Smack on its 60th anniversary, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization finds itself facing a completely novel problem – that of radical Islam, as represented by the Republic of Turkey, within its own ranks.
Ankara joined NATO in 1951 and shortly after Turkish forces fought valiantly with the allies in Korea. Turks stood tough against the Soviet Union for decades. Following the United States, Turkey has the second-largest number of troops in the alliance.
With the end of the Cold War, NATO's mission changed and some saw Islamism as the new strategic enemy. Already in 1995, NATO Secretary General Willy Claes compared Islamism to the historic foe: "Fundamentalism is at least as dangerous as communism was." With the Cold War over, he added, "Islamic militancy has emerged as perhaps the single gravest threat to the NATO alliance and to Western security."
Indeed, NATO first invoked Article 5 of its charter, calling on "collective self-defense," to go to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, responding to the 9/11 attacks launched from that country.
More recently, former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar argues that "Islamist terrorism is a new shared threat of a global nature that places the very existence of NATO's members at risk" and advocates that the alliance focus on combating "Islamic jihadism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." He calls for "placing the war against Islamic jihadism at the center of the Allied strategy."
Claes and Aznar are right; but their vision is now in jeopardy, for Islamists have penetrated the 28-state alliance, as was dramatically illustrated in recent days.
Prime ministers Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left) and Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2002.
As the term of Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer concludes in July, a consensus had emerged to make Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, 56, his successor. But Fogh Rasmussen was in office in early 2006, when the Muhammad cartoon crisis erupted and he insisted that as prime minister he had no authority to tell a private newspaper what not to publish. This position won him much criticism from Muslims, including Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who instructed Fogh Rasmussen
at the time that "Freedoms have limits, what is sacred should be respected."
When Fogh Rasmussen came up for the NATO post, Erdoğan continued his grudge, saying that his government looks "negatively" on Fogh Rasmussen's candidacy because, Erdoğan explained, "I asked for a meeting of Islamic leaders in his country to explain what is going on and he refrained from doing that. So how can I expect him to contribute to peace?"
Eventually, Fogh Rasmussen was selected as the consensus candidate, but at a steep price. The Dane won the job only after engaging in intensive negotiations with Turkish president Abdullah Gül hosted by Barack Obama. Fogh Rasmussen promised to appoint at least two Turks and publicly to address Muslim concerns about his response to the cartoons. More broadly, Erdoğan announced. Obama "gave us guarantees" concerning Turkish reservations about Fogh Rasmussen.
The hoops that Fogh Rasmussen had to jump through to win Ankara's support can be inferred from his cringe-inducing, dhimmi-like remarks on winning the appointment: "As secretary general of NATO, I will make a very clear outreach to the Muslim world to ensure cooperation and intensify dialogue with the Muslim world. I consider Turkey a very important ally and strategic partner and I will cooperate with them in our endeavors to ensure the best cooperation with Muslim world."
We appear to be witnessing the emergence not of a robust NATO following the Claes-Aznar model, one leading the fight against radical Islam, but an institution hobbled from within, incapable of standing up to the main strategic threat for fear of offending a member government.
Nor is Islamism NATO's only problem with Turkey. In what is emerging as a Middle Eastern cold war, with Tehran leading one faction and Riyadh the other, Ankara has repeatedly sided with the former – hosting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, advocating for Iran's nuclear program, developing an Iranian oil field, transferring Iranian arms to Hezbollah, openly supporting Hamas, viciously condemning Israel, and turning Turkish public opinion against the United States.
Noting these changes, columnist Caroline Glick urges Washington to "float the notion of removing Turkey from NATO." The Obama administration is not about to do that; but before Ankara renders NATO toothless, dispassionate observers should carefully think this argument through.
Apr. 6, 2009 update: Despite his strong statements about having no intenion to apologize for the cartoons, Fogh Rasmussen did just that in Istanbul today while participating on a panel at a conference aimed at building bridges between the Muslim world and the West:
I respect Islam as one of the world's major religions as well as its religious symbols. ... I was deeply distressed that the cartoons were seen by many Muslims as an attempt by Denmark to mark and insult or behave disrespectively towards Islam or the Prophet Mohammad. Nothing could be further from my mind.
He went on to promise: "During my tenure as the secretary general of NATO I will pay close attention to the religious and cultural sensibilities of the different communities that populate our increasingly pluralistic and globalised world."
Comment: What an opportunity lost; Fogh Rasmussen should have used the occasion to explain the nature of freedom of speech and how it extends even to Islamic topics.
Nov. 5, 2009 update: I pursue this topic at "Turkey Out of NATO: Other Voices."