Turkey on the Brink
by Michael Rubin
The Turkish government's support for the Gaza flotilla and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's subsequent anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, and anti-American incitement shocked Western officials. How could Turkey, a country which President Bush described as "an important example for the people of the broader Middle East" and President Obama called "a critical ally" come to glorify terrorists and celebrate Islamists calling for the slaughter of Jews?
Washington's alarm is late. Turkey in 2010 is fundamentally different than Turkey was eight years ago when Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) took power. Rather than speculate on Erdoğan's recent outbursts, policymakers might better ask how Erdoğan could lead an Islamic revolution underneath the Western radar. The answer lies both in Erdoğan's tactical brilliance and the delusion and denial of Western diplomats.
In any revolution, luck plays a role, and Erdoğan's revolution was no different. To enter parliament in Turkey, political parties must win 10 percent of the vote nationally. If they fail to meet the threshold, their seats are redistributed among the parties which do pass the threshold. In the November 2002 elections, five parties came close, but failed to pass the threshold, so Erdoğan's AKP, which won one-third of the popular vote, received two-thirds of the seats in Turkey's parliament. Abdullah Gül, Erdoğan's friend and deputy, took the premiership initially as Erdoğan was disqualified from office after a conviction for religious incitement. One of the AKP's first actions was to use its supermajority to reverse Erdoğan's disqualification enabling him to become Prime Minister the following March, following a special election.
When Erdoğan's mentor Necmettin Erbakan became Turkey's first Islamist premier in 1996, he shocked the system when he tried to immediately reorient foreign policy away from Europe and toward the Middle East. When Erbakan started pushing Islamist social reforms, the system resisted: the military expressed its disapproval, and Erbakan, who governed in a loose coalition, fell.
Erdoğan learned a lesson and took a different tact. When he assumed power, with far greater parliamentary backing than Erbakan ever had, Erdoğan focused on the economy. Turkey's economy was indeed in dire straits. In the five years before Erdoğan's rise, the Turkish lira had declined eight-fold to the point where it took 1.7 million to buy a can of Coke. Erdoğan attacked inflation, cut taxes, and subsidized gasoline, winning hearts and minds. He directed the AKP to concentrate on constituent services in municipalities it controlled. Not surprisingly, the popularity of the AKP skyrocketed.
There was a dark side, however: In the first three years of AKP rule, Erdoğan accumulated as much debt as Turkey had in the 30 years before he took power. Debt did not bother Erdoğan, however, because he saw no need to abide by normal rules of finance. Turkish Central Bank statistics reflect this. Between 2002 and 2003, the net error—money that has entered the system for which normal revenue generation cannot account—increased from 200 million to 4 billion dollars. Turkish economists refer to this currency influx as Yeşil Sermaye, 'green money.' By 2006, Turkish economists estimated the green money influx to be between six and 12 billion annually. Simply put, someone or something outside Turkey subsidized Erdoğan's reforms. The help was off-the-books, but its presence is reflected in official statistic discrepancies. According to Turkish journalists and economists, Saudi donors supplied Erdoğan with his slush. Today, Qatar is the main source of green money. Reforms are difficult when resources are limited. Governance is easier, however, when backed by inexhaustible resources.
AKP officials have been well-placed to handle the influx of money. The first career of Abdullah Gül who, under the AKP has served in turn as prime minister, foreign minister, and president, was as a specialist in Islamic finance at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Erdoğan understood the importance of having political loyalists in traditionally technocratic positions. Early in his term, he replaced every member on the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (Tasarruf Mevduatı Sigorta Fonu), Turkey's banking board with extensive regulatory and confiscatory power, with Islamic finance veterans.
Erdoğan's attempts to gain control over technocrats and theoretically apolitical bureaucrats did not end with the financial sector: In 2004, he attempted to lower the mandatory retirement of many civil servants in the court system. Had he been successful, he would have been able to appoint nearly half of Turkey's 9,000 judges. The AKP did not yet control the presidency, however, and Erdoğan failed to push through the legislation in the face of presidential veto. Erdoğan is persistent, however. In March 2010, he proposed a constitutional amendment which, if approved, will give the Turkish leadership greater power to appoint judges and prosecutors. Even without any constitutional change, however, the length of Erdoğan's tenure means he has presided over a generational change.
The AKP has also targeted education. The AKP has reformed high school curriculum to insert religious content into otherwise secular subjects. While students once studied the classics of Western philosophy, for example, the new AKP-imposed curriculum has inserted Muslim philosophy into the syllabus. Islam has therefore become mandatory even for those students who have opted out of religious studies.
