With Recep Tayyip Erdogan now sworn in as Turkey's new President, his successful efforts to prolong his rule after two terms as Prime Minister have observers comparing his popularity to that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
However, Ataturk was a uniter, and Erdogan's narrow electoral majority reveals the growing domestic perception of him as a divider who won primarily because of weak opposition. Western analysts would be making an even bigger mistake by overlooking his cynical use of Turkey's strategic placement astride Europe and Asia as a powerful shield against his critics, rendering them mute.
Take, for example, NATO's unwillingness to call Turkey on the carpet for its support of terrorist organizations. In recent weeks, the depth of Ankara's financial, political and diplomatic assistance to Hamas has become apparent. Aside from the highly questionable judgment of asking Hamas allies with no credibility to mediate, U.S. efforts to implore Hamas' faithful friends in Turkey and Qatar to help construct a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas fell on deaf ears.
This echoes the Obama administration's efforts two years ago during the last round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. The President had made Ankara the centerpiece of his first trip abroad back in 2009 with a much anticipated speech telling the Muslim world the U.S. was not its enemy. But when the Administration later asked Erdogan for assistance in Gaza, Erdogan's close ties to Hamas made it impossible for him to play a useful role.
Earlier this month, Turkey hosted a "scholars' conference" during which one of the many Hamas senior officials living and operating freely in Turkey finally acknowledged, after many Hamas denials, that the terror group had killed three Israeli teenagers. Recall that those murders were the precipitating act that lit the fuse of this summer's Gaza war.
NATO appears so cowed that it fears to tell the Turkish leader he has no clothes. In the event it needs a reminder, NATO hurriedly met on September 12, 2001, unconditionally condemning the mass murder of 3000 innocents 24 hours earlier. At that meeting, member states pledged "all efforts to combat the scourge of terrorism." On November 21, 2002, at the conclusion of NATO's Prague Summit, a unified Declaration was issued stating that "Terrorism, which we categorically reject and condemn in all its forms and manifestations, poses a grave and growing threat to Alliance populations, forces and territory, as well as to international security. We are determined to combat this scourge for as long as necessary."
Clearly, it never occurred to NATO members that support for terrorism might come from one of their own. But doesn't Turkey's support of Hamas demand a response? What mechanism can NATO use to indicate that it is unacceptable for a member state to violate repeatedly the fundamental principles and shared values of the organization?
NATO's new guiding doctrine, Strategic Concept 2010, already seems defunct given the violations of the document's position that terrorism is a high priority because it "poses a direct threat to the security of the citizens of NATO countries, and to international stability and prosperity more broadly."
NATO's unwillingness to call out Turkey's embrace of Hamas in the past has emboldened both parties. There was no outcry after Turkish newspapers confirmed that Erdogan's political party was neck deep in financing IHH, a Turkish "NGO" that calls itself a humanitarian organization.
IHH is a prominent member of the umbrella group Union of the Good. The U.S. Treasury Department has banned it as a terrorist organization that acts as part of Hamas' financial infrastructure. It was the IHH, with Erdogan's blessing, that launched the Mavi Marmara vessel on a "humanitarian mission" to Gaza, hoping for a confrontation with Israel. The U.S. State Department pointed out that IHH had been meeting with Hamas officials in Turkey, Syria and Gaza for years, and French intelligence told the Associated Press that IHH leaders "were basically helping al-Qaeda when bin Laden started to want to target U.S. soil."
Further, Erdogan recklessly derides Israel, often invoking Nazis and Hitler for psychological effect, for the crime of self defense when Hamas initiates rocket and mortar attacks at civilians. This is the same leader who went running to NATO calling for anti-missile support when Syria's genocidal President Bashir Assad, who Erdogan was for before he was against him, fired missiles at Syrian anti-government rebels that inadvertently landed over the border. There was loose talk about invoking Article 5 of NATO's charter -- the core of the alliance -- which states that an armed attack against one member state is considered an armed attack against all. Chutzpah evidently is not a word Erdogan or NATO recognizes.
Erdogan's flip-flops and unreliability, such as tossing aside Turkey's historic ties to Israel in favor of Hamas, have backfired. His botched calculations, intended to enhance Ankara's influence in the Arab world and fulfill his dream of creating a new Ottoman Empire, have resulted in increasing Turkey's regional isolation.
The West needs to catch up, and find a way to respond to Turkey's continuing support of terrorist organizations. It is not enough for the West to wring its hands and repeat the dogma that Turkey is strategically important. Geography may be destiny, but among democracies, accountability is a strategic value.
Ultimately, the question is what NATO stands for, and whether it is willing and able to come together as a unified force to project shared Western interests. For that to happen, the United States, as NATO's leader, must demand accountability and adherence to NATO policies by all its members.