Washington's Flawed Strategic Calculus in the Middle East Ignores China

President Trump's attempts to placate Turkish strongman Tayyip Recep Erdogan are consistent with the reigning dogma in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which holds that Turkey is a counterweight to Iran's ambitions in the Levant. The Hudson Institute's Michael Doran articulated this perspective admirably in a recent essay at Mosaic Magazine. He wrote: "America needs to back up its allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, and potentially Turkey), and isolate its adversaries (Iran, Russia, China, Islamic State). Everything else is secondary....The 'big-time' point is this: an ally is a state that supports the American security system. Two questions should thus decide whether America treats a state as a friend or as a foe. Will the state actively help to defend that system against those—Russia, China, and Iran—who seek to weaken or destroy it? If it won’t take action, will it at least deny its territory and resources to America’s enemies?"

The trouble is that Russia and China already have their claws so deeply into Turkey that the usual sort of concessions to Turkey won't do any good. As I warned a year ago, China will buy Turkey on the cheap. A billion-dollar swap line from China (and additional unpublicized financing) saved the Turkish lira from free fall last June. With $1.3 trillion in net foreign assets, China can afford to prop up the debt-ridden, mismanaged Turkish economy as it takes over logistics, broadband, and other strategic sectors.

President Trump and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin warned last week that they could shut down the Turkish economy. Strictly speaking, that is true: the U.S. could deny Turkish banks access to dollar payments, which would immediately destroy the value of Turkey's $300 billion of external debt. That would push European banks over the edge and probably push the world into recession. I doubt the U.S. will take such an extreme measure. Otherwise, Turkey can survive milder U.S. sanctions with Chinese help.

Notoriously, Turkey has purchased Russia's S-400 air defense system, and has been punished with the suspension of sales of America's F-35 fighter. Washington is largely at fault here. The competitor to the S-400, the American Patriot system, is an antiquated, expensive, and ineffective system by comparison to the S-400, and would have been replaced long ago except for the persuasiveness of the lobbyists of Raytheon, which makes the Patriot. Remarkably, America's secretary of defense is a former Raytheon lobbyist. Turkey doesn't really need a long-range stealth penetrator like the F-35; it can do quite well with Russia's cheaper 4th-generation (non-stealth) fighters.

I have been warning about the emergence of a Chinese sphere of influence in the Middle East -- a "Pax Sinica" -- since 2013. This has been creeping up on us, and Washington ignored it. Now there is a firm Sino-Russian alliance, as Emil Avdaliani wrote recently in a paper for the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University.

The strategic calculus has become far more complex, and the simplistic approach advocated by various of my friends simply will not work. The key lesson in all of this is that the United States should stop thinking like the world's only hyperpower, which we were twenty years ago, before we dumbed it all away. The U.S. should think instead like the underdog, and play a nasty game of maneuver. If we want Turkey to stay in NATO, we have to scare the stuffing out of Erdogan, for example, by helping the Kurds give him a bloody nose.

Cardinal Richelieu explained all of this to me in various ectoplasmic interviews which I have reproduced elsewhere on this page.

For reference, my earlier essays on the emerging "Pax Sinica" in the Middle East are reproduced below.