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Tag Archives | US Foreign Policy

U.S. Foreign Policy in Central and South Asia

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U.S. Army Spc. Jason Bruno secures an area during an assessment of the local bazaar in the Shah Joy district of Zabul province, Afghanistan, on Dec. 7, 2011

U.S. Army Spc. Jason Bruno secures an area during an assessment of the local bazaar in the Shah Joy district of Zabul province, Afghanistan, on Dec. 7, 2011

From the ice-bound passes of the Hindu Kush to the blazing heat of the Karakum Desert, Central Asia is a sub-continent steeped in illusion. For more than two millennia conquerors have been lured by the mirage that it is a gateway to immense wealth: China to the east, India to the south, Persia to the west, and to the north, the riches of the Caspian basin. Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, British, and Soviets have all come and gone, leaving behind little more than forgotten graveyards and the detritus of war. Americans and our NATO allies are next.

It is a cliché that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, but a cliché doesn’t mean something is not true, just that it is repeated over and over again until the phrase becomes numbing. It is a tragedy that the US was “numb” to that particular platitude, although we have company. In the past 175 years England has invaded Afghanistan four times. Our 2001 invasion was itself built on a myth—that the Taliban had attacked the US on 9/11 was fabricated to lay the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq 17 months later. That both invasions turned into disasters is hardly surprising. Rudyard Kipling and TE Lawrence predicted those outcomes more than a 100 years ago.

Most of all, the war has been a calamity for the Afghan people. The country has staggered through more than 30 years of war. According to a recent UN survey, conditions for Afghans in the southern part of the country are desperate. Some one-third of the area’s young children—one million under the age of five—are acutely malnourished. “What’s shocking is that this is really high by global standards,” Michael Keating, deputy head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, told The Guardian. “This is the kind of malnutrition you associate with Africa, and some of the most deprived parts of the world, not with an area that has received so much international attention and assistance.”

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The Susan Rice Train Wreck

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Ambassador Susan Rice speaks to the press regarding recent reports of nuclear activities by North Korea.  JC McIlwaine/UN

Ambassador Susan Rice speaks to the press regarding recent reports of nuclear activities by North Korea. JC McIlwaine/UN

The likelihood of a quick confirmation hearing in the Senate vanished following a sit-down between Ambassador Susan Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morell on Capitol Hill with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH). The meeting was an attempt to address any concerns the lawmakers had about Ambassador Rice and to insure that her confirmation hearing would be less bruising. That attempt, according to interviews given after the meeting by McCain, Graham and Ayotte, was not successful.

“The concerns I have are greater today than they were before, and we’re not even close to getting the basic answers,” Sen. Graham told reporters flanked by McCain and Ayotte. “I would place a hold on anybody who wanted to be promoted for any job who had a role in the Benghazi situation.” “Absolutely, there will be a hold,” Sen. Ayotte told reporters after her meeting with Rice.

For his part, Sen. McCain, who until this past weekend was the driving force behind the criticisms of the administration’s handling of the Benghazi incident that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, told reporters that he was “significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn’t get concerning evidence that was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate that we tried to get.” Many would consider Ambassador Rice to be qualified to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, due to the partisanship in Washington, her nomination could become a political three-ring circus.

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The Talented Mr. Morsi

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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Source: European Union

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Source: European Union

Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, must be feeling rather pleased with himself. Having been instrumental in bringing Hamas and Israel to the bargaining table, he has now issued several decrees that he believes will determine the shape of Egypt’s constitution. Intended to safeguard the country’s ‘revolutionary’ future, two of the decrees provide a good indication of what may be expected from Mr. Morsi and his allies going forward – the Islamist Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt’s parliament) cannot be dissolved by any authority, and none of the decisions he has made since being elected, or until a new constitution and parliament are in place, may be reversed.

Egypt’s new ‘democracy’ is looking increasingly like the dictatorship it was supposed to have replaced, with Mr. Morsi holding unrivaled executive and legislative power. Opposition leader Mohammed El Baradei has rightly accused Mr. Morsi of behaving like a ‘new pharaoh’. The millions of Egyptians who not so long ago held out hope for a genuinely new beginning are undoubtedly wondering how the democracy movement they waited so long for and fought so hard for could have been so easily hijacked.

