Getting Erdoğan Wrong

By Svante Cornell

By Svante Cornell

In the aftermath of Turkey’s urban uprisings, many have expressed bewilderment at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s outlandish reaction. Whereas the Prime Minister had multiple opportunities to prevent the demonstrations from escalating, he never missed an opportunity to miss those opportunities, lashing out at foreign and domestic enemies for planning a protest movement that was so obviously spontaneous. As Erdoğan and his mouthpieces have blamed everyone from foreign media and airlines to the “interest rate lobby” and “Jewish diaspora,” Erdoğan is rapidly becoming a liability to his foreign friends. President Barack Obama is sure to regret having mentioned Erdoğan as one of the five foreign leaders with which he has the closest “friendship and bonds of trust”. Indeed, Erdoğan’s Turkey has taken on an important role in Obama’s policy toward the Middle East, and according to numerous sources, Erdoğan is among the foreign leaders Obama speaks with most frequently. But Erdoğan’s authoritarianism is not new. Anyone watching Turkey for the past several years has had plenty of opportunity to see Erdoğan’s slide. Did the White House not know or not care? And what should American policy toward Turkey be now?

Crises are excellent tests of human character, and the reaction to the urban uprisings have displayed a number of facets of Erdoğan and his closest associates. First, his disdain for dissent: he shocked many by calling the protestors hooligans, and by threatening businessmen and other public figures that sided with the demonstrators. Second, his reliance upon repression: the excessive use of police force, tear gas and rubber bullets against protestors was not coincidental; it was intentional, and there can be no doubt that it was sanctioned by Erdoğan personally. Third, his peculiar, majoritarian understanding of democracy: during the demonstrations Erdoğan repeatedly underscored their illegitimate nature by emphasizing that he received 50 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections. Tellingly, the mass meetings he convened in response were dubbed “respect the national will.” The implication is clear: if you are the other 50 percent, you have no say.

Fourth, perhaps most remarkably, Erdoğan showed the extremely conspiratorial mindset that permeates his government. This is worth dwelling on. From very early in the crisis, Erdoğan argued that the protests were not spontaneous at all, but long planned and intended to stop Turkey’s roaring success. In the days and weeks that followed, Erdoğan and his associates rolled out a long list of conspirators. Some, like Lufthansa, were quite unlikely candidates. But a deputy minister told this author, with a very straight face, that the planned mega-airport in Istanbul would be so large that it would rob Frankfurt of its leading position as a European hub, hence the German airline’s supposed wish to generate chaos in Turkey.

Sadly, some culprits were entirely predictable. When Erdoğan first mentioned the “interest rate lobby” and “foreign media” as culprits having planned the protests, the implication was not clear to everyone. But by June 15, the main AKP mouthpiece, Yeni Şafak, dispensed with the pretenses: on its cover page, it blamed a Jewish cabal for having planned the demonstrations. The paper claimed that a host of American neo-cons – most of whom are Jewish – had attended a February 2013 seminar at the American Enterprise Institute aimed at turning Taksim into Tahrir square. Not staying at that, the paper claimed that the entire exercise – and AEI itself – were funded by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and that Jewish businessmen had taken out ads in the New York Times to support the protests. As for the concept of an “interest rate lobby,” it is shorthand for a mysterious cabal supposedly led by Jewish financiers, as pro-AKP newspapers reported already in 2012. Erdoğan himself only hinted at this, mentioning that it included “those we said ‘one minute’ to”, referring to his public spat with Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in 2009. His Deputy Prime Minister, Besir Atalay, was more direct: on July 2, he told reporters the “Jewish Diaspora” was behind the events. Erdoğan’s references to the “foreign media” complete the picture: during the 2009 Gaza war as well as during his 2011 election campaign, Erdoğan darkly referred to “Jewish-controlled” world media.

Thus, while establishment opinion in Washington advanced Erdoğan as a democrat, and suggested his brand of “moderate Islam” be advanced as a model for the Arab upheavals, Erdoğan and his closest circles were openly displaying a worldview increasingly reminiscent of the radical Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, in which the Jews are the source of all their problems. Similarly, his penchant for repression was obvious long before Taksim. His government has spent the past five years jailing hundreds of political opponents on largely trumped-up charges. And while he is currently seeking a negotiated end to the Kurdish conflict, his government has also jailed thousands of Kurdish activists and politicians in the past three years. In fact, Turkey is known to jail more journalists than any other country.

