The Noble and the Ignoble in the Eastern Mediterranean


Yes, the world is a cynical place. 

Turkey’s foreign policy makes some sense, if you look at things from a Realpolitik point of view. I don’t mean all the rhetoric about bringing democracy to the Middle East. The populist nonsense about Israel is just that, populist nonsense, and deeply cynical, of course. 

Turkey’s leaders can read Western newspapers. I reckon they pretty much agree with Bret Stephens’ assessment today in the Wall Street Journal–as do I, completely:

What is now happening in Europe isn’t so much a crisis as it is an exposure: a Madoff-type event rather than a Lehman one. The shock is that it’s a shock. Greece was never going to be bailed out and will, sooner or later, default. The banks holding Greek debt will, sooner or later, be recapitalized. The recapitalization will be borne by German taxpayers, and it will bring them—sooner rather than later—to the outer limit of their forbearance. The Chinese will not ride to the rescue: They know not to throw good money after bad.

And then Italy will go Greek. Europe’s crisis will lap on U.S. shores, and America’s economic woes will lap on Europe’s—a two-way tsunami.

The explosion of the European project means that Turkish strategists now figure that in a few years’ time, they won’t be negotiating with “Europe,” they’ll be negotiating with sovereign states. Greece has already gone Greek. The United States looks to be out of the picture until the next election, at least. It’s pulling out of Iraq, leaving a power vacuum. So, why not take a stab at the Eastern Mediterranean? It all makes sense. 

As everyone is noting, Turkey and Israel have long been the United States’ strategic allies in the region. Now, why is that? Is it really because they’re both secular democracies? Well, sort of. As a historian, I have to put it more truthfully: It’s because both countries have been strategically useful to the United States. That powerful pro-Israel lobby everyone always talks about gets neutered by a powerful pro-Arab lobby, over and over, and in the end the United States does what countries do: It pursues its own strategic interest. I generalize, but you may consult my doctoral thesis for the details. Likewise, Turkey’s relationship with Israel has also always been governed by strategic logic, not affection; and it is governed by strategic logic now. 

As Judith pointed out, the recent fossil-fuel discoveries in this region are game-changing. This is the real story that everyone’s overlooking. 

Energy Minister Taner Yıldız meanwhile said Tuesday that, “Turkey has now moved into action.” He added that a continental shelf delimitation accord, to be signed soon with northern Cyprus, would determine the maritime boundaries in which the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, or TPAO, would conduct its own research, in cooperation with a Norwegian company. In a show of force, Turkish navy and air forces would also escort TPAO’s exploration vessels.

The drilling row has become heightened amid Turkey’s already simmering crisis with Israel, which, according to Greek Cypriot media reports, sent unmanned surveillance aircraft to fly over the drilling operation in a gesture of solidarity with Greek Cyprus.

The continental shelf accord, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said might be signed this week, will determine the areas in which TPAO can carry out oil and gas exploration activities. The Energy Ministry official said the accord would provide the legal basis for drilling, but seismic studies could go ahead without it.

Turkey is on NATO’s front line in the Caucasus against Russia, on which they depend for three-quarters of their natural gas. Remember what happened in Georgia? The Turks do. So, everyone’s talking about the revival of the Ottoman Empire. They’re also talking about Turkey making a bid to offer itself as the competitor against Iran for regional hegemony with the terrific Turkish model.

They do seem to be forgetting something when they talk about that, though. What were Russia and the Ottoman Empire, historically?

Oh, yes.

So, if Turkey is putting itself forward as the counterweight to Iran, what would we predict?


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  1. Profile Photo Inactive

    Very interesting analysis, Claire. Thank you.

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  2. Profile Photo Inactive

    In both Europe and the USA the socialists are finally running out of other peoples money. The winners will be those who have not built an overweening welfare state or who have actual wealth which isn’t yet absorbed by the magnitude of their welfare promises. More and more Israel is fitting the profile.

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    It is fascinating how the world appears to believe that the decrepitude of the welfare state is solely a characteristic of western governments and the less free, perhaps more crony capitalists in the developing world are immune from running out of other people’s money when the reality is that perhaps their only virtue is a huge populace that is moving out of abject poverty. This is like an enormous untapped resource until, of course, it gets tapped, the population ages, interest groups develop political influence. It may be many years before Turkey and China expereince these sorts of things…then again.

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    Stephens most haunting paragraph is his last one: “Where is the Europe of Ismay, Erhard and Monnet? It’s there in memory, if anyone cares to recover it. Give it another 50 years, and maybe someone will.”

    Ismay, Erhard and Monnet were the products of war and thee horrible memories of that war plus trying to avert another one that could be even more catastrophic. Will resurrection of the memory require yet another war or will someone be trying to avert one?

    And Turkey’s countermove should be to approach China, which is always looking for new petroleum sources. Iran looking to Russian weapons and technology. Gotta love it that the Iranians spend all that money to make themselves so third class.

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    Very interesting. Thank you for this Ms. Berlinski, it is very much along the lines of the information I was interested in when you put forward your call for requests yesterday.

    Your points have raised some additional questions in my mind that I wonder if you would be willing to comment on: You seem to imply that these events are likely to push Russia and Turkey into a much more antagonistic relationship, is that so and have you seen any indications of this? Also what effect do you imagine these fossil-fuel discoveries will have on future attempts at Cyprus reunification?

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    Wow, much to digest here.

    Israel has picked the wrong (i.e. Cypriot / Greek) side in the LNG dispute, hence Turkey’s ramped up rhetoric of late. Russia (never a fan of the Turks), sees Iran as a useful prop (and sizable power) in the region (at least in the Molotov-Ribentrop sense).

    Hard to say where US interests are here, or NATO. Don’t want Russia to solidify its hold on Europe’s energy – gangsters there. If Cyprus gets the gas, then that’s a win for the EU and poke at Ivan – but isolates Turkey. Except that didn’t Russia publicly back Cyprus?

    So is Turkey painting itself into a corner here? Feeling isolated from Europe, enemies to the East and North, nowhere to go but South. Much to ponder. Very confusing region.

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    Many good pointers that I needed to see and pursue and your usual excellent analysis.

    Thank you.


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  9. Profile Photo Member

    Bibi has been quietly cozying up to Greece for quite a while now. If Greek Cyprus becomes a hub for the export of Israeli LNG, the whole economic and geopolitical situation changes.

    Me, I’m curious how Obama will react if Hezbollah hits an Israeli gas rig off Haifa that’s staffed by Noble Gas employees from Houston.

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    Judith Levy:

    Me, I’m curious how Obama will react if Hezbollah hits an Israeli gas rig off Haifa that’s staffed by Noble Gas employees from Houston. · Sep 21 at 12:05am

    Probably depends on their campaign contributions.

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    Judith Levy:

    Me, I’m curious how Obama will react if Hezbollah hits an Israeli gas rig off Haifa that’s staffed by Noble Gas employees from Houston. · Sep 21 at 12:05am

    I don’t know about Obama, but maybe Perry gathers together a posse of some good old boys and rides into Beirut for some payback.

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    “The populist nonsense about Israel is just that, populist nonsense,”

    When in the history of the Jews has “populist nonsense” been merely “populist nonsense?” Was the Czar’s populist nonsense merely populist nonsense? Was Hitler’s? Is Hamas’s?

    If Jews have any learning curve at all, they should have come to understand that populist nonsense must be taken very seriously indeed.

    The relationship between Israel and any of its neighbors has ups and downs and one hopes that Turkey’s position here is merely populist nonsense. We may hope for the best, and we may work diplomatically for a good outcome, but it is unrealistic to dismiss this as merely populist nonsense.

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