In spite of the role Mr. Morsi appears to have had in getting Hamas to agree to a cease fire (however temporary it may prove to be), it is important to remember that his government continues to promote the flow of arms along Egypt’s border into Gaza, and has warmly received the embrace of Iran’s Ahmadi-Nejad. It is easier to envision him as a trouble maker than a peacemaker.

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U.S. Foreign Policy and Africa: The Next Four Years

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An Air Force HC-130 prepares to refuel off the coast of Djibouti

An Air Force HC-130 prepares to refuel off the coast of Djibouti

Africa is probably the single most complex region of the world and arguably its most troubled. While the world concerns itself with the Syrian civil war and the dangers it poses for the Middle East, little notice is taken of the war in the Congo, a tragedy that has taken five million lives and next to which the crisis in Syria pales. Africa represents 15 percent of the world’s population, yet only 2.7 percent of its GDP, which is largely concentrated in only five of 49 sub-Saharan countries. Just two countries—South Africa and Nigeria—account for over 33 percent of the continent’s economic output. Life expectancy is 50 years, and considerably less in those countries ravaged by AIDS. Hunger and malnutrition are worse than they were a decade ago.

At the same time, Africa is wealthy in oil, gas, iron, aluminum and rare metals. By 2015, countries in the Gulf of Guinea will provide the US with 25 percent of its energy needs, and Africa has at least 10 percent of the world’s known oil reserves. South Africa alone has 40 percent of the earth’s gold supply. The continent contains over one-third of the earth’s cobalt and supplies China—the world’s second largest economy—with 50 percent of that country’s copper, aluminum and iron ore.

But history has stacked the deck against Africa. The slave trade and colonialism inflicted deep and lasting wounds on the region, wounds that continue to bleed out in today’s world. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal sliced up the continent without the slightest regard for its past or its people. Most of the wars that have—and are—ravaging Africa today are a direct outcome of maps drawn up in European foreign offices to delineate where and what to plunder. But over the past decade, the world has turned upside down. Formerly the captive of the European colonial powers, China is now Africa’s largest economic partner, followed closely by India and Brazil. Consumer spending is up, and the World Bank predicts that by 2015 the number of new African consumers will match Brazil’s.

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The Arab Spring Didn’t Buy the West Many Friends

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Anti-Mubarak rally in Tahrir Square. Photo by Jonathan Rashad

Anti-Mubarak rally in Tahrir Square. Photo by Jonathan Rashad

The Arab Spring brought about regime change. At the same time it emboldened a new generation of Salafi Islamists– spurred on by ultraconservative imams who had been muzzled for years.

The Salafi Islamist movement wants to control the governing process. Tunisia was the first to see regime change, followed by Egypt and Libya. Quick action by Algeria’s leader in reducing food prices, and modifying oppressive government actions saved him from the same fate. Morocco also fared better, with the monarchy allowing new parliamentary elections, addressing human rights issues, and giving up some sovereign rights. An Islamist recently won the election in Morocco, and became the prime minister. Salafi Islamists will continue to gain influence in the North African countries. These rulers have temporarily survived, but there is still underlying discontentment that won’t go away. Drought related issues, rising food prices, and high unemployment continue to be major concerns across the Maghreb.

In the Arabian Peninsula al-Qaeda and affiliated Islamic extremists are chipping away at the governments in Yemen, Oman, Lebanon, and Bahrain. Syria will eventually fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. The instability caused by these Islamists could spill over into Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait and the Emirates. In Saudi Arabia, al-Saud in 1744 embraced Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s narrow version of Islam, which included armed jihad. Osama bin Laden was a disciple. His al-Qaeda network has been angered by the House of Saud, which could put the Saudi leadership at risk. Islamic extremists will continue to destabilize countries, in their quest to establish Islamic states.

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Heeding the Echoes of History as Global Leadership Shifts

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President Barack Obama with Xi Jinping earlier this year. Martin H. Simon/EPA

President Barack Obama with Xi Jinping earlier this year. Martin H. Simon/EPA

The obsession with changing world orders and premature assumptions that the world is in flux is endemic to the human character. In this sense, we have never stopped being millenarian, hoping that somewhere along the line, the true order of things will stand before us, crystal clear and optimistic.