The Turkish education system has traditionally been one of choices and paths. If students wished to join the clergy, they could go to religious seminaries, the so-called İmam Hatip schools; if they wished to learn a trade, they might opt for vocational school; and, if they wished to compete for public sector jobs, they would matriculate in the regular school. Erdoğan, however, ordered the Ministry of Education and the universities to treat degrees from İmam Hatip schools as equivalent to degrees from traditional liberal arts high schools in order to enable those with a religious education to enter the government in greater numbers, even if they lacked a basic foundation in arts and sciences. When even then too few İmam Hatip students attained sufficient test scores to enter elite universities, the AKP awarded an automatic 1.15 percent score bonus to İmam Hatip students, in effect, creating affirmative action for Islamist conservatives.
The AKP has worked tirelessly to seize control of the universities. Initially, Erdoğan had trouble forcing university rectors to accept his reforms regarding the Islamic headscarf and other Islamist agenda items. He tried intimidation, most famously with regard to Yücel Aşkın, the rector of Yüzüncü Yıl University in Van. When Aşkın enforced a ban on religious headscarves on his university campus, Erdoğan ordered the police to arrest him on fictitious antiquities smuggling charges. Aşkın was a known collector and had legal permits for every item in his collection. When, despite weeks in jail, Aşkın refused to yield, Erdoğan ordered his imprisonment on equally fictitious corruption charges relating to his running of the university, indicting him for a transaction alleged to have occurred even before he assumed university leadership. When intimidation failed, Erdoğan simply tried to make an end run around the High Education Board. Because each university rector has one vote on the Board, Erdoğan created fifteen new universities, enabling the AKP to appoint fifteen new university presidents, in effect doubling the vote and stacking the Board. Taken together, Erdoğan can today dictate education policy from Kindergarten to graduate school.
If a free media is a backbone of democracy, then Turkey is no longer a democracy. Just two years into his term, Erdoğan gained the dubious distinction of leveling more suits against journalists, editors, and political cartoonists than any prime minister in Turkish history. Newspapers cannot report critically on the AKP agenda or corruption within its ranks without consequence. When Sabah failed to curtail its critical reporting, the AKP government seized the paper and transferred its ownership to Erdoğan's son-in-law. Broadcast media is not exempt. Today, Fox News' franchise in Turkey is an Islamist mouthpiece after similar court action. In order to constrain the Doğan Group, the largest independent media company, Erdoğan's government levied a $600 million tax penalty. When the newspaper persisted with its criticism, the AKP imposed an additional $2.5 billion penalty, a move which did not pass muster with international press freedom watchdogs.
Too many Western officials rationalize concern about Islamism in Turkey by arguing that Turkey's military, the traditional defender of the Republic's constitution, would never allow the AKP to alter Turkey's secular character. Such confidence is misplaced. Pushed forward by the daily newspaper Taraf, Turkey's equivalent of Lyndon LaRouche's conspiratorial Executive Intelligence Review, on July 14, 2008 Turkish prosecutors indicted 86 Turkish figures on charges of plotting a coup to push the AKP from power. Police held suspects incommunicado for a day without allowing them even to call their lawyers, but took the time to call Islamist media contacts to announce their arrests. Many suspects appear to be victims of expansive electronic surveillance and guilty of little more than criticism. Those subsequently released describe interrogations which resemble fishing expeditions, with police asking them questions such as "Are you aware that you have insulted government leaders many times in your phone talks?" and "Why do you swear so much when you talk on the phone?" Police have even asked some to list with whom they talked when they attended receptions at the U.S. embassy. The arrests occurred before prosecutors had even written a 2,455-page indictment. The charges were spurious: They alleged a fantastic plot in which retired military officers, prominent journalists, academics, and civil society activists conspired to destabilize Turkey to provide the military an excuse to seize power. But the charges provided enough excuse to round up, detain, and undercut the credibility of the accused opposition figures.
The strategy worked so well that the AKP repeated it. After Taraf published documents describing wartime contingency plans, on February 26, 2010, AKP-appointed prosecutors summoned Turkish military officers, both retired and active duty, to answer charges that the documents represented not ordinary scenario planning, but rather a coup plot. The AKP has subsequently added additional military commanders to the indictment list, and argued that the charges filed against them should be enough to disqualify them from assumed senior military roles. In recent weeks, the AKP has increased the frequency of indictments as a means of disqualifying senior commanders whom it does not believe sympathetic to political Islam. Importantly, none of the defendants in any alleged coup plot have come to trial, nor does it appear as if the AKP has any evidence of conspiracy or malfeasance. Nevertheless, the strategy has effectively checkmated the Turkish General Staff which appears unable any longer to fulfill its role to defend Turkey's secular nature and its constitution.
