Politics & Policy

The Trouble With Turkey

From the Oct. 17, 2011, issue of NR.

‘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.


In hindsight, Erdogan’s true agenda should have been clear. As Istanbul’s mayor, Erdogan had regularly disparaged secularism. “Thank God Almighty, I am a servant of sharia,” he declared in 1994, and the following year he described himself as “the imam of Istanbul.” Around the same time, Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar, who often serves as Erdogan’s unofficial mouthpiece, hinted that the new political class would end its embrace of Kemalism — the secular political philosophy inaugurated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. “We cannot stick to the old taboos while the world is changing and new opportunities are arising for Turkey,” he told the Washington Post. “We have to think big.” As Erdogan ascended to the premiership, Ali Bayramoglu, a commentator for the fiercely Islamist and anti-Western daily Yeni Safak, which Erdogan described as his newspaper of choice, bragged that the partisans of “neo-Ottomanism . . . are increasing every day.”


Bayramoglu cast neo-Ottomanism in opposition to Kemalism. If Kemalism combines laicism with the notion that Turkey should emulate the West, neo-Ottomanists focus less on Europe and instead seek to leverage Turkey’s imperial past in the Middle East, much as Russian nationalists embrace the former Soviet republics and even Eastern Europe as their “near abroad.”


Erdogan was shrewd, however. He did not publicly abandon Turkey’s drive toward European Union accession. To do so would have been to show his cards while his hand was still weak. Instead, he pursued the accession process for devious reasons.


The AKP has never respected Europe and its institutions. When the European Court of Human Rights upheld a headscarf ban at Turkish universities in November 2005, Erdogan used a visit to Denmark to declare, “It is wrong that those who have no connection to this field make such a decision . . . without consulting Islamic scholars.” The following year, Erdogan excised all references to secularism from a negotiating paper discussing the future of Turkey’s educational system.


Erdogan continued the EU-accession effort for one simple reason: The process required Turkey to reduce the military influence in politics. On the surface, this sounds beneficial to democracy: After all, the military had forcibly overthrown Turkish governments in 1960 and 1980, and in 1971 and 1997 the threat of military action was sufficient to force governments to resign. In reality, however, Turkey’s military enabled democracy. Not only was it charged with national defense, but it also served as the guarantor of Turkey’s constitution. If the Islamists wanted to end Turkey’s constitutional order, therefore, they first had to weaken the military.


With Europe’s blessing, Erdogan subordinated Turkey’s National Security Council to civilian control and passed a reform package that further reduced that body’s power in government. Never did European officials — or their American counterparts — recognize that they were undercutting an important check-and-balance system without constructing a civilian alternative. The 2005 threat by Bulent Arinc, now Erdogan’s chief deputy, to dissolve the constitutional court if it continued to find AKP legislation unconstitutional highlights the need for a constitutional guarantor. Erdogan further undercut the military with a crackdown on alleged malfeasance, imprisoning dozens of secularist officers on spurious charges. European officials, notoriously distrustful of hard power, seldom raised their voices, perhaps believing that the end justified the means.


By the time Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu acknowledged that neo-Ottomanism formed the basis of AKP foreign policy, in December 2009, Turkey had already changed irreversibly from the Western-leaning pillar of NATO into a state whose future rests in the Middle East.


As Erdogan feinted toward Europe, he pursued Arab states with vigor, often at the expense of both the United States and Israel. In July 2004, for example, Erdogan snubbed the Jewish state, saying he was too busy to meet Israel’s visiting deputy prime minister, but he nevertheless found time the same day to see Syria’s prime minister. The following year, Erdogan invited Syria’s president to vacation with him in Turkey, a dramatic reversal in relations considering that, less than a decade before, Turkey and Syria had been on the verge of war over Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism.


Likewise, in February 2006, Erdogan stunned American officials when, less than a month after Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections, and less than a week after he had told European officials that he would honor the international community’s decision to isolate Hamas until it renounced terrorism and recognized the Jewish state’s right to exist, Turkey received a Hamas delegation in Ankara. Turkish authorities defended their actions by arguing that they wanted good relations with all regional countries and that their ties with all parties enabled Turkey to broker peace, but the reality was the opposite: Every time Erdogan was forced to choose among Arab regimes, he invariably embraced the extreme at the expense of the moderate.