Two significant events have and are taking place: the concluded US presidential elections, and the 18th Communist Party Congress in China. Several other states in the Northeast Asian region, notably South Korea and Japan, will also see transitions in their leaderships over the next six months. The urge is then to speculate if these might actually change the contours of power, if at all.

In 1991, US President George H.W. Bush spoke of a “New World Order”, buttressed by the nonsensical claims of Francis Fukuyama that history had ended with the triumph of liberal capitalism. With the end of the Cold War, the tedium of peace would set in, until the butcheries of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia muddied the idyll.

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Africa Needs a New Approach

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Hillary Clinton with Henry Odein Ajumogobia

Hillary Clinton with Henry Odein Ajumogobia

In August 2012, Secretary Hillary Clinton made a ten day visit to nine African countries: Senegal, Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Benin. The common thread in Secretary Clinton’s remarks were the building blocks of the new “Presidential Policy Directive” (PPD) for sub-Saharan Africa, to strengthen democratic institutions; spur economic growth, trade, and investment; advance peace and security; and promote opportunity and development.

African leaders however are skeptical since President Obama has been to sub-Saharan Africa only once, visiting Ghana in 2009. A February 2012, All Africa article noted, “To a large extent, there has been little change in US-Africa relations during the Obama administration, contrary to what many Africans had hoped. Furthermore, there has not been any major change in how Americans view Africa generally-tourists to the region and U.S. foreign direct investment to Africa remains low and declining relative to other countries - especially China…The support of democratic transitions and improved governance are at the core of Obama’s administration’s stated relations with Africa.”

Trade being a cornerstone of the PPD for Africa, with fifteen percent of the world’s population, it only represents 2.7 percent of the total GDP of the world. Five countries in sub-Saharan Africa out of forty-nine, represent 44 percent of the total GDP. South Africa and Nigeria account for over thirty-three percent of the economic market, yet most of the people still live at the poverty-level, not sharing in the rich natural resources.

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Time to Reset the Reset in U.S.-Russian Relations

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President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at the Esperanza Resort in San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico. Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at the Esperanza Resort in San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico. Pete Souza/White House

Regardless of which political party occupies the White House, American presidents are allowed a certain degree of latitude on foreign policy, where initiatives are not as constrained by Congressional oversight in comparison to the nation’s domestic issues. The absence of comprehensive oversight does not provide any Commander-in-Chief a blank check, however. Given the current chill between Moscow and Washington, we expect to see limited progress on the issues that confront both nations during Obama’s second term.

The Obama administration needs to find a way to refocus both nations’ policy interests, but it remains unclear how the United States will be able to achieve this objective. Should Washington create security guarantees with Moscow in order to diminish uncertainty? Or should the missile defense shield continue as planned to protect its European allies? Can common ground be found with NATO’s objectives, on Iran and on Syria? Or is it the responsibility of the Obama administration to plot a new course - sans Russia - without completely alienating the Kremlin from possible cooperation?

U.S.-Russian ‘Reset’

Sergey Lavrov and Hillary Clinton sought to ‘reset’ bilateral relations following their first meeting in 2009. At the time Secretary Clinton suggested: “I am pleased by the opportunity that we had to begin a discussion on resetting U.S.-Russian relations, a process that we know will take time, but I think we had a very productive meeting of the minds on the range of issues that we will be addressing.”

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U.S. Foreign Policy and the Middle East: The Next Four Years

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Syrian fighter during fighting in Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Syrian fighter during fighting in Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The Syrian Civil War

The most immediate problem in the region is the on-going civil war in Syria, a conflict with local and international ramifications. The war—which the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited by its crushing of pro-democracy protests— has drawn in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The U.S., France and Great Britain are also heavily involved in the effort to overthrow the Assad government.

The war has killed more than 30,000 people and generated several hundred thousand refugees, who have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It has also badly damaged relations between Turkey and Iran. The former supports the insurrection, the latter supports the Assad regime. Pitting Shite Iran (and to a certain extent, Shite Iraq and the Shite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the largely Sunni Muslim opposition has sharpened sectarian tensions throughout the region.

The war itself appears to be a stalemate. So far, the regime’s army remains loyal, but seems unable to defeat the insurrection. The opposition, however, is deeply splintered and ranges from democratic nationalists to extremist jihadist groups. The US and Britain are trying to weld this potpourri into a coherent political opposition, but so far the attempts have floundered on a multiplicity of different and conflicting agendas by the opponents of the Assad regime.

