Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Near Eastern Promises

US diplomacy has upset the Turkish-Iranian balance of power

Suzy Hansen


On April 5, 1946, the USS Missouri, "the world's most famous battleship," sailed up the Bosporus and docked in Istanbul. President Harry Truman had dispatched his triumphant vessel to deliver the body of Turkish diplomat Münir Ertegün (the father, as it happens, of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet)—and, more important, to secure an alliance with Turkey at the beginning of the cold war. At the time, the Turks had few friends in the world. Only thirty years earlier, the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, had called the Ottomans "a human cancer." When the victorious Americans appeared on Istanbul's shores, the Turks were ecstatic; crowds greeted the soldiers at the dock, and the city's shopkeepers threw open their doors. "Sailors found it difficult to pay for anything," writes Stephen Kinzer, quoting Time magazine, in his lively book Reset, "including prostitutes."

In 1969, another American ship, the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, dropped anchor in the old imperial city. By that year, America was mired in its disastrous war in Vietnam, and twenty-five thousand American servicemen were living on Turkish soil. When the ship arrived, Turkish women did not extend a hearty welcome; instead, they held up signs that read ISTANBUL IS NOT A BROTHEL FOR THE SIXTH FLEET. In two decades, Turkey had mutated from a passionately pro-American bastion into a hotbed of anti-American street violence. And in 2007, according to Pew Research, Turkey was the most anti-American country in a global survey of forty-seven states.

How quickly the United States manages to squander goodwill is a recurring theme of Kinzer's book, a swift-moving, snapshot history of our relationships with four Middle Eastern countries: Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Ostensibly a long policy recommendation for deeper engagement with Turkey and Iran, Reset succeeds just as much as a black-and-white indictment of American policies in Saudi Arabia and Israel. In many ways, the book can seem like an American Foreign Policy for Dummies manual: You'll feel idiotic for the big and small things you never knew about America's diplomatic history, but you'll also worry that you're reading a boiled-down primer on an endlessly complicated subject. Kinzer serves up his juicy historical anecdotes so neatly that it's hard to know whether accuracy has been lost along with nuance. His overall argument, however, hardly seems objectionable: America's cold-war-era policies did not produce a sound, sane, or peaceful diplomatic strategy in the Middle East, and in the post-9/11 world, they are doing more harm than good. It's time for a change. So what should we do?

Kinzer, a former correspondent for the New York Times and the author of several books on US military and diplomatic relations, urges America to move away from Saudi Arabia and fix the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a near-unilateral basis. On the way to this glaringly optimistic prescription, he spins a character-driven yarn that details FDR's secret meetings with King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud and revisits the story behind Truman's tortured acceptance of an Israeli state without the guarantee of a Palestinian one. "In Washington the principle has usually been: What Saudi Arabia wants, Saudi Arabia gets; what Israel wants, Israel gets," Kinzer writes.

While this statement has the ring of truth, the language here and elsewhere strikes me as dangerously Tom Friedman–esque in its glibness. Kinzer much more deftly recounts the ironies of US engagement in the Middle East—explaining, for example, how the United States enlisted Israeli officers to train fighters in our proxy wars in Latin America and how the Saudi royal family dutifully financed at least one of them, as they did the 1980s war in Afghanistan. With the backing of successive American administrations, Israel has received enormous amounts of aid, as well as carte blanche to behave in increasingly self-destructive ways. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has pursued its uniquely hypocritical domestic policy of encouraging the dominance of Wahhabi Islam—the staunchly anti-American and antimodern movement that's proved central to Islamist terrorism—as the royal family has frolicked in sin beside piles of American weaponry. Both alliances, Kinzer suggests, have helped stoke the rise of Islamic terrorism around the world.

As a corrective to such folly, he advocates stronger ties with Turkey and Iran, two Muslim countries that have endured long, tortured romances with democracy, with heartbreakingly divergent results. In addition to serving as a worthy diplomatic goal in its own right, Kinzer argues, greater engagement with Turkey and Iran will help America's relations with powers throughout the Middle East. Turkey, of course, is the far more obvious and stable partner, and in light of the history of Iran and others in the region, it's difficult not to think that its success as a nation comes in part because Turkey liberated itself and then was largely left alone.

Turkey got lucky in many other ways as well. First, the Ottoman Empire left behind an obedient population of Sunni Muslims who pledged fealty to the state just "one millimeter" more than to Islam, as the accomplished Turkish historian S¸erif Mardin has written, making Turkey an "exception" in the Middle East. Second, Turkey's messiah-savior came in the form of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a man who gets a pass for his many cruel and authoritarian penchants mainly because his single-handed creation of modern Turkey in 1923 proved so shockingly successful. Even historians who call Atatürk a demagogic dictator breathlessly follow up that assessment with accounts of his triumphs and wisdom. "I will make them rise to my level. Let me not resemble them; they should resemble me," Atatürk said. Out of the mouths of other strongmen, such sentiments sound like pure megalomania, but in Atatürk's case, they come off as the insight of a truly great leader.

