Politics & Policy

How Erdogan Is Rolling the Dice, and How/Why America Must Check Him

Supporters of President Erdogan rally in Istanbul after the failed coup, July 16, 2016. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
He has consolidated his grip on Turkey but must not be allowed to increase his influence abroad.

Lesson number one: Don’t coup it if you can’t do it. Breaking their institutional track record of highly successful coups, elements of the Turkish military failed in their effort to remove President Erdogan from power.

Erdogan, understandably, is ecstatic. In his victory, he senses destiny on the horizon. As I see it, this self-perceived destiny is an imam-Ataturk identity: reshaping Turkey towards a timeless structural Islamism under Erdogan’s personal authority (Erdogan’s ludicrously large palace is a metaphor).

Regardless, Erdogan’s desire to use this moment to further his grand ambitions cannot be overstated. That truth is reflected by the thousands of military personnel (including senior officers) he has detained since Friday. But more telling is Erdogan’s purge of the judiciary. Thus far, thousands of judges — including two members of Turkey’s Constitutional Court — have been detained. The idea that Erdogan has evidence linking all these individuals to the coup attempt is patently laughable. What’s actually going on is that Erdogan is using the failed coup as an opportunity to consolidate his throne, and he has long been desperate to bring the judiciary to its knees. In March, the president railed against the Constitutional Court for releasing two journalist critics of his administration. “I hope,” Erdogan warned then, “the Constitutional Court would not again attempt such ways which will open its existence and legitimacy up for debate.” His threat was clear. But as Mustafa Akyol explained last year, Erdogan has also gone to war with the Constitutional Court over other issues, such as education reform. His battles with the judiciary speak to his personal hatred of criticism. And now the coup attempt has given Erdogan his opportunity to turn words into action.

Erdogan’s victory is also likely to reverberate into his foreign policy. As I noted last week, Erdogan has now abandoned his opposition to Bashar Assad. In doing so, he has probably sealed the Putin-Khamenei victory in Syria. But while Erdogan is bending to Russia in the Middle East, he is likely to become increasingly aggressive in his dealings with the European Union and the United States.

It is telling, for example, that Erdogan’s response to the coup attempt involved shutting off power to the U.S. Air Force’s Incirlik air base. Even more indicative of Erdogan’s emboldened attitude have been his constant demands this weekend that the U.S. extradite activist Fethullah Gulen to Turkey. Once a close Erdogan ally — and early accessory to his authoritarianism — Mr. Gulen is now the focal point of Erdogan’s power obsession. Detesting Gulen’s influence in the economic and political fabric of Turkey, Erdogan wants to destroy him. Erdogan is ranting that his extradition demands are “a test” of the U.S. His clear implication is that failing to extradite Gulen will mean Turkey’s cessation of cooperation in key areas, such as allowing U.S. operations at Incirlik.

Erdogan is ranting that his extradition demands are ‘a test’ of the U.S.

Instead, President Obama — and both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — should make clear that absent compelling evidence, extradition is inconceivable. A firm statement along these lines is important not because Gulen is important to the U.S. (he is not), but because Erdogan has clearly descended into absolute self-belief: He senses Turkey is his to take, and the West is his to manipulate. We must not let that belief sustain.

Already crowing over having brought Germany to heel in return for Turkish efforts to control refugee flows into Western Europe, Erdogan must be made to learn that while he has jokers, we have aces. And Erdogan’s silent but significant embrace of Putin makes that easier. After all, his altered allegiances mean he has much less to offer the West than before. Nor is Erdogan the kingmaker he thinks he is. President Obama could always recognize different opportunities to strengthen Iraq against Iran, for example, and move USAF anti-ISIS operations from Turkey to Iraq. The E.U. will also have to make clear to Erdogan that future E.U. membership is contingent upon his improved respect for the democratic rule of law.

Erdogan is an extremely odd man defined by his great delusions, but he’s also at least somewhat of a realist. Strong U.S. leadership can temper him. As a first priority, Erdogan must understand that his NATO membership is contingent upon basic respect for an independent judiciary. Still, one positive here is the fact that many Turkish military officers who remained loyal to Erdogan retain close relations with their U.S. counterparts (Turkey’s chairman of the joint chiefs attended U.S. Staff College).

#related#These cards in our deck speak to the ultimate truth: Erdogan has won a big victory, but his victory is not total. While Turkey’s Kemalist and Kurdish political opposition elements remain disorganized, they are unlikely to remain so forever. New coalitions are possible — and might even involve disaffected elements of Erdogan’s AKP. Additionally, while much of the military supported Erdogan on Friday, if he pushes the line too far, he may find himself facing a much stronger coup attempt.

In short, the U.S. must show Turkey’s leader that he isn’t the global imam he thinks he is.

Tom Rogan — Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at TRogan@McLaughlin.com

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