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Haggai Carmon Headshot

The Sick Man Upon the Bosphorus: Déjà Vu?

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On May 14, 1876, the New York Times ridiculed the Ottoman Empire, reminding its readers that "It is now some twenty years since we began to hear about the 'sick man upon the Bosphorus,' yet the same sort of talk, under somewhat different conditions, is current today. The Ottoman Empire seems to have as many lives as the popular saying attributes to a cat, but seven or eight of those lives must have been already forfeited." The article, which referred to the Ottoman arrogance and lack of diplomacy in dealing with a Bulgarian insurgency, signaled the beginning of the Ottoman Empire's end.

The last Sultans ruled as autocrats, oppressing millions. The Empire was notoriously corrupt and their loyal supporters few in number. As self-proclaimed "Successors of the Prophet," the sultans advocated strict Islamic ideology and pan-Islamism headed by their own supreme
authority, thus conflicting with the liberal, secular ideals of the "Young Turk" movement and the West. Recognizing that they could not survive against the invading Russians, who sensed the Empire's weakness, and minority uprisings from groups like the Armenians, the Ottomans turned to Germany for help. Aligning with the Germans proved fatal; Germany and Turkey lost World War I, the Empire was carved up, and what remained became Turkey under the helm of Atatürk in 1923.

Some 150 years after Turkey's predecessor was labeled the "Sick Man Upon the Bosphorus," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is promoting a policy reminiscent of the years leading to the demise of the Ottoman Empire -- choosing the wrong side in a conflict and
misreading historical events.

Turkey has changed political course in more than one arena: it is ending a friendly relationship with Israel after decades of maintaining strong mutual military, trade and tourist ties; it put the
Russian on guard by entering into a uranium enrichment agreement with Iran; and its relationships with NATO and the U.S. are at all-time lows. Turkey's hopes of becoming the first Islamic member of the EU were reduced to ashes, and its aspiration to resolve the Cyprus occupation collapsed when Derviş Eroğlu, a Turkish nationalist, was recently elected leader of northern Cyprus. In eastern Turkey, talks with the Kurdish rebels fell apart, and clashes between the Kurds and the Turkish Army ensue.

Although each segment of Turkey's international policy may seem independently driven, put together they paint a clear picture. Getting a cold shoulder from the West on several fronts, Erdoğan is opting for the warm reception of Iran and other proponents of a pan-Islamism.
This switch in allegiance is not sudden, nor incidental. As close ties with Israel were in place when he took office, Erdoğan leveraged them to "make nice" with Europe and to the U.S., hoping to ease Turkey's admission into the European Union by showing EU members they had no reason to fear an Islamic Turkey. At that point, despite being governed by a leader of the Islamic Party, Erdoğan implied, Turkey showed through its relations with Israel, that its religion did not interfere with sober politics. When EU members remained unconvinced, pressuring Turkey to withdraw from northern Cyprus and end its oppression of the Kurds in Eastern Turkey, Erdoğan turned to a more welcoming ally, Islamic Iran.

By marking Israel as the villain, Erdoğan hopes to achieve several strategic goals, the primary being his own political survival. With a parliamentary election forthcoming in November 2011, and a majority win for his party unlikely, Erdoğan needed a rallying cry for unity. Like the 1881 Russian rioters' outcry following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, "Kill the Jews and Save Russia," Erdoğan is promoting Islamic solidarity with the Palestinians, much to the chagrin of the Turkish military, a staunchly secular body.

Systematically curtailing the military's traditional role as protector of secular Turkey, as declared by Atatürk, the creator of modern Turkey, and as made clear in the Constitution, is a well-planned part of Erdoğan's strategy. That the Turkish military has always advocated strong ties with Israel is yet another reason for Erdoğan to limit its influence, which he did by appointing two radical Muslim civilians to key military and intelligence positions: Hakan Fidan as head of MIT, Turkey's foreign intelligence service, and Muammer Güler as Undersecretary for Public Order and Security, which heads Turkey's counterterrorism.

The Turkish-Israeli conflict has now taken on a life of its own, fueled by Erdoğan's self-imposed role as the champion of Gaza's Hamas government and ultimate leader of the Islamic world. He will soon discover that it's a pretty crowded rung, particularly as the Iranians see themselves as sole leaders. In a Turkish-Iranian race for Islamic hegemony, Turkey may find itself losing, and end up with nothing, least of all the West's support, which Erdoğan is now sacrificing.

The last Sultans of the Ottoman Empire had similar global aspirations. History stands witness to the demise that followed.