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Debating Democracy



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CFR’s Steven Cook, always a serious analyst and thoughtful on Egypt and Turkey, has a new blog at the CFR website in which he talks about renewed efforts in Washington to push for reform in Egypt. In the course of this, he writes:

My neo-conservative friends argue that Turkey needs more democracy.  I agree, though I do not believe that Turkey needs more democracy because Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is either in the thrall of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  Rather, Turkey is in the intermediate stage of a transition to democracy, which means that it will more often than not manifest both democratic and authoritarian tendencies. As an aside, the irony of the neoconservative argument is stunning:  The neoconservatives were, after all, in the thrall of Ankara when Turkey was decidedly not democratic and firmly under military tutelage.  Also, it strikes me as odd that when a democracy does begin to emerge in overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey, they don’t like it.  I smell a logical flaw.

Certainly, transformative diplomacy is complex. So too is democracy. The problem with democratization is the tendency of American policymakers to take people at face value and treat anyone who describes themselves as a democrat as one. Algerian Islamists certainly weren’t committed to democratic ideals in the early 1990s, hence Edward Djerejian’s 1992 Meridian House speech in which he said, “We are suspect of those who would use the democratic process to come to power, only to destroy that very process in order to retain power and political dominance,” and added, “While we believe in the principle of ‘one person, one vote,’ we do not support ‘one person, one vote, one time.’”

Condoleezza Rice bungled the Palestinian elections before they even began by granting Hamas democratic legitimacy even when it refused to lay down its arms. Hamas may have won the Palestinian elections, but when voters must fear being kneecapped or worse if they vote the wrong way, that’s no democracy. Ditto with Hezbollah in Lebanon. And, I admit, I don’t see any great democratic hope in the Muslim Brotherhood, and think they would do more to repel liberal democratic alternatives than they would to enable them. I think Peter Beinart, Tamara Cofman Wittes, and Robert Kagan have made a mistake in this regard.

Now let’s talk Turkey. The use of the neoconservative straw man is below Cook. The idea that neoconservatives are Borg (sorry for the Star Trek analogy, K-Lo) and that they somehow derive single lines and interpretations or even know and talk to each other is silly. It is also silly to dismiss Turkey’s backsliding as somehow just hiccups in “intermediate stage of a transition to democracy.” I would disagree with Cook that Turkey pre-AKP was so anti-democratic. Turkish politics was chaotic, and elections meant something. The military guaranteed the constitution and, on rare occasions, stepped in when one party or another tried to violate the constitution. In each case, they returned power to civilian authorities relatively quickly. Now, I agree it would be better if the military didn’t have a role, but deconstructing the military without creating an alternate check-and-balance isn’t an “intermediate stage” but rather an invitation to the evisceration of democracy, something I wrote about frequently while other neoconservatives — as well as self-described realists and the State Department — were singing the AKP’s praises.

Cook is wrong about Erdogan not being in the thrall of Vladimir Putin. The AKP has renewed its war on the free press and since the referendum a couple months ago, it has also turned its sights on the judiciary. In recent days, the AKP has actually ordered media censorship about its arrest of a prosecutor who was investigating conservative religious organizations. The EU and major human-rights groups remain silent in the face of such outrages. Likewise, when Erdogan uses his position to push oil-pipeline contracts to his son-in-law, that’s the sign of an ego out of control, not a man with any democratic tendencies. There is no logical flaw, as Cook suggests, because Turkey is sliding away from democracy, not reforming toward it.

The AKP is a prime example of why the White House and State Department shouldn’t be so hands-off about democratic transitions, and why it’s wise to be unrelenting in pressuring both the autocrats in Egypt and the theocrats to allow real reform and liberal democratic transition. The status quo has been too costly. So too are the excuses made for Turkey’s excesses.



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