Barry Rubin May 21st 2012
“Countries may vary, but civilization is one, and for a nation to progress, it must take part in this one civilization. The decline of the Ottomans began when, proud of their triumphs over the West, they cut their ties with the European nations. This was a mistake which we will not repeat.” –Kemal Ataturk, 1924
Spinning in his grave, indeed. for now his successors not only think they can revive a Turkish-ruled imperium but have made the very mistake of turning their backs on the West that the republic’s founder rightly saw as the downfall of that earlier incarnation of his country. I’d change Ataturk’s wording slightly: the Ottomans turned their backs on the modern world then being developed in the West while still forming alliances with European powers.
Once upon a time there was a country named Turkey whose republic was created by Kemal Ataturk who famously said: “Peace at home; peace abroad.” He and the Turkish people had seen their Ottoman Empire collapse after failing to modernize, engaging in chauvinistic nationalism (under the Young Turks), and entering an unnecessary war that led to 20 percent of its population dead and the country prostrate.
And so Ataturk and his colleagues saved the country based on two basic principles: at home, joining Western civilization through modernization and secularization; abroad, avoiding foreign ambitions and conflicts. Whatever their faults, they did a remarkable job. Turkey made steady progress far in excess of what happened in Iran or the Arabic-speaking world.
But then came the regime of the Justice and Development Party. Pretending to be moderate and democratic, it was actually a radical Islamist party seeking to — if I may coin a phrase — fundamentally transform Turkey. This regime was not moderate but merely patient in achieving its radical goals. It insisted that under its rule Turkey would be everyone’s friend and no one’s enemy. And President Barack Obama thought this would be a great model for the Middle East. In fact, though, the regime didn’t see everyone as an equal friend. It preferred the company of Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah.
Soon, as events developed in the region, the veneer of modesty boiled away and the aggressive ambition was revealed. And that ambition was expressed most clearly by the devious Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to parliament in late April: We will manage the wave of change in the Middle East. Just as the ideal we have in our minds about Turkey, we have an ideal of a new Middle East. We will be the leader and the spokesperson of a new peaceful order, no matter what they say.
Wow. Off with the “everyone’s buddy” image and out comes the raving would-be dictator over the Middle East. But the problem is that there are these people called “Arabs” who don’t want to be bossed around by a Turk, even if they both are Sunni Muslims. In addition, those Arabs have their own ambitions. So when they hear stuff like this they become even more angry and suspicious.
“No matter what they say,” intones Davutoğlu, a man who has gone even further in addressing his party’s convention in a closed meeting, where he said that somebody ought to run the Middle East so why not him and his colleagues. Since his speech was reported in a U.S. embassy message, it was available to the White House. Yet it has been Obama’s naiveté about Turkey that has even further puffed up the arrogance of such people.
Sounding like another man who wanted to become the dictator of the Middle East — Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who once said that those who didn’t like him running things could “go drink the Nile” — Davutoğlu says: I’d like to advise those who are criticizing us: Go to Cairo. Go to Tripoli. Go to the streets of Beirut, Tunisia, Jerusalem, and ask about Turkey’s policy on Syria. They will hug you and express their appreciation for Turkey’s honorable policy.
Yes, this regime has supported the overthrow of its former close ally in Syria in order to install an Islamist regime friendly to Ankara. It has even obtained full support from Obama for creating an anti-American government in Damascus. After the foreign minister spoke, an opposition leader, Osman Korutürk, explained that he was just back from Cairo for a regional conference of parliamentarians and did not find such a love and worship of Turkey there. On the contrary, they were not thrilled with the idea of Turkey dominating Syria, or anything else in the area for that matter.
The increasingly power-drunk behavior of Turkish leaders may go unnoticed by a worshipful Obama, who touts the “Turkish model,” but the Arabs have been alienated by such attitudes. Having also threatened Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, while partly antagonizing Iran — though the Ankara regime continues to break trade sanctions with Tehran, sabotage totally accepted by the pliant Obama administration — the Turkish leaders have destroyed their own foreign policy. While this regime began with a realistic chance of being everyone’s friend, it has now made itself everyone’s enemy.
Regarding domestic governance, the power-drunk arrogance is also increasingly contradicting democratic practice. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan once said that democracy was like a trolley. You ride it until you get to your destination and then get off. Presumably that’s at the point where you have consolidated power to the point you can do whatever you want and have turned Turkey into an Islamist state. Speaking in Adana and threatening retaliation to Kurdish PKK terrorist attacks, he abandoned the pose of moderation and pluralism to threaten: We have four fundamental principles. And these principles are:
1. One people
2. One flag
3. One religion
4. One government.
While there are echoes here of traditional Turkish centralization under the old republic established by Ataturk, the third principle shows not only the abandonment of Turkish secularism but its replacement by Islamic rule. Where Erdogan is willing to compromise is that he left off the demand for one language, accepting some use of the Kurdish language.
Thus, Turkey, which had done so well for decades under pragmatists, has now fallen under the sway of megalomaniacal ideologues who believe that they can impose Islam on Turkey and Turkey on the region. Meanwhile the regime is arresting scores of former high-ranking officers — here and here — destroying the army that used to protect secularism. The time will come when it appoints Islamists or opportunists who act as if they were Islamists to the top commands.
And the U.S. government has finally given some tiny indication of dissatisfaction with Turkey’s hostile policy toward Israel. Obama and the top officials have done nothing while the Islamist regime has behaved as if Israel is its worst enemy in the world and sided with radical terrorist groups that seek Israel’s extinction. Of course, this statement of mild dissatisfaction was dragged out of a junior official by critical members of Congress and was narrowly limited. In other words, for all practical purposes the Obama administration has done zero after two years of the Turkish regime’s bashing of Israel.