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Foreign Policy for Somalia Needs a Boost

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Mogadishu is currently experiencing unprecedented economic activity.  Tobin Jones/AU/UN

Mogadishu is currently experiencing unprecedented economic activity. Tobin Jones/AU/UN

On November 4, 2012 Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman visited Somalia and met with President Hassan Sheikh Mahamud, government leaders, military leaders, UN representatives, community and business leaders. A State Department release noted, “Under Secretary Sherman is the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Somalia in more than twenty years, and her visit underscored the U.S. Government’s commitment to Somalia’s stabilization efforts.”

In 1991 the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu was closed, leaving a diplomatic void. In the chaos that followed secular and Islamic warlords fought for control of the country. Had we stayed, we could have helped guide them through the democratic governing and election process. Instead we returned two years later on a humanitarian aid mission, and became embroiled in trying to capture a local Islamist warlord. In the process our military killed a number of innocent clan leaders. In a subsequent battle we lost eighteen of our soldiers. Ever since we have tried to undermine the Islamists, and establish a democratic style of government.

To put Under Secretary Sherman’s trip into perspective, we need to revisit the time in 1991 when the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu was closed, after the downfall of Mohamed Siad Barre. From 1969 to 1991 Barre had been the country’s military dictator and president. The U.S. had developed a relationship with the Siad Barre in 1979. The following year, we signed agreements for the use of ports and airfields in Somalia, in exchange for defensive military equipment. Over the next number of years we increased military assistance by more than $100 million a year.

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What the Middle East will Look Like if Iran is Attacked

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Two weeks ago the US denied that an agreement was made to meet with Iranian officials to discuss the Iranian nuclear program after the American election. It appears that Iranian officials either expect Mr. Obama to be reelected or are trying to get back to the negotiating table before they are forced to negotiate with a Romney administration. Iran seems to be signaling its opening position - that it will settle for a “break-out” nuclear capability (wherein the components of a weapon are available for assembly but not readily available) in exchange for the end of sanctions, or an agreement with Israel not to strike. Last month the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated its flexibility in negotiating to “ease western concerns”. In the face of crippling sanctions and an increasing likelihood that Israel may indeed bomb Iran, has Iran finally blinked?

We think not. There is nothing in Iran’s previous or current behavior to suggest that rumors of pending negotiations are true, nor that they would prove to be successful. More likely, any attempt at negotiation would simply be another stall tactic designed to bide time while Iran races toward full enrichment capability. As such, we must assume that Israel (and possibly the U.S.) believe an attack on Iran may ultimately be necessary. So what would the Middle East look like if Iran is attacked?

Past experience suggests that Iran’s leadership is rational, understands proportionality and restraint, and is capable of strict self-control. Cultivating an image of irrationality can at times be useful and, for a country like Iran with limited military resources, necessary. This suggests that Iran’s response will be guided by its own fear of American reprisal and stop short of threatening Israel’s survival, knowing that doing so would risk a direct nuclear strike. By limiting itself to conventional weapons, Iran’s priorities will remain guarding its mountainous regions against border incursions, protecting its oil exports, and preventing sectarian violence against the regime.

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The GOP: Retrograde or Reformist?

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Former Governor Mitt Romney campaigning

Former Governor Mitt Romney campaigning

The Republican Party Today and the Romney Campaign

The Republican Party is in a state of disarray and needs to change. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and the extreme positions from which he is now trying to distance himself, provides insights into this situation. It is not surprising that Governor Romney tacked hard to the right during the Republican primary and is now emphasizing a more moderate brand in his latest incarnation of himself.

Nonetheless, I am concerned about a range of public policy issues: the deficit, a disastrously dysfunctional Congress and the rising cost of higher education. I am also worried that there is no overarching strategy that underpins American foreign policy today. Yet, as this election cycle painfully draws to a close, what bothers me the most is the current state of the Republican Party and its dismal prospects for the future.

During the next two years, the party leadership (and others) should think long and hard about the type of party they’d like to be and what that means given America’s irreversible demographic trends (towards a less white, more ethnically diverse electorate) and the way that peoples’ positions on social issues are shifting. The Democrats have their far-left crazies for sure, but I am worried that Republicans may be cornering the market on insanity.

