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May 20, 2012, Sunday

The story behind the story and US lobbies

How should one analyze the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article about the intelligence the US provided Turkish authorities before the Uludere incident?

The procedural details about how the dynamics on the ground evolved are murky. It looks like the US shared the initial images received from the Predators with Turkish authorities. According to the WSJ, the US was willing to provide additional details since they were not sure whether the convoy comprised armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters.

Turkish authorities had their own information coming from “Herons” (UVAs bought from Israel by the Turkish military) and decided to take action without getting more information from the US.

As often happens, the political background of the story and how the Turkish government reacted is more interesting than what actually happened. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) blame the WSJ for being part of attempts to promote an anti-Turkish agenda. The real goal, according to this view, is to stop the sale of drones or any other kind of UVAs to Turkey. So, as usual, the Turkish government sees a conspiracy against Ankara. The interesting point is that the Turkish prime minister doesn’t blame American authorities or President Obama. The relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan appears to be rock solid. Therefore, Ankara thinks the White House wants to help Turkey and that Obama is on Turkey’s side.

So who is creating all the problems? In the eyes of most Turkish officials, the usual suspect is the Israel lobby and its influence over Congress. Such a circle, they argue, leaks stories from the Pentagon and provides accusing reports to the American media. At the end of the day, the whole episode fits in the Turkish narrative that Obama is pro-Turkish but has to deal with the Israel lobby. In short, the Israel lobby is once again creating problems for Ankara and the White House. The Turkish General Staff also reacted against the Wall Street Journal story. For its part, the General Staff stated its own version of the story by pointing out that they acted based on Turkish intelligence with information coming from Turkish-owned UVAs, not American ones.

The Turkish reaction should not be surprising. Even when Turkish-Israeli relations were good, there was a tendency to blame the Israel lobby for most negative comments on Turkey. Turkey and the larger Islamic word have a simple interpretation of US politics and foreign policy based on the hegemony of one lobby over others. In reality, the US system and the competition among lobbies is much more complex. For instance, any attempt to argue that the Israel lobby dominates American Congress or American foreign policy towards the Middle East should also take a look at the role that oil companies and the defense industry play.

The oil lobby is at the heart of Saudi-US relations. Why do you think relations between Washington and Riyadh managed to weather the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks relatively unharmed? America’s dependence on oil, and the fact that Saudi Arabia has the capacity to determine the price of oil is as important as the pro-Israel lobby. There is, in that sense, a constant competition between the pro-Arab oil lobby and the pro-Israel lobby in Congress. Similar dynamics apply for the defense lobby. The Arab world, especially the Gulf, is a huge market for the US defense industry. The defense lobby is therefore often competing with the pro-Israel lobby. This is why one should not generalize or exaggerate the influence of one lobby over others. The main problem in the American system is the influence of money. Unless structural reforms regarding campaign finance laws are put into place, the role of money and all kinds of lobbies will continue to fuel an American system of “legalized corruption,” whereby ethnic or industrial lobbies will exert undue political influence over elected officials through their campaign contribution.

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