In many ways, he was—but, as Kinzer shows, Atatürk also created an ethnically chauvinistic military state and killed a lot of people in the process. You can find a lot of Kurds who don't love Atatürk. Though Kinzer is critical of Atatürk's failure to investigate the "fate of Ottoman Armenians," he insists on using, as he did in his Turkey book Crescent and Star (2001), tepid if not misleading language to describe the Armenian genocide: "Families were torn from their homes and forced to flee. Hundreds of thousands died or were murdered." It's an odd, enduring paradox that Western writers often own up less bravely to the Armenian genocide than do the Turkish activists and intellectuals who actually have to live in Turkey. (Kinzer does indeed use the word genocide to characterize the fate of the Armenians, but he consigns it to the index.)

Most notoriously, Atatürk oppressed religious Muslims to form his secular, Western state. "Islam, this absurd theology of an immoral Bedouin, is a rotting corpse that poisons our lives!" he once said—though of course the Turkish leader was happy to use Islam when he needed to rally the exhausted Turks and Kurds for the War of Independence, just as, sixty years later, the Turkish state would use religion to woo its populace away from communism.

Atatürk's campaign to discredit Islam has bequeathed to Turkey its current identity crisis. The country is now convulsed by an intense rivalry between Atatürk's secular heirs and a new breed of religious leaders who've come to the fore in the past twenty-five years. Compared with its neighbors, however, almost-democratic Turkey seems like nothing short of a miracle. Its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a former Islamist, remains a decent if histrionic American ally—and it's unlikely that he'll steer his country so far to the East as to prompt him to forget entirely about the West. The increasingly autocratic prime minister is far from perfect, but as Kinzer notes, in the Middle East right now, Erdoğan's about as good as it gets.

Kinzer seems to believe that a thorough review of democratic bona fides in the Middle East will prompt American strategists and citizens to renew good-faith efforts of diplomatic outreach to Turkey and Iran. It's here that his analysis bears faint resemblance to Let the Swords Encircle Me, a work of reportage by the Christian Science Monitor journalist Scott Peterson, who rests his case for a rapprochement with Iran on the notion that we should all get along because deep down we're really very much alike. "I have found that Americans and Iranians are, in fact, remarkably similar in mind-set and belief," Peterson writes, "so much so that in the future, the United States and Iran could well become the most powerful 'natural' allies in the region." (It's worth nothing that Kinzer mentions Iran's 2009 election only a few times; Peterson, meanwhile, covers it in detail.)

Peterson makes much, for example, of the similarities between America's deep Christian roots and Iran's long Islamic history. "Few other nations can boast such spiritual underpinnings, or such broadly self-described spiritual peoples—and of the dangers that 'radicals' can pose," he writes in a typical passage, "as the United States and Iran, where 'God's will' shapes daily decision making." Such sentiments no doubt arise from well-meaning impulses, perhaps aimed at warmongering racists who can't imagine that white Americans share anything with those crazy Muslims in the Middle East; surely, it can't hurt to remind them of the Iranians' humanity. But this is a banal starting point for any diplomatic engagement with an Iranian religious establishment that has long equated the United States with Satan. And regardless of how often American schoolchildren pledge allegiance to the flag "under God"—to cite one of Peterson's superficial measures of American religiosity—it's a stretch to compare the American experience to the Iranian one.

As Kinzer writes, one country that did share experiences with Iran over the past century is the young Turkish Republic—even though Iranian mullahs were horrified when Atatürk abolished the Islamic caliphate and made himself president. Rather than following Turkey's secular example, the Iranian Parliament found it more palatable to make Reza Pahlavi king. That dour ruler struggled to modernize the country and improve living conditions. As ardent a feminist as Atatürk, Reza got so caught up in liberating women that in 1936 he banned the veil—which, as France might do well to take note, caused some women to commit suicide. Reza didn't possess Atatürk's superhuman foresight. "Atatürk understood that absolutism leads ultimately to instability," Kinzer writes, "and that even dictatorship should have limits. Reza Shah did not." Neither did his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. In 1975, twenty-two years after Reza II took the throne, Amnesty International declared that "no country in the world has a worse human rights record than Iran." In Henry Kissinger's moral universe, however, this shah was "that rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally," human rights be damned.

