Only twelve years ago, the Republic of Turkey was correctly seen as a stalwart NATO ally, the model of a pro-Western Muslim state, and a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. A strong military bond with the Pentagon undergirded broader economic and cultural ties with Americans. For those of us who work on the Middle East, time in Istanbul, Ankara, and other Turkish cities was a refreshing oasis from the turmoil of the region.
And then, starting with the still-astonishing election of 2002, the country dramatically changed course. Slowly at first and then with increasing velocity since mid-2011, the government began breaking its own laws, turned autocratic, and allied with the enemies of the United States. Even those most reluctant to recognize this shift have been forced to do so. If Barack Obama listed Turkey’s dominant political leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as one of his five best foreign friends in 2012, he showed a quite different attitude by having a mere chargé d’affaires represent him at Erdoğan’s presidential inauguration a few weeks ago – a public slap in the face.
What caused this shift? Why did Turkey go rotten?
To understand today’s unexpected circumstances requires a quick glance back to the Ottoman Empire. Founded in 1299, its control over substantial part of the European continent (mainly the Balkan area, named after the Turkish word for mountain) made it the only Muslim polity to engage intensely with Europe as Western Christians rose to become the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet. As the Ottoman Empire weakened relative to other European powers over the centuries, how to dispose of it became a major concern of European diplomacy (the “Eastern Question”) and the empire came to be seen as potential prey (the “sick man of Europe.”)
From the Ottoman perspective, the endlessly unresolved question was what to adopt from Europe and what to reject. In general, the Ottomans found military and medical innovations to be the most palatable. In other areas, they dithered; for example, while the Jews published the empire’s first movable-type book in 1493, Muslims waited centuries until 1729 – to follow suit. In other words, accepting European ways was a slow, difficult, and sporadic process.
The Turkish defeat in World War I occurred against this backdrop, prompting the army’s outstandingly victorious general, Mustafa Kemal, to seize power and close down the empire in favor of the Republic of Turkey, far smaller and limited mainly to Turkish language-speakers. For the new country’s first 15 years, 1923-38, Mustafa Kemal (who renamed himself Atatürk) dominated the country. A strong willed Westernizer who despised Islam, he imposed a sequence of radical changes that characterize the country to this day, and make it conspicuously different from the rest of the Middle East, including laicism (i.e., secularism on steroids), codes of law based on European prototypes, the Latin alphabet, and family surnames.
In some cases, Atatürk advanced well ahead of his countrymen, such as when he proposed placing pews in mosques or changing the call to prayer from Arabic to Turkish. Starting almost immediately after his death in 1938, a reversal from his secularism began. But the Turkish military, in its dual role as the country’s ultimate political power and the self-conscious heir of Atatürk’s legacy, placed limits on these changes. The first serious efforts began with the advent of democracy in the 1950s, with many subsequent efforts, none successful.
The military, however, is a force neither for creativity nor intellectual growth, so the adages of Atatürk, unceasingly repeated over the decades, became stale and restricting. As dissent increased, the parties holding to his 1920s vision stagnated, degenerating into corrupt, power-seeking organizations. By the 1990s, their revolving-door governments had alienated a sizeable portion of the electorate.
The AKP’s Rise
Seizing the moment, Erdoğan and another Islamist politician, Abdullah Gül, founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001. Promising good government and economic growth based on conservative values, it performed impressively in its inaugural election of November 2002, winning just over one-third of the vote. But because the pashas of the old-line parties refused to cooperate among themselves, only one, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), won more than the minimum 10 percent of the vote the constitution requires to gain representation in parliament.
With nearly half the votes thus wasted, the AKP’s 34 percent of the vote translated into 66 percent of the seats in parliament, turning a handsome plurality into a resounding victory. In the subsequent elections of 2007 and 2011, its opponents learned not to squander their votes, so the AKP had the ironic fate of increasing its percentage of the vote (to 46 and 50 percent) while losing seats in parliament (to 62 and 59 percent).
Erdoğan vigorously controlled himself at first, focusing on economic growth and removing the detritus of Turkish public life, such as the long-standing refusal to acknowledge that Kurds are not Turks, settling the Cyprus problem, and joining the European Union. He went from strength to strength, wracking up Chinese-like rates of economic growth, emerging as a power broker in the Middle East (for example, between Jerusalem and Damascus), and emerging as the West’s favorite Islamist. In the process, he seemed to solve the centuries’ old conundrum of Islam vs. the West, finding a successful blend of the two.
Bringing the military to heel, however, remained the long-term AKP goal: it was the necessary condition to achieving its ultimate goal of reversing the Atatürk revolution and returning Turkey to an Ottoman-like domestic order and international standing. This it achieved with surprising ease; for reasons still unclear, the leadership of the armed forces quietly endured the conspiracy theories flung at it, the arrests of top officers, and finally the firing of the general staff. The anticipated high drama resulted in hardly a whimper.
As the military surrendered, Erdoğan took aim at his domestic rivals, especially his long-time ally, the Islamist Fethullah Gülen, the leader of a massive national movement with networks placed in key government institutions. Erdoğan’s populist flamboyance played very well with his constituency – Turks who felt oppressed by Atatürkism. Encouraged, he emerged as a full-blown bombaster in June 2013 with the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul, lashing out against fellow citizens with demeaning insults and bringing a group of soccer fans to trial on charges of attempting to overthrow his government.