His outreach to Syria’s notorious dictator Bashar al-Assad, for example, came against the backdrop of the 2005 Cedar Revolution against Syrian-imposed rule in Lebanon. As the Western world rallied around the Lebanese people, Turkey was one of only two countries — the other being the Islamic Republic of Iran — that supported Syria. Likewise, when given a choice between the relatively moderate Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and that of Abbas’s rejectionist (anti-peace-process) opponents in Hamas, Erdogan not only sided with the latter but provided diplomatic legitimacy to Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s most unrepentant terrorist. In 2007, emergency personnel responding to a train derailment in Turkey found it to be carrying arms apparently destined for Hezbollah, the Syrian/Iranian-backed terrorist militia in Lebanon.


Erdogan’s support for extremists proved to be the rule rather than the exception. In this context, much of the press analysis surrounding Erdogan’s behavior at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos appears naïve. During a panel discussion with Israeli president Shimon Peres in which Peres defended Israel’s military response to Hamas, Erdogan shouted, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” and stormed off the stage vowing never to return. The New York Times explained that “Mr. Erdogan apparently became incensed after the moderator curtailed his response to remarks by Mr. Peres on the recent Israeli military campaign. The panel was running late, and Mr. Peres was to have had the last word.”


Turks, however, knew better. Engineers working on Istanbul’s metro system were told a day before the incident that the subway should not close at midnight as usual, but rather should remain open until 4:00 a.m., on the evening of the Davos blow-up. Other AKP activists received notices telling them to prepare for a dead-of-night rally. As Erdogan “spontaneously” curtailed his trip and flew home, 3,000 Palestinian-flag-waving supporters greeted his plane at 3:00 a.m. Pre-printed signs hailed Erdogan as a new world leader. Neither Erdogan’s attack on Peres nor the rally was spontaneous. Even in a city as vibrant as Istanbul, it is hard to purchase Palestinian flags by the thousand after the close of business.


Today, Erdogan tries to leverage Turkey’s position to create an impression that it is the chief power in the Middle East. Like his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has tried to hijack the Arab Spring quest for democracy to his own ends. In September, Erdogan embarked on a tour to Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, pledging support for their new governments and lobbying them to adopt the Turkish model. While Erdogan now speaks out against Assad and Qaddafi, Arabs know that Erdogan was for the region’s worst dictators before he was against them. As recently as November 2010, Erdogan even traveled to Tripoli to collect the Moammar Qaddafi human-rights prize — and its $250,000 purse — from the mercurial and murderous dictator. He used his acceptance speech to pledge his dedication to the “truth” and promised to spare no effort in holding Israel to account. 


Diplomats may concede that Turkey has become pro-Arab in its foreign policy, but this is only half the story. The rest is that Erdogan seeks not only to be pro-Arab, but also to head the region’s rejectionist front.


While Erdogan gives lip service to secularism when talking to Western diplomats, or at rallies where international media are present, his actions consistently show the importance he places on Muslim solidarity and Turkey’s place in the Islamic world. In June 2004, after significant Turkish lobbying and deal-making, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) selected Turkish professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as its new secretary general. AKP officials point to the Ihsanoglu appointment as a sign of Turkey’s increased prestige among Islamic countries.


The destructiveness of Turkey’s Islamist nexus first became apparent with the eruption of the Danish-cartoon controversy. On Sept. 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Initially, the cartoons passed with little notice in Denmark. It took two weeks for the first demonstration to occur there, and it was largely peaceful. On Oct. 17, 2005, the Egyptian newspaper Al Fagr even republished a half dozen of the caricatures without prompting so much as a demonstration. But by February 2006, the Middle East was aflame. 


Certainly the spread of rage was not spontaneous. First a delegation of Danish imams traveled from Denmark to Egypt with the controversial cartoons and some fraudulent ones to whip up outrage, then Saudi preachers poured gasoline on the fire. Behind the scenes, Turkey played a more active role than it will publicly acknowledge.


