Great expectations over Turkey’s regional role

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Last week, during his interview with the New Republic, when asked what he thinks about intervening in Syria, President Obama disclosed the questions he asks himself when evaluating this option. He said that he tries to assess the repercussions of an intervention in the region, specifically in Afghanistan, in terms of security and stability in the region. The very same day in his joint interview with the outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on CBS’ 60 Minutes, he reiterated the same caution, saying that his administration “doesn’t just shoot from the hip.” He acknowledged that the U.S. cannot control every aspect of every transition and transformation around the world. When he said that sometimes conflicts are going to go sideways, he sounded like a control freak who just started letting go. Also during his inaugural speech last week, Obama gave hints about his new Middle East strategy. Saying that a decade of war is now ending, he put the emphasis on achieving peace through the rule of law.

All these statements reflect the fact that the U.S. has come to terms with its own limitations and does not rely solely on its strengths and capabilities anymore. It is scaling its military engagement down. It got out of Iraq, kept its troops out of Iran and Libya and resisted pressure to launch an intervention in Syria. The Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires and the ongoing Arab uprisings have determined the cornerstones of this new thinking and strategic planning.

However, the new concept does not mean disengagement from the region. Rather, it is an indirect engagement. This so-called “leading from behind” strategy reduces direct exposure to regional conflicts, relies less on direct power and more on strong regional allies. This acquired taste of cost-minimizing and burden-sharing is also in accordance with NATO’s new “smart defense” concept, which espouses prioritization, cooperation and pooling of resources. Meanwhile, Washington will continue to exert its leverage in the region, but not through military means. The new strategy would embrace more economic measures as well as more U.S. pressure on the wider international community and a more efficient role in shaping the political landscape. By shifting to the role of an offshore balancing power, the U.S. will be – even if “indirectly” – more active in the Middle East.

This cooperative engagement requires more engagement of the regional allies, first and foremost of Turkey. Turkey’s partnership has become crucial given that the U.S.’ Gulf allies and other longstanding partners such as Egypt face political turbulence and Israel is no more than a cog in the machine in light of regional dynamics. Hence Turkey remains the sole sustainable anchor in the region. Its acceptance to host an early warning radar system as part of NATO’s missile defense system also indicates that Turkey wholeheartedly welcomes the great expectations of the U.S.’ “low-cost leadership.”

Yet whether Turkey will be able to fulfill the great expectations by playing this regional role remains to be seen.

This article was first published in Hurriyet Daily News on Feb. 5, 2013.

Verda Özer is a Ph.D. candidate at the Defense Academy of the U.K. and an international security expert. She works as a program manager at the Columbia Global Center Turkey and the German Marshall Fund of the United States and writes for the Hurriyet Daily News. She can be found on Twitter: @Verda_Ozer

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