U.S. democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East have been based on a bizarre notion: that U.S. society can serve as a model for the region. Talk about a tough sell. Congress is a bruising rugby scrum, and the U.S. economy is a shambles. U.S. warplanes and drones target Muslims abroad, and Islamophobia permeates the political discourse at home. Washington has supported Arab dictators and stood by Israel through thick and thin.

We’re telling the world about the benefits of fruits and vegetables and then turning around to sell what looks like wormy apples and rotten tomatoes. No wonder that U.S. public diplomacy has largely fallen flat in the Middle East.

As the U.S. brand sits dusty on the shelves, consumers in the Middle East are eagerly lining up for the competing product: Turkey. Here’s a predominantly Muslim country that has become more democratic even as it raises its religious profile. The ruling party, which draws inspiration from political Islam, retained its parliamentary majority in elections last June, giving Recep Tayyip Erdogan a third term as prime minister. Erdogan is using this mandate at home to push through a new constitution, consolidate political power (in some unsavory ways), sustain the booming economy, and expand its trademark “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy.

Actually, make that zero problems with most neighbors. Unlike the United States, Turkey has decided that it will no longer put up with Israel. This month, Ankara officially downgraded diplomatic relations with the region’s rogue democracy and thereby upgraded its reputation in the Arab world. This dustup is all the more remarkable since the two countries were, until recently, best buddies who enjoyed a close military relationship worth $3.5 billion last year in arms deals. Then, in May 2010, Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, a boat in the flotilla aiming to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and killed nine people, all of them Turkish. Israel failed to apologize or provide compensation. And the blockade remains in place against Gaza. Turkey has pledged to send a military escort with the next humanitarian flotilla, which could ratchet up tensions considerably.

“We have got nothing against the people of Israel, but against the attitude of the government of Israel,” Erdogan has said. Perhaps with this in mind, Turkey has nonetheless maintained considerable non-military trade with Israel. At the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Turkey remains a trading power, and business is business.

Standing up to Israel is not the only policy that has endeared Turkey to the Arab world. “Starting with the Jasmine Revolution, Turkey began to condemn violent crackdowns and encourage leaders to listen to the voice of the people,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Richard Javad Heydarian in Arab Spring, Turkish Harvest. “Ankara explicitly welcomed the strongly secular, populist, and even liberal character of the popular uprisings, setting itself apart from other regional powers.” When Prime Minister Erdogan visited Cairo earlier this month, thousands of Egyptians came out on the street to greet him as if he were a rock star.

Turkey’s embrace of the Palestinian cause has been the natural corollary to its confrontation of Israel. Erdogan has been one of the key powerbrokers lining up UN General Assembly support for Palestine’s bid for statehood (which the United States has unwisely promised to veto in the Security Council). Erdogan declined to visit Gaza on his latest tour through the Middle East but has signaled that he very much wants to become the first major leader to visit the shunned area.

Erdogan is not simply embracing the usual suspects in his effort to expand Turkish influence. “The courageous visit to Mogadishu earlier this summer by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and members of his government opened Somalia up to the rest of the world and helped restore international confidence in the relative security of the city,” writes FPIF contributor Abdinur Mohamud in The Balkanization of Somalia. “The visit created more opportunities for other delegations to witness the crisis firsthand.”

Turkey, as I explain in a roundtable discussion on Russia Today, is employing the soft power that we generally associate with superpowers such as the United States or the European Union. Turkish diplomats are working as intermediaries in difficult conflicts; Turkish companies are investing billions of dollars overseas; Turkish schools are being established all over the world. The benefits that accrue to Turkey are enormous. In Egypt alone, Erdogan signed agreements to boost trade and investment by billions of dollars.

“Our world is fed up with wars,” Erdogan has declared. “We do not want a world in which trillions of dollars are spent on defense industry.”

Pretty words and admirable sentiments, but Turkey is not all soft power. The Turkish military may have lost much of its political power with the arrest and resignation of a whole tier of generals, but the government still spends more on arms than any other country in the Middle East except Saudi Arabia. And it continues to use those arms, whether as part of the garrison force in northern Cyprus or in cross-border attacks against the Kurdish separatist organization PKK that has been operating for some time in northern Iraq. Turkey remains a key NATO member, even if it has asserted its independence over the years (most famously in 2003, when the Turkish parliament refused to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish bases to attack Iraq). No surprise, then, that the United States recently promised to sell Predator drones to help Turkey in its fight against Kurdish separatists. And Ankara has agreed to host a new U.S. radar base as part of the controversial U.S. missile defense system. The system is ostensibly designed to protect against Iranian missile attacks. But this hasn’t prevented Turkey from establishing joint operations with Iran to fight the PKK.

Such a nuanced approach to both the United States and Iran suggests that it takes a great deal to push Turkey into a wholly confrontational approach. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took Israel beyond the pale by attacking Gaza in 2009 and killing Turkish civilians engaged in civil disobedience. Israel’s latest moves have been equally galling to the Turkish leadership. Teaming up with Cyprus and Greece, Israel is exploring for oil in the eastern Mediterranean in areas that could otherwise benefit Turkish Cypriots and the residents of Gaza. Turkey has threatened to send a warship to accompany its own research vessel. Business, after all, is business, and Turkey will defend its commercial interests.