According to Danish officials, the crisis became internationalized after Turkey’s ambassador in Copenhagen called Gul, now Turkey’s president, who in turn instructed Ihsanoglu to exploit the cartoon issue. On Dec. 6, 2005, the OIC issued an official communiqué condemning Denmark and the cartoons. The next day, protests erupted in Pakistan, marking the beginning of violence that would claim more than a dozen lives. Erdogan sided fully with the Islamists. “Caricatures of Prophet Mohammed are an attack against our spiritual values,” he said, adding, “There should be a limit of freedom of the press.” Denmark quietly asked Turkey’s ambassador to leave.


Erdogan’s Islamism manifested itself even more disturbingly in the case of Yasin al-Qadi, a Saudi businessman alleged to have helped finance the East African embassy bombings in 1998. Not only did the U.S. Treasury Department label al-Qadi a “specially designated global terrorist” for his support of al-Qaeda, but the United Nations Security Council also placed him on its terrorism list and demanded that all countries freeze his funds. Enter Turkey’s prime minister: After Turkish newspapers reported that Erdogan confidant Cuneyd Zapsu had donated money to al-Qadi, his former business partner, Erdogan declared, “I know Mr. Qadi. I believe in him as I believe in myself,” and refused to discipline Zapsu or freeze al-Qadi’s funds in Turkey. As for Zapsu, he was the go-to man whom the New York Times relied upon the day after the AKP’s election to vouch for Erdogan’s secularism. “Everybody knows Tayyip Erdogan is not a shariat [Islamic-law] guy anymore,” Zapsu declared. 


Other financial transactions, however, suggest that Zapsu was not being truthful. No sooner had the AKP taken office than statistics provided by Turkey’s central bank showed an influx of more than $4 billion into Turkey for which reported transactions and tax receipts cannot account. A retired Turkish budget official attributed that figure to funds brought into Turkey off-books from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates. By 2006, Turkish economists estimated that this infusion of Islamist cash into the Turkish economy could be between $6 billion and $12 billion. Some Turkish intelligence officials privately suggest that the nation of Qatar is currently the source of most subsidies for the AKP and its projects.


From a Saudi perspective, the investment has paid dividends. Turkey today is not the secular, Western stalwart that presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton embraced. Rather, it is a state where Islamic mores are given increasing prominence, and where fealty to the Islamic world trumps NATO security. Indeed, while President Obama continues to praise Turkey as an important NATO ally, almost as many Turks may be fighting in Afghanistan against U.S. forces as part of the Taifetul Mansura group as are supporting the International Security Assistance Force.


Turkey has changed irreversibly. While it once emulated Europe and even elected a female prime minister, under Erdogan’s rule, women are relegated to minor ministries and make up less than 3 percent of senior management in the state bureaucracy. As he imposes more radical Islamist laws, justice-ministry statistics show that the murder rate of women has increased by 1,400 percent. No longer is Turkey a secular pillar in the Islamic world, nor does Turkish society reflect European liberalism.


Rather, Turkey has become a danger and a liability to the United States. As Erdogan has consolidated control of the media, his government has fed Turks a steady diet of anti-Americanism and religious incitement. In the latest Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, Turkey remains the most anti-American country surveyed, more anti-American than Pakistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.


Turkey’s sponsorship of the Mavi Marmara and Erdogan’s over-the-top reaction to the U.N.-appointed Palmer Committee’s mostly exculpatory findings concerning Israel in that incident are just symptoms of Turkey’s change, rather than the motivation for it. The real problem in Turkey cannot be papered over by diplomats, nor should the concerns of Turkish secularists and liberals ever again be dismissed as mere “cacophony,” as Ross Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, described them five years ago.


Rather than be a partner upon which the United States can rely, Turkey today endorses Iran’s nuclear program, supports — and may even supply — terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and actively undermines the peace process. As Erdogan approaches the end of his first decade of rule, the question for American and European policymakers should not be whether Turkey should join the European Union, but whether it even belongs in NATO.


— Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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