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January 22, 2013, Tuesday

Obama’s oath and the lopsided tango in Iraq

At an official ceremony on Sunday, Barack Obama began his second four years in office. The oaths he took on Sunday were repeated on Monday on the steps of Congress in front of thousands of people.

What Obama now faces is an opposition sworn to fight against him. And it appears that the clashes between the Democrats and the Republicans -- each based on very different social bases, and providing very different solutions for the problems therein -- will only end with great difficulty. While the Tea Party movement pulls the Republicans from the center right to the extreme edges of the right, liberal groups try to push Obama to the further limits of leftism. And with polarized politics failing to provide any long-lasting solutions to some of the deep-rooted problems -- the debt crisis first and foremost -- isolationist tendencies are on the increase in America. It seems literally as though Obama has now sworn off getting too involved in the ominous business of the rest of the world. It is from within this framework then that it might be wise to observe Monday's swearing-in ceremony, in terms of what it means for Turkey and the world in general.

Many of the states, which until just recently were complaining about Washington's excessive involvement in almost everything global, now find themselves grumbling over having to work with an odorless, non-sticking American government. And to wit, it is becoming more and more difficult to reach solutions in many of the clash-filled regions pacified by America. Among the plaintiffs on this front is Turkey. The American lack of activity when it comes to Syria is particularly frustrating for Ankara. And in recent times, Iraq has been the source of a great tension. There is no question that, during comprehensive consultation talks that took place in Washington last week, Iraq was one of the most problematic topics that Turkish Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu had to deal with.

Maliki in control

Turkey is worried about just how much it can protect its vital national interests in Iraq when the US is extending its unequivocal support to Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And as for Washington, it is engulfed by the stress of not being able to rein in Ankara from engaging in direct petrol flirting with the Kurds of northern Iraq, despite Baghdad's negative reactions to this. The Obama administration repeats the warning “Well, let's not see the central government weaken, or Iraq will be divided” over and over. As for Ankara, it is sure that Maliki's desire to act as a tenant over everything in Iraq will only play a greater and greater role in a possible splintering of the country, and that Iraq heads each day further down the path towards being in the orbit of Iran.

There is little question that the Obama administration's seeming love for Maliki is not rooted in an emotional sense of closeness. Like Ankara, Washington is also aware that Maliki is an authoritarian leader who wants to gather as much power as possible in his hands. But President Obama, who sees Iraq almost as a gambling debt left over from the Bush administration, is playing to the central government in Iraq, at the cost of mistreating the spirit of democratic federation all throughout Iraq. This is because the Obama administration is also firmly convinced that it is only down this path that stability will come to Iraq, and that it will thus cause less pain and headache for the US as well. It is also true that Maliki knows how to open the doorways in his country for Washington at certain critical points. And it is through such tactics that he has succeeded in keeping Iraq from being counted by the US as a country that appears to be threatening to be too close to Tehran.

Petrol is not only the most essential factor to keep the economy afloat in Iraq, but it is also the administration's most critical tool. Those holding the reins to the flow of petrol in Iraq are also the same ones gaining more and more political power. As for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), it believes that, if necessary, it can move alone on the petrol accords front. As for the central government, under the control of Maliki, it is imbued with the air of “You cannot do anything without asking Baghdad first.” And of course, ambiguities and regulation deficiencies make it more difficult to close the gaps that exist between Baghdad and Arbil. And while the Obama administration has staked its position on the side of Baghdad in this particular clash, it appears that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government stands with Arbil.

So what if they succeed at this all?

For energy poor Turkey, benefitting from the petrol wealth of Iraq -- under the right conditions of course -- is a matter of first-degree national interest. As for the US, it sees its own national interests as lying with Maliki's building of not only physical but also intangible authority in Iraq. It is thus at this stage of things that the interests of the US and Turkey are in conflict when it comes to Iraq. Turkey, which was excluded from the petrol chessboard at the start of the 20th century with Mosul and Kirkuk falling into the hands of the British, has no intention of receiving a similar blow this century from the Americans. At the same time, the entrance by giant American company Exxon into petrol engagements with the Kurds -- this despite strong complaints from the central Iraqi government -- has made the Turkish side very suspicious. Insistences from the Obama administration that it has tried to dissuade Exxon do not seem very believable to Ankara. And so, the question in people's minds these days in Ankara is “What if Exxon succeeds at all this? What will remain for us?”

The Erdoğan government has made a request to the White House saying, “Use your influence over Maliki, push him to give the Kurds a bit of representation and breathing space.” The response from the Obama administration is something along the lines of “We do not possess the power and leverage strength you seem to think we have in Iraq.” The basic desire from the Turkish side these days is that nothing significant be done in Iraq until the waters settle. In the meantime, lurking in the corners of some people's minds is the very real possibility that Turkey could enter into the petrol arena in Iraq with its state-owned company, the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO). There is also some worry over the building of a direct petrol pipeline going from northern Iraq to Turkey. At the basis of the recent close relations between the president of the KRG, Massoud Barzani, and Ankara lays the desire not to see the various petrol resources fall under the control of Maliki and thus Tehran. The interesting dimension to this business is that it appears that Washington is not attaching much importance to the possibility that it is actually allowing Iran a firm strategic foothold in Iraq as the cost of seeing stability come to Iraq.

The Bush administration did not listen to Ankara's warning that “If you overturn the Hussein regime, you will be turning Iraq right over to Iran.” And the Obama administration is now, almost insistently, repeating the mistake made by the Bush administration on this front. What's more, the US is not taking much in the way of risk to see the Assad regime in Syria -- Iran's main regional ally -- overturned. It would not be surprising if some foreign policy thinkers in Ankara ask whether the US is trying to counterbalance Turkey in the long run with an Iran (whose regime will eventually change). Firm pro-Maliki attitudes might well deal a serious blow to the stability of Turkish-American relations. I do hope personally that these developments do not push Prime Minister Erdoğan to the point of declaring to Obama “It's either Maliki or me.”

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