Dramatic evidence of AKP corruption that came to light in December 2013 prompted not a retreat but the arrest of the police who uncovered the problem. This aggression extended to opponents in the media, parliament, and even the justice system. As Erdoğan demonized his critics, he delighted his base, winning each election and accruing more personal power, reminding some of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
International relations followed the same outlines, with an initial set of modest foreign goals becoming, over time, ever grander and more hostile. A “zero problems with neighbors” policy enunciated by his chief foreign policy advisor, Ahmet Davutoğlu, began successfully: a joint vacation with the tyrant of Damascus, helping the mullahs in Tehran avoid sanctions, and mutually beneficial if tepid relations with the Jewish state. Even long-time foes such as Greece and Armenia benefited from his charm offensive. The great powers sought good relations. The AKP’s neo-Ottoman dream of acquiring primacy among its former colonials seemed attainable.
But then Erdoğan displayed the very arrogance abroad that he had unleashed at home, and to much worse reviews; if half the Turkish electorate applauded his tongue-lashings, few foreigners did. As the Arab upheavals changed the Middle East beginning in 2011, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu found their accomplishments slipping away, to the point that Ankara now has poor to venomous relations with many of its neighbors.
The break with Bashar al-Assad of Syria, perhaps the most dramatic of his losses, has had many negative consequences, bringing to Turkey millions of unwelcome Arabic-speaking refugees, causing a proxy war with Iran, obstructing Turkish trade routes to much of the Middle East, and creating jihadi forces which produced the Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliphate. Turkish support for the Sunnis of Iraq precipitated a collapse in relations with Baghdad. A Nazi-like hostility to Israel terminated Ankara’s strongest regional bond. Erdoğan’s ardent support for Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, which lasted one year, 2012-13, transmuted later into open hostility toward its successors. Threats against the Republic of Cyprus in the aftermath of its discovery of gas, further soured an already adversarial relationship. Turkish contractors lost more than $19 billion in Libya’s anarchy.
Internationally, a feint in the direction of buying a Chinese missile system brought security relations with Washington to a new low. Calls for the millions of Turks living in Germany not to assimilate into that country created tensions with Berlin, as did Ankara’s possible role in the murder of three Kurds in Paris.
These outrages have left Ankara nearly friendless. It enjoys warm relations with exactly one government, Qatar (national population 225,000), along with the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq and with the Muslim Brotherhood, including that organization’s Hamas and Syrian offshoots. Strangely, despite this thundering failure, Erdoğan continues to endorse the failed “zero problems” policy.
Erdoğan’s impressive record of electoral success and expanded power faces three challenges over the next year: electoral, psychological, and economic. His ascent to the presidency on August 28 requires constitutional changes for him to become the strong executive president he aspires to be. In turn, those changes require the AKP to do well in the June 2015 national elections; or, alternatively, to make substantial concessions to Turkish Kurds to win their support for his ambitions. Now that the party finds itself in the untested hands of Davutoğlu, recently promoted from foreign minister to prime minister, its ability to win the necessary seats is in doubt.
Second, Erdoğan’s fate depends on Davutoğlu remaining his faithful consigliere. Should Davutoğlu develop independent ambitions, which is entirely possible, Erdoğan will find himself limited to a mostly-ceremonial post.
Lastly, the shaky Turkish economy depends on foreign hot money seeking higher rates of return, vast undocumented flows of money from the Gulf States whose provenance and continuity are both questionable, and a host of infrastructure projects to continue growing. Here, Erdoğan’s highly erratic behavior (ranting against what he calls the “interest lobby” and against rating agencies such as Moody’s and Fitch, and even against the New York Times) discourages further investment while a huge debt overhang threatens to leave the country bankrupt.
So, while his unbroken record of success makes one inclined to bet on Erdoğan’s continuing domination of Turkish politics, major obstacles do exist that could end his winning streak. His symbiosis of learning from the West while remaining loyal to Islamic ways might yet implode.
With its youthful population of 75 million, a central location, control of a key waterway, and eight mostly problematic neighbors, Turkey is a highly desirable ally. In addition, it enjoys a position of prominence in the Middle East, among Turkic-speakers from Bosnia to Xinjiang, and among Muslims worldwide. The U.S.-Turkish alliance that began with the Korean War has been highly advantageous to Washington, which is understandably loath to lose it.
That said, one side alone cannot sustain an alliance. Ankara’s record of friendly relations with Tehran, support for Hamas and the Islamic State, undermining the authority of Baghdad, virulence toward Israel, and threats against Cyprus make its membership in NATO questionable at best and duplicitous at worst.
Washington must signal that the bully tactics winning votes within Turkey fail in the rest of the world. The Wall Street Journal has helpfully proposed moving a U.S. military base in Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan. Erdoğan’s increasingly dictatorial rule must be repudiated as should Ankara’s continued occupation of Cyprus, its support for terrorists, and its antisemitic effusions. Beyond these steps, the time has come for the U.S. government to make clear that unless major changes occur quickly, it will push for Turkey’s suspension and eventual expulsion from NATO.
If Erdoğan insists on acting the rogue, then that’s how its former ally should treat him.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Weekly Standard