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>> The International Herald Tribune


The International Herald Tribune - September 21, 2011

The Arab Spring tour taken this month by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey demonstrated the good and the bad of his increasingly confident leadership.

The Muslim world needs democratic role models. On his visits to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the Turkish leader, who leads the Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party, made a strong and very welcome case that Islam and democracy are compatible. “Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, yet it is a democratic secular state where all religions are equal,” he said in Tunisia where voters next month will elect their first constituent assembly since the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

But Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly shrill denunciations of Israel are a danger to the region as well as to Turkey. During his visit to Egypt — where anti-Israeli protests have become violent — he called Israel “the West’s spoiled child.” He needs to stop playing for the applause lines and weigh the full consequences of his words.

There is a lot about Turkey that deserves to be emulated. Over the last nine years, Mr. Erdogan’s party has unleashed the energies of Turkey’s entrepreneurs, asserted civilian control of the once-dominant army and enacted human rights reforms. He also has a worrying authoritarian side and important choices to make as Turkey moves to replace its army-drafted Constitution with one that is fully democratic.

Mr. Erdogan is playing a particularly dangerous game with Israel. There is no question that dealing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel can be frustrating. Turkey downgraded relations after Israel rejected a sound, American-mediated deal to close the book on Israel’s ill-fated assault on a Gaza aid flotilla that killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American.

But Mr. Erdogan has dangerously upped the ante — and put the United States, a NATO ally, in a particularly difficult spot — with his threat to send warships into the Mediterranean Sea to escort Turkish shipping. If both sides aren’t careful, things could spiral out of control. At a minimum, Mr. Erdogan is risking his country’s substantial trade with Israel.

President Obama has worked hard to cultivate Mr. Erdogan but hasn’t spared the tough talk in private, including about the Turkish leader’s previous efforts to cozy up to Iran. And Mr. Erdogan has recently agreed to station a radar in Turkey as part of NATO’s American-designed missile defense system to protect the region from Iran. Mr. Obama also privately urged him to cut ties with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Mr. Erdogan has said he no longer believes in Mr. Assad. He now needs to use Turkey’s economic leverage and impose sanctions on Mr. Assad and his cronies.

As the chief of a major Muslim democracy, Mr. Erdogan can legitimately claim a leadership role. He needs to do so responsibly.

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