Turkey is lost. Even if the opposition Republican Peoples Party wins the 2011 elections, Erdoğan's transformation of Turkey is irreversible. The AKP has altered permanently the civil service and eliminated separation of powers. It has consolidated control of the media, and used its monopoly to engrain anti-Western conspiracies deep in the Turkish psyche. Nowhere has the United States successfully repaired the damage done by Islamist incitement. Rather than ask, "is Turkey lost?" it is time for Western policymakers to consider how Erdoğan could lead a slow-motion Islamic revolution below their noses. This is as much a testament to Erdoğan's skill as to Western delusion.
The West's intellectual approach to radical Islamism is much to blame for Erdoğan's success. For too many, the head scarf was the only metric by which to judge Islamism. Prime Minister Erdoğan, however, saw the scarf only as a symbol; for him, the state was the goal.
Too many Western diplomats and officials accepted Erdoğan's conciliatory diplomatic rhetoric at face value. Just as Robert Kaplan documented in The Arabist with regard to U.S. diplomats retiring to work for Saudi Arabia, many former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey—Eric Edelman being the primary exception—left the Foreign Service to do business or fundraise in Turkey. Mark Parris, U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1997 to 2000, used his past role as ambassador and his subsequent affiliation with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to add credence to himself as he spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories regarding Jewish influence in Washington through Turkey's Islamist press, as he sought to win favor with the AKP with whom he sought to conduct business.
The AKP and its fellow travelers among Fethullah Gülen's movement also waged a well-funded propaganda campaign in Washington. They established intellectual centers like the Rumi Forum, and have donated money, sometimes directly and sometimes through proxies, to fund Turkey programs at prominent U.S. think tanks like the Brookings Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and universities like Georgetown and the University of North Texas.
They compromised institutions which normally remain independent from Turkish politics. Suat Kınıklıoğlu, Ankara representative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States between 2005 and 2007, for example simultaneously and successfully ran for parliament as an AKP deputy. The Istanbul correspondent of a leading American newspaper refused to recuse herself from political reporting on the AKP even after she became involved in a long-term romantic relationship with a senior AKP official.
Ultimately it was sheer American incompetence that allowed the AKP to proceed so far without challenge. Many U.S. diplomats and both Bush and Obama administration officials accepted the facile dichotomy that the AKP represented democracy, while secularists were fascists. Desperation to see a moderate Islamist party succeed blinded the State Department and senior national security officials to the AKP's agenda and actions.
How should Washington proceed in its relations with Turkey? It is time to accept the AKP as it is rather than base policy on what policymakers may wish it to be. As anti-American as Erdoğan is, he still sells himself to the Turkish public as a statesman that has Washington's respect. That must end. No senior U.S. official should anymore receive senior AKP officials.
Nor should the U.S. government anymore trust Turkey. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be the backbone of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. strategic dominance for decades to come. The White House, the Pentagon, and Congress should reconsider the decision to sell F-35s to Turkey given uncertainty about Turkey's future foreign policy orientation. At the very least, the Pentagon should assess the impact of Turkish provision of critical technology to states of concern.
The United States need not dispense with its partnership with Turkey—Turkish troops in Afghanistan do more heavy lifting than many NATO counterparts—but it would be strategic malpractice not to plan for the day after Turkey's actions render that partnership impossible. Incirlik is a key logistic base for the U.S. Air Force, but the Turkish government often threatens renewal during increasing contentious lease negotiations. Many Turkish politicians like to make its use contingent upon unrelated diplomatic concessions and also seek to micromanage U.S. missions flown from Incirlik. Ankara's attitude suggests a lack of ideological affinity on security concerns. The White House and Pentagon should advance contingency plans for the day when Turkey no longer allows the U.S. Air Force to use Incirlik or seeks to extract too high a price. The United States should develop contingency facilities in NATO member Romania and perhaps Georgia and Azerbaijan. The Romanian government would welcome U.S. presence at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near Constanza.
U.S. policymakers have already waited too long. It is time to recognize that the Turkey which sided with the United States during the Cold War, suffered tremendous casualties during the Korean War, and saw its future with Europe is gone. In its place is an adversary more aligned with Iran, Syria, Sudan, and the more radical elements in Palestinian society. The Turkish military, once a trustworthy partner will, in the years to come, resemble more Pakistan's double-dealing military. With the appointment of Hakan Fidan, a pro-AKP, pro-Islamic Republic of Iran military veteran as the new head of Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, MIT), the MIT is already well on its way to becoming the equivalent of Pakistan's terror-sympathizing and untrustworthy Inter-Services Intelligence.
The loss of Turkey is tragic. The failure of the Obama administration to preserve U.S. national security and regional force posture in the wake of Erdoğan's Islamic Revolution is inexcusable.