During his tenure, Turkey – never a bastion of media freedom – has seen a decline of freedom of expression. Erdoğan has made it a practice of suing critical journalists for libel, and of exposing them publicly, often leading to their firing by nervous editors. In parallel, the government has taken over some media groups and broken up others, ensuring their sale to loyal business groups. As a result, Turkey has fallen like a rock on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, from 102nd place in 2008 to 154th in 2013 – six spots behind Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And most blatantly, for the past three years, Erdoğan’s main focus has been on changing Turkey’s constitution, to introduce a presidential system of government reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s, in which Erdoğan himself would serve as president until the hundredth anniversary of the Turkish republic in 2023.

Importantly, this authoritarian slide is very much about Erdoğan personally: in the process, he has alienated important parts of the Islamic conservative movement, who have distanced themselves from his policies. Where Erdoğan seeks to concentrate power and speaks of Turkey’s “shared values” with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both President Abdullah Gül and the influential community led by Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen are now rhetorically, at least, committed to further democratic reform and the European Union, and oppose Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. Several cabinet ministers and a good chunk of the AKP parliamentary group feel the same way.

All of this raises a first question: has the Obama White House been concerned about Turkey’s course, and if so, has it utilized its close relationship with Erdoğan to state its concerns? Before answering that question, we must contend with the widespread notion that America has little influence on Turkey’s domestic development. Turkey is a rising power, the argument goes, and America’s influence is retreating; in sum, America needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the United States. Yet this notion is mistaken. In fact, Erdoğan and the AKP are acutely aware of how critical American support has been for their position in power. Certainly under the Bush administration, American support for the AKP, and strong opposition to a military intervention, was an important factor in permitting Erdoğan to neutralize the military and secular establishment as a threat to his position. Indeed, this is best illustrated by the anger felt by Turkey’s Kemalists against the United States, which they accuse of supporting the stealth Islamization of the country.

This perception is intensified by the conspiratorial mindset prevalent in Turkey. Most Turkish leaders, whether Islamic or secular, sincerely believe that America is capable of creating unrest in most countries of the world at the push of a button in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Every statement coming out of Washington is scrutinized for clues to American intentions, and the Turkish government is keenly aware that it cannot afford alienating the United States. Consider the turn of U.S.-Turkish relations in 2010. The Gaza Flotilla and Ankara’s increasingly pro-Iranian policies on the nuclear issue combined during the spring of that year to cause a crisis in Turkey’s relations with the United States. Erdoğan and his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, realized they had gone too far, particularly after President Obama told Erdoğan at the G20 summit in Toronto that he did not appreciate Turkey’s approach to the Iranian issue – the only known dispute between the two men. Within months, Ankara had backtracked, and moreover agreed to the deployment of U.S. missile defense installations on Turkish territory, putting the relationship back on track. Similarly, when Obama urged Erdoğan to accept Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s apology for the Turkish deaths in the Gaza flotilla in May 2013, Erdoğan obliged. All this suggests that the United States – and the Obama administration in particular – have immense clout in Turkey, the question being merely whether they are ready to use it.

From what is in the public domain, it is clear that the State Department was under no illusions about Turkey’s domestic trajectory. Documents released by wikileaks shows that from 2003 onward, U.S. diplomats in Turkey were reporting in detail about the worrisome developments in Turkey. This included allegations of high-level corruption, the increasingly isolated nature of Erdoğan’s leadership, and the increasingly Islamist character of his government. Yet in public, the Obama administration has been largely silent. The administration has occasionally reacted to Turkey’s rhetoric on Israel, most recently when John Kerry called Erdoğan’s comments equating Zionism with a crime against humanity “objectionable.” But officially the administration has been careful not to interfere in Turkish domestic affairs.

That is understandable, given Erdoğan’s notoriously thin-skinned nature, which he displayed on several occasions in 2011 and 2013, hitting back publicly at U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone’s mild criticism of Turkey’s human rights record. Nevertheless, given the personal relationship between Obama and Erdoğan, the U.S. President is in a unique position to have a positive influence on the Turkish leader. Yet in the public domain, there is no inkling of Obama having raised issues relating to Turkey’s domestic record in a meaningful way before the Taksim protests, which forced the Administration to urge restraint, while refraining from condemning the violence against demonstrators. The question is whether this policy of non-interference has reached the end of the road. If America wants a stable, democratic Turkey as a key ally in the Middle East, can it afford not to seek to rein Erdoğan in?

