The Trouble With Turkey
From the Oct. 17, 2011, issue of NR.


Michael Rubin

‘We stand together on the major issues that divide the world,” Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower declared in Ankara while preparing to depart Turkey, on a cold and windy day in December 1959. “And I can see no reason whatsoever that we shouldn’t be two of the sturdiest partners standing together always for freedom, security, and the pursuit of peace.”


It took almost a half century, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, has succeeded in ending that partnership. Certainly Turkey no longer stands for freedom. Like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Erdogan roughs up and imprisons those who challenge him. In 2002, the year before Erdogan became prime minister, Turkey ranked 99th in the world in press freedom out of 139 nations rated by Reporters Without Borders. By 2010, it ranked 138th out of 178, barely nosing out Russia and finishing below even Zimbabwe. Nor can American officials any longer say that America’s relationship with Turkey bolsters national security. Just one year ago, the Turkish air force held secret war games with its Chinese counterparts without first informing the Pentagon. Erdogan has also deferred final approval of a new NATO anti-missile warning system. Meanwhile, Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s new intelligence chief, makes little secret of his preference for Tehran over Washington.


More recently, Erdogan’s anti-Israel incitement propelled Turkey to a leadership role within the Islamic bloc at the expense of the Middle East peace process, and for the first time raised the possibility that Israel and Turkey, historic friends in trade, diplomacy, and defense, might clash in the Eastern Mediterranean. Making matters worse, Egemen Bagis, Erdogan’s longtime confidant and current minister for European Union affairs, threatened this month to use the Turkish navy against Cyprus should that island nation drill for oil in international waters.


While diplomats and generals too often ascribe tensions between Turkey and the West to a reaction to the Iraq War, disappointment with the slow pace of the European Union–accession process, or anger at the death of nine Turks killed in a clash with Israeli forces aboard the blockade-challenging Mavi Marmara, in reality, Turkey’s break from the West was the result of a deliberate and steady strategy initiated by Erdogan upon assuming the reins of government.


The rise of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) in Turkey’s November 2002 general elections shocked the West. The AKP had its roots in Refah, a party founded in 1983 by Islamist ideologue Necmettin Erbakan after the Turkish constitutional court had banned two previous parties modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood. The court dissolved Refah in 1998, the same year Erdogan went to prison for religious incitement. After his release, Erdogan founded the AKP out of the ashes of the banned parties.


Because five secularist parties split the vote in 2002, each falling short of the 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, the AKP was able to amplify its 34 percent vote into an outright majority — 363 out of 550 seats. As the world press highlighted the party’s ties with Islam, Erdogan tried to calm fears. “We are the guarantors of this secularism, and our management will clearly prove that,” he promised.


At the time of the AKP victory, however, Erdogan’s conviction still disqualified him from seeking political office, even though he was party leader. Erdogan accordingly chose Abdullah Gul, who previously had worked for eight years in Saudi Arabia as an Islamic-finance specialist, to head the government. Gul would not be prime minister for long, however. The AKP was able to use its majority to change the law and enable Erdogan to run for office. Four months later, after a court conveniently threw out the results in one district, he won a special election, and on March 14, 2003, he became prime minister.


American officials initially welcomed Erdogan. The U.S. embassy in Ankara accepted his pledge to embrace Europe. Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, described the AKP as “a kind of Muslim version of a Christian Democratic party,” while Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Turkey as a “Muslim democracy.” Turkish liberals chafed at this description, believing it to endorse Erdogan’s Islamism. “We are a democracy. Islam has nothing to do with it,” one Turkish professor explained. Yet even if unintentionally, Powell may have been on to something: While American officials continued to endorse Turkey as a partner and a country bridging East and West, Erdogan and his confidants were quietly setting Turkey on a different course.