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America’s Moment to Improve Relations with Libya

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President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivers a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House, Sept. 12, 2012, regarding the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Lawrence Jackson/White House

President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, delivers a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House, Sept. 12, 2012, regarding the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Lawrence Jackson/White House

The attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 and protests across the Islamic world against the film, “Innocence of Muslims,” have many officials in Washington questioning America’s role in the ‘Arab Spring’. Because of the U.S. presidential election, political debate is focused on the future of U.S.-Libya relations.  In taking a quick glance at the development of American foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Central Asia one can be overwhelmed at the dismal progress that has made in advancing democracy in those regions. There is an urgent need for a successful event to demonstrate to the domestic public and international community that America is capable of bringing stability to these regions.

Libya presents the perfect opportunity for this to happen. Libyans by and large respect the United States for helping to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi. The situation is ripe for achieving a much-needed victory for American foreign policy in the Islamic world that could potentially serve as a watershed moment in MENA.

The important question is what makes the situation in Libya different than America’s position in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, and Pakistan? Before the uprising against Qaddafi began back in February of 2011, Washington had little interest in Libyan affairs. The Global War on Terror never permeated far into Libya because Qaddafi’s government placed distance between itself and terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda in order to fly under the radar of American security interests.

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Foreign Policy Needs More Focus on Security

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U.S. military trainers in Mali

U.S. military trainers in Mali

On October 29, 2012 the State Department gave a briefing on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s visit to Algeria. The focus of the trip was on “counterterrorism cooperation and Mali.” The concern was dealing with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist organization that originated in Algeria, and is actively training in Mali; now has spread across the vast Sahel. The UN also had not authorized the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to send troops to support the Malian military, and subdue these Islamists embedded in northern Mali.

In the meeting with President Bouteflika, Secretary Clinton was seeking support from Algeria for an international effort to drive out the radical Islamists that control two-thirds of Mali. Bouteflika has previously not supported military action, fearing AQIM’s retreat could put Algeria at risk. In fact AQIM had for years been trying to overthrow Bouteflika’s regime, and create an Islamic state. The New York Times article on October 30 noted that Algeria has waged a war against these militants for some time.

Malian leaders however, do not believe Algeria has done enough to capture the AQIM, since their movement across the porous borders has taken pressure off their military. The Times article noted that “Algeria…has not always been supportive of an international effort in Mali…since the prospect of a military campaign in Mali risked pushing militants north into Algerian territory…”

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Turkey Haunted by its own Hubris

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A rebel fighter fires a gun toward a building where Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad are hiding while they attempt to gain terrain against the rebels during heavy clashes in the Jedida district of Aleppo, Syria on Nov. 4.  Narciso Contreras/AP

A rebel fighter fires a gun toward a building where Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad are hiding while they attempt to gain terrain against the rebels during heavy clashes in the Jedida district of Aleppo, Syria on Nov. 4. Narciso Contreras/AP

Two years ago Turkey was on its way to being a player in Central Asia, a major power broker in the Middle East, and a force in international politics. It had stepped in to avoid a major escalation of the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia by blocking U.S. ships from entering the Black Sea, made peace with its regional rivals, and, along with Brazil, made a serious stab at a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis.

Today it is exchanging artillery rounds with Syria. Its relations with Iraq have deteriorated to the point that Baghdad has declared Ankara a “hostile state.” It picked a fight with Russia by forcing down a Syrian passenger plane and accusing Moscow of sending arms to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It angered Iran by agreeing to host a U.S. anti-missile system (a step which won Turkey no friends in Moscow either). Its war with its Kurdish minority has escalated sharply. What happened? The wages of religious solidarity? Ottoman de’je vu?

There is some truth in each of those suggestions, but Turkey’s diplomatic sea change has less to do with the Koran and memories of empire than with illusions and hubris. It is a combination that is hardly rare in the Middle East, and one that now promises to upend years of careful diplomacy, accelerate unrest in the region, and drive Turkey into an alliance with countries whose internal fragility should give the Turks pause. If there is a ghost from the past in all this, it is a growing alliance between Turkey and Egypt.

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