free, with the denial of civil liberties to the minority feeding back to undermine the liberty of the majority.

The U.S., with cracks aplenty in its own democratic structure, in no small part due to its shaky imperial adventure in the Mideast, in turn needs good relations with moderate Turkish and Israeli democracies. U.S. and Israeli societies are so closely linked that the emergence of full-fledged authoritarianism in Israel could cause significant harm to American democracy, as shown by both the dangerous U.S. copying of Israeli urban warfare tactics (rather than trying to understand the aspirations of Iraqis, Somalis, and Afghanis) and even more dangerous game of U.S. and Israeli rightwingers trying to trump each other’s threats toward Iran. 

When U.S. politicians use Israeli extremism as justification for building up their own head of imperial steam, it endangers not only peace but also U.S. civil liberties: repression of others morally compromises free societies. In order for the U.S. alliance with Israel to avoid harming U.S. national security, Israel will have to become a force for peace, moderation, and cross-civilizational cooperation. The tiny Israeli peace movement and the eviscerated Israeli left are the repository of all those “shared values” some Americans like to talk about.  The Israeli left and peace movement are the Israeli factions the U.S. needs to befriend, not just for the good of Israel but to find its own way back from the Mideast precipice.

A moderating and democratizing Turkey is even more important to the U.S. because of both its size and its unique position astride the civilizational boundary. Turkey probably has the greatest capacity of any country today for conferring political flexibility upon the rigid Mideast, and that flexibility constitutes the opportunity for the U.S. simultaneously to shore up its own democracy and escape the Mideast extremist trap.

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