It would be nice to think that Rick Perry’s withdrawal from the GOP presidential race last week had something to do with the boneheaded remark he made about Turkey recently in the Myrtle Beach, S.C., debate. The exchange with Bret Baier of Fox News easily qualifies as the foreign policy low point of the presidential campaign so far — which is saying something. It also points to a problem in American — and in particular, Republican — understanding of the changing Middle East that is much bigger than Perry.
Baier delivered a mostly accurate but extremely one-sided description of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying that since his “Islamist-oriented party took over . . . the murder rate of women has increased 1,400 percent. Press freedom has declined to the level of Russia. [Erdogan] has embraced Hamas, and Turkey has threatened military force against both Israel and Cyprus.” Then he asked: “Do you believe Turkey still belongs in NATO?”
The Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Diehl also writes a biweekly foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
Perry responded: “Well, obviously when you have a country that is being ruled by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists . . .”
Islamic terrorists? This, mind you, is about a government that has just stationed an advanced radar on its territory that could be used to track and shoot down missiles from Iran; that joined the NATO operation against Moammar Gaddafi in Libya; that has become the host of the opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; and that, having repeatedly won free democratic elections, amended Turkey’s constitution to expand rights for women, ethnic minorities and unions.
Okay — that, too, was a one-sided account of the Erdogan record. But that is precisely the point: Turkey has become a complex, dynamic, difficult, sometimes infuriating, sometimes very helpful and indisputably important ally of the United States. In that sense, Erdogan’s government is a paradigm of the relationships U.S. administrations will be managing — if we are fortunate — in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab Middle East during the coming decade.
The reality is that, like it or not, “Islamist-oriented” governments are about to become the new normal in a region dominated for decades by secular autocrats and pro-American generals. So the crude bias about Muslim movements that is baked into the worldview of many U.S. conservatives — that they are inevitably fundamentalist, anti-democratic, anti-Israel and anti-American, if not explicitly “terrorist” — has become a serious liability. If heeded, it will make it impossible for this administration and future ones to navigate the region’s new politics and preserve crucial alliances.
Some Islamic movements may turn out like Hamas and Hezbollah — implacably hostile. But others, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, are likely to weave through an ambiguous middle ground, trying to balance the need for Western investment and the secular aspirations of their populations with their religious ideology. The right way to respond to them is to be nimble: tolerate some turbulence, roll with some punches, push back against others and keep pressing leaders to stick to democratic principles.