The Mideast's Next Dilemma

By Ferguson, Niall | Newsweek, June 27, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Mideast's Next Dilemma


Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek


Byline: Niall Ferguson

With Turkey flexing its muscles, we may soon face a revived Ottoman Empire.

On one issue the Republican contenders and the president they wish to replace are in agreement: the United States should reduce its military presence in the Greater Middle East. The preferred arguments are that America cannot afford to be engaged in combat operations in far-flung countries and that such operations are futile anyway.

The question no one wants to answer is what will come after the United States departs. The "happily ever after" scenario is that one country after another will embrace Western democracy. The nightmare scenario is either civil war or Islamist revolution. But a third possible outcome is a revived Ottoman Empire.

An Anatolian dynasty established on the ruins of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans were the standard-bearers of Islam after their conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453. Their empire extended deep into Central Europe, including Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary.

Having established Ottoman rule from Baghdad to Basra, from the Caucasus to the mouth of the Red Sea, and right along the Barbary Coast, Suleiman the Magnificent could claim: "I am the Sultan of Sultans, the Sovereign of Sovereigns -- the shadow of God upon Earth." The 17th century saw further Ottoman expansion into Crete and even western Ukraine.

Over the next two centuries, however, the empire became "the sick man of Europe," losing most of its Balkan and North African possessions. World War I proved fatal; only the old Anatolian heartland was reconstituted as the Turkish republic. The rest was carved up between Britain and France.

And that seemed to be the end of the Ottoman era. Until very recently, the question people asked about Turkey was whether (or even when) it could join the European Union. Staunchly pro-American in the Cold War, the Turks seemed to have their gaze fixed unwaveringly on the West, just as the republic's founder, Kemal Ataturk, had intended.

But since 2003, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected prime minister, that has changed. …

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