Politics & Policy

Can Erdogan Change Course?

He’s taking Turkey in a very bad direction.

I cannot be the only NRO reader or contributor who is thoroughly consolable at seeing Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviled by thousands of his countrymen for brutality, hypocrisy, and primitivism. Of course, Turkey is an eminent nationality and has been an important power since before it occupied Constantinople and ended the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453. At the practical beginning of the nation-state, in the early 16th century, the four great rulers of the Western world were England’s Henry VIII, France’s Francis I, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (which included Austria, Spain, and much of the Netherlands), and Turkey’s Suleiman the Magnificent. It was only when the Turks’ bid for control of the Mediterranean was defeated at Lepanto in 1571, and they were repulsed at the gates of Vienna in 1529 and again in 1683, that the power of Turkey began, slowly, to recede. They were removed from Greece only in the 1830s, and from almost all of the Balkans and Libya just before World War I.

Despite having been dismissed as “the sick man of Europe” and “the abominable Porte,” Turkey generally held its ground against Russia, and even against Britain and France in the Arabian Peninsula for much of World War I. And there are still some survivors of the terrible defeat the Turks inflicted on the British, French, Australians, and New Zealanders in 1915 and 1916, in which both sides took over 250,000 casualties (and which severely set back Winston Churchill’s career). The long Turkish retreat ended with World War I, as the victor of Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal, defeated the Greek effort to dissect the carcass of the Ottoman Empire, seized power, changed Constantinople to Istanbul, opened up the country to the West, changed Turkey to a western alphabet and wardrobe, secularized government, and created a new capital at Ankara.

Ottoman Turkey had committed terrible atrocities against Armenians and Bulgarians in particular, but had not been guilty of anti-Semitism, and Jewish fugitives from the Third Reich were welcome there. Kemal Ataturk, as he now styled himself, brought Turkey out of the pale of Islamic primitivism, made it a European country, and left the army as the constitutional guarantor of the secular state. He was, next to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most admired leader in the world in the Thirties among those not attracted to Nazis, fascists, or Communists. Ataturk died, prematurely, in 1938, aged 58, and his photograph remains an object of veneration in almost every home in Turkey. Turkey avoided World War II (as it should have avoided World War I), and entered it only at the end of March 1945 — to be, as Ataturk’s successor, Ismet Inonu, said, “at the table and not on the menu.”

Turkey got through the rest of the 20th century well enough, as a valued and reliable member of NATO; there were two military coups and brief government by generals, but also voluntary return to civilian rule. The country became bogged down in two debilitating struggles: an endless dispute with Kurdish rebels and nationalists who, as in Iraq and Iran, have sought autonomy, and a humiliating, decades-long wait at the door of Europe seeking admission to the Common Market and then the European Union. When Europe sought a powerful ally in the Middle East, it reached out to its NATO colleague Turkey, but when the Turks sought entry to Europe, the door was not opened and they were left instead to wait like a horde of unwashed Muslim street mendicants. History will record the contrast with the generous American and Canadian reception of Mexico as a trading partner, place for investment, and source of immigration (whatever the destructive consequences of the ill-considered American drug war).

The latter Kemalist regimes were certainly sluggish, and corruption afflicted much of the country. The war on the Kurds was heavy-handed, and economic growth was less than it should have been because the army and its civilian minions were toll-gating everything. Some governments were better than others — Turgut Ozal’s was the best but he, like Ataturk, died prematurely (in office, in 1993). Erdogan was elected prime minister in 2003, running as a moderate Islamist, promising to get the army out of politics and graft, doff the official fez to Islam without becoming over-zealous, accelerate the private-sector economy, and reassert Turkey’s traditional role as a major power, at least in its region. He has delivered on much of this and it was objectively satisfying to see a historically great nation bootstrapping itself back up in prosperity and international esteem, rather as post-Franco Spain did.


Turkey traditionally regarded the Arab world, which it largely dominated for centuries, with some disdain. But after the snobbish rebuff from Europe, Erdogan, in current American parlance, “pivoted” to the Near East, put on the airs virtually of the theocrat (he wears a western suit and tie, but his wife wears a long dress and head scarf), and has poured forth an almost nonstop torrent of racist abuse of Israel. The persecution of the Kurds has been escalated, after a brief move toward conciliation. Erdogan’s enforced Muslim obeisances are starting to irritate a long-secularized people, with prohibitions on couples’ making out in public, encouragement of traditional attire, the insistence that couples have at least three children, discouragements of abortions and contraception, and restrictions on the sale of alcohol. The government has also taken over one of the largest newspapers, through Erdogan’s son-in-law, and has fined one media group $2.5 billion for covering a corruption scandal.

Erdogan claims to have synthesized the best of Islam, capitalism, and democracy, and to be running the only Muslim democracy. He has produced ten years of 5 percent economic growth, and got the army’s fingers out of the cookie jar, but his prediction of making Turkey one of the world’s ten leading economies is moonshine. His foreign policy, furthermore, has been that of a Frankenstein monster, pandering to Turkey’s former subjects in the Arab world, swearing Muslim vengeance on Israel, while affecting to remain a serious NATO member. Erdogan joined with former Brazilian president Lula da Silva to try to legitimize Iran’s nuclear program. He has been everywhere saying everything; the sick man of Europe is now the motor-mouth of the Near East.

I suppose hyperactive Turkey is preferable to stolid Turkey, but just when it seemed Erdogan’s noisy, jangling carnival would never end, the wisdom of the old expression “Trust the people” reasserted its truthfulness, even in the land of the Turk. Silently, imperceptibly from the outside, the Turks were tiring of Erdogan’s authoritarianism. A small environmentalists’ protest on May 27 against the building of a military barracks and a shopping mall on one of central Istanbul’s few green spaces was attacked by police with tear gas, pepper spray, and the torching of the protesters’ camp-tents, without much thought of whether they were occupied at the time. The protests grew and spread to 50 Turkish cities and involved tens of thousands of demonstrators, and forced Erdogan back to his default comment on anything disagreeable: As he had described Zionism (which he seems to equate to the existence of the State of Israel), on February 27 in Vienna, as “a crime against humanity,” he so described the protesters in his own country on May 27 (he also called them “undemocratic”). In these demonstrations, at least four people have been killed, 5,000 have been injured, and thousands have suffered throat and lung damage from heavy tear-gassing.

Erdogan has certainly been a successful premier in some respects, and still seems to enjoy considerable popularity, as well as to benefit from a very disorganized opposition; the demonstrators represent a kaleidoscope of political perspectives, some of them fairly cranky. He is in the last two years of his third term as premier and is seeking election to a constitutionally reinforced presidency. If he does not want to be, in the end, just another person who tried unsuccessfully to fill Ataturk’s long-empty shoes, Erdogan should seek a just resolution with the Kurds, stop treating fairly innocuous dissenters as dangerous revolutionaries, stop being a cat’s paw of the conservative Islamic clergy, behave as a loyal NATO ally or be expelled from that organization; stop shouting mindless insults at Israel; and play a constructive role in the region. Rather than pandering to Arab extremism and hobnobbing with unfeasible charlatans like Ahmadinejad, he should reassert Turkey’s status as at least a gentle suzerain over the amenable Arabs and counter and repel the insidious influence of the Iranians among the Arabs. And he should kick this process off by devising and urging and leading the imposition of a solution in Syria. If he doesn’t do at least a significant part of this, he will be just another Middle Eastern windbag and underachieving Turkish leader.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principleand the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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