Turkey’s challenge to Israel has not won it many admirers in the United States. Even Morton Abramowitz and Henri Barkey, who have generally looked favorably on the Turkish renaissance, have warned that Erdogan is overreaching. But the United States and the European Union must really shoulder the blame, if blame must be apportioned to a country other than Israel. The Obama administration has not been particularly adroit in its response to the Arab Spring or in its half-hearted criticisms of Israel. These failures have created a vacuum that Turkey has gladly filled. The European Union, meanwhile, has not moved forward on bringing Turkey in as a member, which has encouraged Turkey to look elsewhere for friends. If you don’t want us, we don’t want you, Turkish President Abdullah Gul effectively said in Berlin last week. Turkey, after all, has lots of irons in the fire.

Egypt under Gamal Nasser was once the pole star of Arab nationalism. Saudi Arabia became the exporter of conservative Wahhabism. Iran established itself as the center of the Shi’a revival. And now Turkey has put itself forward as this year’s model. Even the United States can’t resist falling in behind the market leader. Washington is working closely with Ankara to prepare for a post-Assad future in Syria. After joining the calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down, Turkey has been opening its borders to Syrian refugees and dissidents. Whether funding the Libyan rebels or providing early support for the Egyptian protestors or reaching out to Somalia or attempting to prepare Syria for a soft landing, Turkey has become the indispensible power.

In the new Middle East, Israel has become even more isolated. It has lost its authoritarian allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, as well as its democratic friends, like Turkey. The United States, meanwhile, has long claimed to be the democratic model for the region and an “honest broker” for Middle East peace. But unqualified support for Israel has meant that the United States has, as FPIF contributor Chris Toensing concludes in Blocking Palestinian Statehood, “lost all credibility.”

Turkey, on the other hand, has become the Dale Carnegie of the region: winning friends and influencing people for thousands of miles around.

Past Injustices

The United States has yet to come to terms with many injustices of the past. In the case of Agent Orange, new allegations have emerged from U.S. veterans that the U.S. Army buried barrels and barrels of the highly toxic chemical at military bases in South Korea and Japan. The allegations haven’t received an enormous amount of press in the United States. But the press in Japan and Korea have followed the story closely. And so have anti-base activists.

“The testimonies of U.S. veterans – coming from the servicemen themselves, rather than from marginalized local groups – have injected new energy into the anti-base movements in both countries,” writes FPIF contributor Ikhwan Kim in Confronting Agent Orange. “With the allegations coming amid a regional realignment of U.S. forces in full swing, the general public in both South Korea and Japan seems to be paying unusually close attention to the U.S. bases on their soil.”

A more recent injustice concerns Spanish television journalist José Couso, killed by a U.S. tank during the first days of the Iraq War in 2003. “With scores of embedded journalists serving as military stenographers of the invading, and later the occupying armies, independent journalists were cast as unwilling participants in the other war being fought in Baghdad in 2003 – the war that claimed the life of José Couso among others: the war against witness,” writes FPIF contributor V. Noah Gimbel in The War against Witness. “It was that war that George W. Bush was waging when he ominously warned all un-embedded journalists to leave Baghdad and follow the war from Central Command Headquarters in Qatar.”

And, of course, we are all still dealing with the decade of war that the Bush administration bequeathed to America and the world. “Ten years after 9/11, the United States is definitely still the premier global power, but it is a much diminished one,” writes FPIF columnist Walden Bello in Why Al-Qaeda Won. “Osama bin Laden’s outrageous action did not adhere to the Guevarist playbook of igniting a thousand Islamic fires, but it ended up achieving his strategic aim of bringing about U.S. overextension by providing the opportunity for Bush and the neoconservatives to try to realize their equally implausible dream of achieving unchallengeable military supremacy globally.”

The Fires of War

Karachi is Pakistan’s most important port. It is a key node in the supply line for the war in Afghanistan. And it has been the locus of tremendous violence over the summer, with more than 400 people dead.

“So far, there have been no attacks on U.S. convoys around Karachi compared with other areas along the route,” writes FPIF contributor Tahir Qazi in Karachi’s Long Summer of Violence. “The tide could turn at any time, however, given how many competing interests lie so close to Pakistan’s economic jugular. This is truly a ‘wicked problem,’ as social planners define challenges characterized by complex interdependencies that defy easy solutions.”

Congo faces an even greater set of intractable problems. “More than 5.4 million perished in the region between 1998 and 2003, and an estimated 45,000 continue to die monthly due to malnutrition, disease, and violence,” writes Patrick Cannon in Stabilizing Congo. “All parties in the conflict have effectively institutionalized rape as a weapon of war. And untold amounts of minerals and wealth have left the country, without the slightest trace of economic or social benefit for most of the 72 million denizens of the DRC, the vast majority of whom live on less than $2 per day, rely on a decrepit infrastructure with fewer passable roads than in 1959, and face a life expectancy of 48 years.”

Follow the link to see his recommendations on how to deal with this legacy of war.