Kinzer correctly dwells on the catastrophic outcome of America's support for the second shah. One of Reset's most compelling passages recounts an Iranian psychiatrist's list of the differences between Americans and Iranians: "Americans are willing to compromise principle for results; Iranians are willing to sacrifice results to principle . . . Americans value forthrightness, Iranians complexity." The list could serve as a guide to the way Americans differ from most nationalities. America, after all, is the weird outlier—or, as some would say, an exceptional experiment in democratic nationalism. But regarding the American-Iranian case, one dissimilarity sticks out: "Americans worship the future, Iranians the past." This seems to be an especially striking distinction when it comes to the 1953 coup, which America and Britain sponsored to unseat the popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in favor of Shah Reza Pahlavi II, an event that few people in the Middle East have forgotten unto this day.

But Americans often have shorter, more self-serving memories. In another of Kinzer's powerful vignettes, set during the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis, a reporter asks Jimmy Carter, "Mr. President, do you think it was proper for the United States to restore the Shah to the throne in 1953 against the popular will within Iran?" "That's ancient history," Carter replied.

By "ancient," he meant thirty years. That might have been an eternity to Americans—but as Kinzer writes, the restoration of the shah "was one of the twentieth century's more significant events," even though "few histories of the century published in English give it more than a line or two." An eminent British historian once told me that he often asks American students whether they know the name Mossadegh. Even today, with much of American officialdom obsessed with Iran's nuclear program, no student ever does. "For nearly all of Mohammad Reza Shah's twenty-five year reign, as royal dictatorship became more oppressive and Iranian anger grew," Kinzer writes, "American leaders and most of the American press portrayed the U.S.-Iran relationship as ideal." During the hostage crisis, "Americans saw themselves as wronged innocents."

Even though Iranians harbor many long-standing grievances against the United States, both Kinzer and Peterson emphasize their enduring sympathy for Americans, hauling out the touching image of Iranians staging a vigil after September 11. Even after Iran was named to the "axis of evil," the Islamic Republic tried to patch things up with the United States—but George W. Bush wanted nothing to do with its overtures. Kinzer's book might have been ever more informative if it had dug deeper into the Washington establishment—as well as the Iranian one—to explain why both countries' foreign policies have proved so intractable.

Iran's relationship with the United States comes up throughout Peterson's 752-page book, which is based on the author's thirty trips to the country since the mid-1990s. (Full disclosure: I have met Peterson socially.) If Kinzer's study is almost too artfully spare, Peterson's tome is a wide-ranging compendium of everything the author has read and seen. It's hard for reporters to get into Iran, and even when they do, they are often thrown out or thrown in jail. Peterson takes numerous opportunities, therefore, to remind the reader that he's the only foreigner in the room.

With Peterson, we travel to the graveyards of the Iran-Iraq War, to Iranian towns where worshippers weep over the Mahdi (a Shiite messianic figure held in Islamic lore to have been in hiding for more than a millennium), to art galleries and clerics' offices, inside apartments and out on the streets. Peterson has seen a lot and talked to many people. Every now and then, he gives us a good dose of Iranian history and important insights into Iranian psychology. He reminds us, for example, of the believers who cling to the glory days of the revolution and the sacrifices of the Iran-Iraq War, of reformists distraught over the failure of former president Seyed Mohammad Khatami to effect lasting change, and of all those Iranians now enraged by the reckless, brutal policies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Peterson, determined to reveal Iranian society as complex, constantly pivots on ideas with but and yet transitions. He ends up blurring the picture rather than clarifying it. It's certainly to his credit that Peterson has listened to the testimonies of so many ordinary Iranians, but repetitive man-on-the-street interviews can illuminate only so much. I ended up far more frustrated with Peterson's absent editor than with the author himself for failing to give compelling shape to Let the Swords Encircle Me. It was Peterson, after all, who hewed to the time-honored reporter's instinct of bringing back a catalogue of vital observations about a country few people understand—and it was, or should have been, the responsibility of his publisher to ensure the result was a book rather than a notebook dump.

Fortunately for Peterson, the gravity of the material in Let the Swords Encircle Me transcends the book's shambolic structure—especially as the narrative circles around the nation's more recent history. Around page 450, with the first rumblings before 2009's bloody, stolen election, the author's kaleidoscopic vision resolves into a clearer portrait of a country whose people—diverse, unpredictable, resilient—long to determine their own fates. As Kinzer's less exhaustive account of the region's politics reminds us, that simple human aspiration produces no end of unintended consequences. That's why Atatürk can still be revered as a culture hero in the secular Middle East—and why an opportunistic demagogue like Ahmadinejad, for all the Iranians' obsession with the past, seems an all too likely augur for the region's future. Iran and Turkey, relatively young nations with their own historically shaped interests and inclinations, hardly see themselves as merely friends or foes of the United States. That might be the best—if largely inadvertent—lesson both books have to offer.

Suzy Hansen is a writer living in Istanbul.

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