Posts Tagged ‘Obama’



Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey

A few months ago The Sparkspread wrote about Erdogan’s double game, that is, using ISIS as proxy fighters against the Kurds whose PKK organization inside Turkey is virtually at war with the regime.

The Syrian civil war has been a no-win situation for Turkey since it first broke out in 2011. Turkish Syrian policy has been more or less aligned with the U.S. insofar as Erdogan wants to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. But Erdogan and Obama both failed to reckon with how strongly Iran and Russia would backstop Assad. For the Russians, Syria and Assad are essential: without the Russian naval base in Tartus, on the Syrian coast, Russia cannot make a legitimate claim of being an Atlantic power. For Iran, Syria is the other end of the Shia Crescent from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

Assad plays the same game. Since the start of the civil war, Assad has allowed Syrian Kurds to control the Rojava, a territory in Syria that stretches east and west along the border with Turkey.

Take that, Erdogan.

The Syrian Kurds have been fighting ISIS with some degree of success. In the fall of 2014 they fought off an ISIS attempt to take over the Rojava town of Kobani. Kurds in Turkey wanted to join in the fight against ISIS, but Erdogan initially wouldn’t let them go and fight. Erdogan undoubtedly saw his advantage in letting ISIS win in Kobani and maybe roll up the other Kurdish-controlled towns in Rojava. Of course, Erdogan had to play his hand carefully because too much pro-ISIS/anti-Kurdish sentiment would cause friction with the Obama Administration.

For Obama, the Syrian Kurds were fighting the ISIS jihadis, so that was good. After a few months, complete with Kurdish riots in Turkey and pressure from Obama, Erdogan finally allowed the Turkish Kurds to join the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS. That, plus American arms, plus American air strikes against ISIS positions finally kicked ISIS completely out of Kobani.

Even for Assad, he needs to fight ISIS, but not so hard that he wins and then finds that the U.S. and Turkey don’t really need him any more. He has to portray himself as part of a solution to a problem (ISIS), but he has to keep that problem going.

Though the U.S. knows that Erdogan’s attitude to ISIS is one of appeasement, Obama can’t play his hand too hard either. Remember those air strikes on the ISIS Kobani positions? The American fighters took off from Incirlik air base in Turkey.

This is one complicated chessboard.

The attack on Ataturk Airport shows the danger of any kind of appeasement of ISIS. Erdogan and his regime, though putatively Islamist, isn’t half as religious as it needs to be in order to meet the so-called Caliphate’s 7th Century standards of piety. In their view, Turkey isn’t part of the House of Islam. Is ISIS going to fight directly with Turkey? How many ISIS “sleeper” cells are there in Turkey, given the porosity of its borders with those parts of Syria and Iraq that comprise the so-called Islamic State? The Ataturk Airport bombing may well be just the beginning of a wave of ISIS-terrorist actions aimed at destabilizing Erdogan.

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The Raisuli - The Real McCoy ca. 1900

The Raisuli – The Real McCoy ca. 1900

President Obama’s promise to degrade or destroy ISIS certainly was not based solely on ISIS’s barbaric killings of two American journalists, though that must have weighed in the balance. Had the same actions been taken by the Tamil Tigers we probably wouldn’t be making airstrikes in Ceylon, even though the acts would be equally abhorrent. Green tea from South Asia just doesn’t carry the same economic oomph as crude oil. Even so, “degrading or destroying” doesn’t have a ring to it. Obama’s intellectualism and inherent caution are not bad properties by themselves, but every once in a while he should consider whether the verbal equivalent of bareknuckle boxing would be more suited to the occasion. History, as always, provides an example, this time from almost exactly 110 years ago.

Gregorios Perdicaris emigrated from Greece to the United States around the 1830’s, and being an enterprising type he started a textile business in South Carolina. His business grew, and he opened up other manufacturing operations in New Jersey. When he died, his son Ion Perdicaris took over a fairly substantial business empire.

By 1904 Ion Perdicaris had retired, and he, his wife Ellen and his son, Cromwell, were living in a lovely villa on the coast of North Africa overlooking the Mediterranean and enjoying the sunsets. One night in the spring of that year, the Perdicaris home was raided by a sharif (or, as some would term him, a Berber bandit) named Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, a/k/a the Raisuli. The Raisuli kidnapped Ion and Cromwell Perdicaris, but left his wife Ellen behind. That may seem a somewhat gallant gesture, but somebody had to raise a ransom, and who better than the loving wife and mother.

1904 was a presidential election year in which Theodore Roosevelt was running against the now forgotten Alton B. Parker. (Who?) Other candidates for the Democratic nomination included William Jennings Bryan and Citizen Kane himself, William Randolph Hearst. A substantial faction in the Republican party disliked Roosevelt and his radical trust-busting ways, and the two big issues in the campaign, the gold standard and the Panama Canal, didn’t really hold a lot of emotional appeal.

Then news of the Raisuli’s kidnapping of an American broke. This was a gift to TR. While the American public watched, he would have another chance to charge up San Juan Hill, or whatever the corresponding hill was called in the Atlas Mountains.

Roosevelt dispatched seven U.S. Navy warships to North Africa, including a contingent of Marines. That made the news and caught the public’s attention. The Marines ultimately went ashore to guard Ellen Perdicaris from any further predation.

Raisuli actually treated Perdicaris and his son quite well, in contrast to what we would expect today from ISIS.

When the Republican National Convention began in Chicago that June, John Hay, Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, told the assembled throng that Roosevelt had issued an ultimatum:

Perdicaris alive or the Raisuli dead.

And the crowd went wild. A decisive President was acting to show that Americans overseas would not be left undefended.

What Hay neglected to tell the Republican delegates, though, was the slightly disconcerting news that they’d learned just as the seven battleships approached the North African coast: Perdicaris was not an American citizen after all.

Shortly after Ion Perdicaris took over the business, Fort Sumter was fired on and the Civil War broke out. In 1862, the Confederate States of America adopted legislation to confiscate all property in the CSA owned by United States citizens. In order to avoid this confiscation, Ion Perdicaris sailed to Greece, renounced his U.S. citizenship, and became a citizen of Greece. The family business was saved.

But why let mere facts get in the way of campaign momentum?

There are a few lessons here. First, make sure you check all your facts before you send warships overseas with loaded guns. That’s a point in Obama’s favor, because he is at least careful.

But if you’re going to rouse the American people, you have to put aside that polished demeanor for a little while and show a few sharp and rough edges. Imagine what would have happened if Teddy Roosevelt’s messaging for the Perdicaris Incident had been “We intend to degrade or destroy the Raisuli.”

Alton B. Parker would have had a fighting chance that November.

The Perdicaris Incident is all but forgotten today, but it did play a large role in American popular culture. The American press played up the angle of Raisuli as a gentleman bandit. Rudolf Valentino later modeled his silent film role as the Sheik of Araby on the Raisuli. And the Perdicaris Incident was the basis for the 1970’s film “The Wind and the Lion,” with Sean Connery as the Raisuli (the first North African Berber warrior with a Scots accent.) Of course, the movie changed things around so that the wife, played by Candice Bergen, was the one who gets kidnapped. Brian Keith played TR.

Sean Connery as The Raisuli, 1975

Sean Connery as The Raisuli, 1975

Not a bad likeness between Connery and the original.

Candace B_ and the Scots Raisuli. He even let her carry the shotgun.

Candace B_ and the Scots Raisuli. He even let her carry the shotgun.

Obama might well have watched a little bit of “Wind and the Lion” in the White House theater.

“Foley and Sotloff alive or ISIS dead” would have had much better resonance.

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