US disengagement from Mideast fiction: Ex-envoy

US disengagement from Mideast fiction: Ex-envoy

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
US disengagement from Mideast fiction: Ex-envoy

The US has been behind in terms of providing leadership in the Middle East, says former US envoy Ross Wilson, speaking to the Daily News during the Atlantic Council energy and economic summit in Istanbul. DAILY NEWS photos, Emrah GÜREL

Talk of America disengagement from the Middle East due to its growing energy independence amid a shift to the Asia-Pacific region is grossly immature if not complete fiction, according to a former U.S. envoy to Turkey.

Middle Eastern oil might become less vital for the U.S. economy, but it is vital for a world economy that the U.S. is more dependent on than ever, said Ross Wilson.

Turkey is right in its complaints of being abandoned in the Syrian crisis, Wilson also told the Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview, adding that he expected a new U.S. activism in Syria now that the presidential elections were over.

The United States is expected to gradually disengage from the Middle East as its dependence on foreign energy sources decreases and shift its focus to the Asia-Pacific. What will be the consequences of this disengagement in the region, unless you contest the predictions of a disengagement?

I contest it. The idea of America disengaging from the Middle East is grossly premature, if not complete fiction.

Our policies and our interests in the Middle East never had mainly or principally to do with access to oil. It is true that the U.S. is [currently] a net exporter of oil products – a first since 1949. It is true that our acute interest in Middle Eastern affairs dates from roughly that period, but it also dates from the end of World War II. There is a whole set of geopolitical things that were going on in that period.

We are in a very tumultuous geopolitical period now. The Middle East is important to us because it is a location where there are lots of dangerous weapons and there are lots of ethnicities and nations that are in conflict with one another.

On the other hand the world will continue to need very large-scale supplies of Middle Eastern energy to succeed. Our economy more than ever is dependent on the rest of the world’s economy. It is not so much that we will need Middle Eastern oil to survive because we will be producing a larger share of our own, but we need the world economy, and China, Japan, India, Korea, Europe and other parts of the world – on which our economic prosperity depends – depend on Middle Eastern oil.

But do you also contest that the U.S. will disengage from the region due to the policy known as the “pivot to Asia?”

I contest that as well. The very name pivot is a misnomer; rebalance is a better word. We have interest in Europe, in the Middle East. The intention of the policy is to revive the Asian component of America’s overseas engagement.

How do you see the future engagement of the second Barack Obama administration in the Middle East then?

Many of us believe that the relative caution by Washington over the last couple of months on matters related to Syria was a function of the elections that we recently had.

American people are sick and tired of foreign wars and sick and tired of being involved in the Arab world. Obama did not want to talk about it since it was a political loser. A lot of us now hope that there will be a different kind of activity. My personal believe is that the U.S. has been woefully behind in terms of providing leadership that it has always provided for 60 years for matters related to the Middle East and even Europe.

In the case of Syria, America got ahead of the curve in calling on [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad to step down without having a sufficiently developed strategy for what we would do after we called for that.

In essence, we have been applying a reactive diplomacy since then. I hope for an active phase of American diplomacy and activity that is oriented to trying to [gather together] the international community better and help to bring about some positive changes in Syria.

What you foresee is a policy that will be short of military action.

There is a big space between sending the 101st airborne and doing nothing. There are many political, diplomatic, intelligence and humanitarian [activities that can be undertaken, along with] working better and closer with other neighbors. Leadership does not just mean military intervention.

Do you agree with Turkey’s complaints that it has been abandoned on the Syrian front?

I would absolutely agree with that. Turkey clearly has been looking for more American leadership since late last year and is not feeling they are getting American leadership.

Don’t you think that maybe Turkey went too far, too fast and ended up on its own in this situation?

That’s now irrelevant. There are a lot of reasons why Turkey finds itself in this situation that it is in. Some of them relate to some acts Turkey committed or Turkish leaders did or said. But there are lots of other reasons.

Now is a very dangerous situation, and I am glad at the first steps we have seen – working more effectively with the Syrian opposition and [seeing] Turkey clearly supporting it; that’s a good thing.
Turkish leaders in August 2011 finally responded to repeated appeals by Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton for al-Assad to leave. Having been encouraged to take that step and in finally having taken that step, one way of looking at the Turkish dilemma is this: Turks asked, “What do we do now?” and the U.S. didn’t give much of an answer. In short, Turkey must not be left alone.

How do you see the Turkish-U.S. relationship?

The close personal relationship that President Obama and Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan have developed is a very important one. There have also developed a whole range of contacts among people at the second tier, third tier and fourth tier. That’s a much more active exchange among a lot more people than existed when I was here. In terms of the conduct of our relations, it is better now than it ever has been in history and richer than ever in history. Contact and the operational way that we conduct our relations are richer than ever in history.

When I served in Turkey, I pleaded repeatedly for three years with the assistant secretary for the Near East – a close friend of mine – to come to Turkey and have consultations. I failed. Now due to investments on both sides, those assistant secretaries have very regular contacts, like weekly contacts, maybe more. That is the way we conduct our relations with our allies and this is a big step forward.

Don’t you think the strained relations between Turkey and Israel has the potential to poison U.S.-Turkish relations? Is this sustainable?

The problem of Turkish-Israeli relations has been “sustained,” to use your word, in U.S.-Turkey relations for two years.

Does that mean that we can live with that?

It is not a good state of affairs. Clearly it exposes Turkey to lots of criticism in Congress, and it is not helpful. I think the estrangement of Turkey and Israel is unhelpful to the interests of both Israel and Turkey. I would expect to see continued American efforts periodically to try to see what we can do that might be helpful. But I don’t expect any changes in the very near future because there are [Israeli] elections soon.

Why is Washington concerned about Turkey’s increased energy cooperation with the Iraqi Kurds?

In the period of time I served here, one of the preoccupations of the Turks was the possible independence of the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] and the implications that would have on the region, with the implications being negative. Today, the government in Ankara recognizes that Kurdish independence is very unlikely; that is not what the Kurds are seeking because, frankly, they kind of have it in a practical sense; they have many of the benefits of being independent while they are still connected closely to Baghdad, and they get the benefits that are associated with that. Why would they compromise that; for what? It is a good thing that Turkey is developing its relations with Arbil.
We are still very much focused on Iraqi unity and focused on trying to help to secure a strong a unified political system for Iraq while also focusing on trying to broker an energy deal between Arbil and Baghdad that will reinforce politics. Washington is very reluctant to be seen supporting steps that might make it harder to get a Baghdad-Arbil deal on energy development.

The third factor is the Syrian one. To the extent that Iran is able to continue to support and supply the al-Assad regime, one of the mechanisms of doing so is through Iraq, southern Iraq. One of the means [we have to constrain the delivery of Iranian supplies to Syria] is the relationship we have with [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki.

We want to preserve that relationship. We have many interests. We’d much rather have an al-Maliki as a positive factor for Syria rather than a contributor to instability in Syria.

The Turkish envoy to Washington also claims relations have never been better. Allies are usually supposed to be on the same page on most of the issues. But on many issues, the two capitals don’t see eye to eye, be it on Syria, Iran, Iraq or Israel.

There are a lot more commonalities in terms of views. We have lots of disagreements with other allies, too. But we talk about them. There are lots of contacts and these have the effect of helping each side better understand what the differences are. We are going to have differences and some of them will be big and problematic, but to the extent we have a good understanding, not just between the president and the prime minister but all the way down [through] the system, we can manage those differences, advance our interests where they overlap and deal with the rest of it as we can so that the rest does not become a problem in U.S.- Turkish relations.