- - Sunday, December 6, 2015


For a century Europe was dogged by “the sick man of Europe,” the collapsing Ottoman Empire and what it meant for the major European powers. Multi-ethnic empires are a thing of the past now. Their death rattle followed the noisy implosion of the Soviet Union. But the Ottoman successor, the Turkish Republic, is luring the Europeans further into the troubles and miseries of the Middle East.

The downing of a Russian bomber, darting in and out of Turkish territory, dramatizes a danger that everyone knew about, but few, particularly the wise men in the Obama administration, have the kidney to face. After a spectacular leap forward with the liberalization of its economy, Turkey faces both external and internal threats, including economic stagnation. Turkey’s woes pose additional problems for the European Union, wrestling with obstacles in the way of what was thought to be the inevitable integration of continental economics and politics.

Barack Obama early on courted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, believing him the model for a modernizing Muslim world. As the popular mayor of cosmopolitan Istanbul, he represented “moderate Islam.” With his abject apology to the Islamic world for what he perceived as a history of American misadventures, Mr. Obama made the Turkish president a key foreign contact.

But once in national leadership Mr. Erdogan became an authoritarian, flirted with radical Islam and lost control of his southeastern border with Syria. He has looked away as body traffickers use Turkey as a base for flooding Greece and Europe with destitute migrants, moving recruits to the Islamic State, or ISIS, and permitting traffic in black-market oil, some of it apparently to the benefit of his family.

With his hold on majority parliamentary power in jeopardy, Mr. Erdogan deliberately created an atmosphere of insecurity. He abandoned peace efforts with his huge Kurdish minority, further complicating the American effort to use the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds as an effective force against ISIS. The Europeans have just contributed $3.2 billion to finance Turkish refugee camps, but no one thinks this will staunch the migrant flow, nor will it be a new beginning for negotiations for Turkey’s European Union membership. Membership now seems unlikely with Muslims surging into Europe in huge numbers.

Mr. Erdogan has restored the centuries-old Turkish feud with Moscow, ignoring a growing and profitable commerce between the two countries. The Russian presence in Syria, supporting the regime of Bashar Assad, adds to the threat to peace.

Mr. Obama offers new assurances that Turkey will close its border with Syria with the help of American forces. This commitment seems less than realistic, with America reluctantly dribbling ground troops into the region to support an anemic bombing campaign against ISIS. If Mr. Erdogan uses his victory in the November 1 election to pursue his aims, the situation in the Middle East will further deteriorate.

If Mr. Obama intends to use membership in NATO as the lure for genuine Turkish cooperation, he must act now. Turkish fulfillment of promises to police its Syrian border are essential to a political solution to the Syrian problem. Cooling the Syrian confrontation is in turn essential to avoiding a wider war. To get all this done requires President Obama to give up his comfortable position in the rear and dispense with the fiction that an American president can “lead from behind.”

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