Taking a step back, the wisdom of pointing at Turkey as a “model” or inspiration for the Arab upheaval becomes worrisome. For if the Obama administration and western commentators saw in Turkey the compatibility of Islamism with democracy, it is likely that Islamists across the Middle East saw something else: an example of how to achieve and consolidate power through elections.

Indeed, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, there has been a tendency since 9/11 to look for “moderate Muslims” with a searchlight, extending the benefit of the doubt to any Islamist political force that rejected violence and pledged allegiance to the democratic system. The AKP was the poster child, but the logic extended to more radical forces as well, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the concept of “trust but verify” appears to have been absent. Indeed, American officials were eager to believe the AKP when, from its creation in 2001, it claimed to have reformed itself, repudiated Islamism, and become a conservative party comparable to the Christian Democratic parties of Europe.

Given the speed and top-down nature of that transformation, it would have made sense to support the AKP’s leadership in its stated ambitions, but to monitor its performance accordingly. And whereas the AKP appeared to stick to its moderation during most of its first term in office, authoritarian and Islamist inclinations very clearly appeared to make a comeback around 2008. Yet neither American nor European supporters of Turkey appeared to be monitoring this development or stating their concern when Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies were becoming apparent. Instead, western leaders seemed eager to dismiss such criticism and stick to their support of Erdoğan’s democratic credentials.

Yet America’s stance on Turkey is important in a broader regional perspective. For if Turkey is a “model”, then America’s stance on Turkey is, too. And Erdoğan’s record is suggestive of the Islamist understanding of democracy: he has made clear on numerous occasions that he represents the silent, conservative Sunni Muslim majority of Turkey. Since he represents the majority, he has the legitimacy to pass any law he considers appropriate, and to interfere in any matter he considers relevant. Minorities, in turn, should adapt to the demands of the majority. This approach is not only Erdoğan’s; indeed, it was adopted wholesale by Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, who interpreted his 51 percent of the vote as a license to run Egypt as the Brotherhood’s fiefdom. Both Erdoğan and Morsi showed a majoritarian and purely technical understanding of democracy: not as a system of values including the rule of law and the protection of minorities, but simply as the rule of the majority.

Where to go from here? Several recommendations are in order. First, the stance taken by the U.S. matters considerably. Erdoğan has been legitimized and elevated by the friendship Obama has bestowed on him. From this point onward, the way Washington treats Erdoğan will be keenly observed by all forces in Turkey, and will be a factor determining Erdoğan’s future. The most obvious question is whether Erdoğan continues to deserve the level of attention and amity he has enjoyed so far. In fact, Erdoğan is increasingly a divisive force that is no longer driving Turkey in a positive direction. Instead, his naked ambition for unlimited power is becoming a danger for the country’s stability and development.

While Islamic conservatism is the new dominant political force in Turkey, it is not monolithic. As mentioned, both President Gül and the influential Gülen movement have positioned themselves in opposition to Erdoğan. Simply put, Erdoğan is not the only game in town. In this situation, America’s continued focus on working more or less solely through Erdoğan is both myopic and counter-productive. At a point in which the Prime Minister is alienating core elements of his own Islamic conservative base, and yielding the center, the time has come to de-couple American policy on Turkey from the personality of the Prime Minister. Simply put, the United States no longer needs to focus its attention on Erdoğan. He is Turkey’s Prime Minister, and it would be ridiculous to seek to circumvent him; but the relationship must be focused on institutions and values, not on personalities.

It is time for the United States to indicate, by its actions and statements, that it is supportive of the forces in Turkey that are committed to democratic reform and western values. This means paying less attention to Erdoğan and his close circle; and to call them out on their increasingly objectionable policies and rhetoric, whether it be the repression of demonstrators or anti-Semitic conspiracies. And conversely, it means supporting and empowering those political forces, whether within or outside the Islamic conservative movement, that are committed to a pluralistic and democratic Turkey, rather than the rule of the majority. And while trusting these forces, remember to verify.

Svante Cornell is a director and co-founder of the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy, and Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program (CACI), a Joint Center affiliated with the ISDP and Johns Hopkins University-School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).