A Turkish friend just wrote me that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sold his soul to the Devil. That implies Erdogan is succeeding on every front, as if by magic. More accurately, however, the trick is that Erdogan’s foreign policy is failing on almost every front but he’s able to convince Turks that the situation is the exact opposite.
Let’s examine the list of developments in objective terms:
–He has made no progress on membership or integration in the European Union. Similarly, his diplomatic efforts to ease relations with neighboring Armenia have borne no fruit.
–Erdogan has thrown away the virtual alliance with Israel without gaining anything materially in the Arabic-speaking world. Although few seem to understand this point, it was not Israel that groveled in accepting Erdogan’s terms but the exact opposite.
Remember that if the bully lies and the media gets it wrong that does not change reality. Erdogan swore not to back down on three issues but then accepted Israel’s position. Erdogan said: no deal without formal apology; payment of compensation; and end to all sanctions on Gaza. He then backed down. He then, of course, immediately, broke this commitment. That’s my point: defeat internationally coupled with boastful propaganda to make gains at home.
The Syrian situation has a lot to do with this, as does—amazingly enough—a bit of U.S. pressure (see below), but also he had a new problem. As an Israeli diplomat explained:
“Turkish export routes to the east used to go through Syria, to the East and to the Gulf. That’s not possible anymore. Turkish exports are shipped to the port of Haifa, where they’re loaded onto trucks, which cross Israel and then go to Jordan, and then from Jordan, they are shipped to the Gulf and to the East. Israel has now become a [pivotal] point for Turkish exports.”
–Turkey had gained no real influence over the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hizballah groups on which he has lavished much attention.
–In Syria, despite Turkey’s good relations with the dictatorship there, he has backed a rebellion in which he seemingly had great influence. But now Erdogan is clearly having second thoughts, becoming scared that he may have produced a Frankenstein’s monster, a radical Islamist state next door which might cause troubles for Turkey.
–And now Turkey is bordered also by not one but two Kurdish “states.” While he has done well in keeping good relations with the Kurdish-governed district in northern Iraq, its flourishing existence must be worrisome to him, including its effect on Turkey’s own large Kurdish minority. And now there is a much more militant Kurdish statelet in Syria ruled by his old adversaries, the Kurdish Workers’ Party’s local branch. Erdogan does have a plan to deal with Syrian Kurdistan building on the Iraq model: good relations, regional autonomy, and no attacks from there against Turkey. Still, how certain can he be that there won’t be big problems?
–Most important of all, perhaps, is that Erdogan’s attempt to gain wider leadership in the Middle East (called “neo-Ottomanism,” recalling Turkey’s pre-World War One empire in the region) has fallen flat on its face. While Erdogan stresses his Muslim credentials, nobody who speaks Arabic has forgotten that he isn’t one of them.
–And now his love affair with President Barack Obama is on the rocks, at least temporarily. Erdogan’s level of anti-Israel and even antisemitic invective has risen so high and become so obvious that the U.S. government can no longer ignore it. For the first time, questions were raised about the great model Islamist in Washington. That was one of the key motives for the president’s effort to effect Israel-Turkey conciliation. As always, Erdogan has gone out of his way to be provocative. He told the Fifth UN Alliance of Civilizations meeting in Vienna, for example, that Zionism was a “crime against humanity.” Since such crimes should presumably be punished, this can be regarded as Erdogan calling for genocide against Israel and its residents.
“Just like Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it becomes unavoidable that Islamophobia must be regarded as a crime against humanity,” he alleged.
It is also possible–and there is some evidence for this–that the U.S. government feels that Erdogan misled it on Syrian issues now that it has partly awakened to seeing that country about to go under radical Islamist rule. America followed Turkish advice and the result is advanced weapons in the hands of terrorists who may soon be running the country. I warned about this two years ago, but perhaps the U.S. government is a bit ticked off at being made to look like idiots and having gotten into a dangerous situation. Let’s also remember that Erdogan’s projected trip to the Gaza Strip would have disrupted U.S. “peacemaking” efforts and after talking to Obama, Erdogan backed off (but see below). And, finally, let’s remember that the whole Israel-Turkey rapprochement might still fall apart due to Erdogan and leave Obama and Kerry looking foolish.
The problem is that since Erdogan has received U.S. praise and support as he has bashed U.S. interests he then doesn’t need to respect U.S. interests. Many or most Turks today can combine two seemingly discordant views: Obama and his government love Turkey’s government and views it as a friend; they themselves increasingly hate the United States and its goals.
We will know more after Erdogan visits the White House on May 16. If that turns out to be another Obama-Erdogan love fest, more demonstration of the fact that Erdogan is Obama’s favorite Islamist, with no criticism in evidence despite all that the Turkish prime minister has done deliberately against U.S. interests, it would be safe to conclude that Erdogan owns the White House for the next three years. He will know that he can do anything he pleases.
But there are few in Turkey who understand this list of losses. On the contrary, Erdogan has successfully sold the situation to them as one of tremendous success. They can be proud of their country’s return to international power and great respect, or at least so it seems. In this view, Turkey is acting in a properly Islamic manner, the Arabs love them, America recognizes their greatness (they can do whatever they want and the United States caves in), he made Israel apologize, and so on.
On top of this, Turkey’s muscle-flexing boldness, anti-Americanism, and hostility to Israel pleases the left and the nationalist right; his Islamic policy pleases the pious. As a result, Erdogan enjoys the support of a strong majority.
Consequently, Erdogan is the world’s most successful leader in fundamentally transforming his country. Step by step, he is seizing all of the country’s institutions for Islamism. Graduates of Islamic schools, who have now been given parity with university graduates, are flooding into the state bureaucracy.
The army’s political power has been broken and Islamists are now going into the officer corps. The media has largely—but not completely—been bought up and intimidated. Only the judiciary remains. The economy is doing reasonably well.
In this context, Erdogan increasingly appears to be a dictator who is building a cult of personality. Everywhere there are signs claiming that Erdogan “gave” the people whatever public works’ project or new school exists in the vicinity. His situation is comparable to Russia’s dictator (in everything but name) Vladimir Putin.
Here’s a case study, the Israel-Turkey agreement on resolving the dispute over the Gaza flotilla. Under pressure from President Barack Obama, Erdogan agreed to Israel’s terms while pretending that this was a great victory for himself. Yet there is increasing reason to believe that the Turkish government will NOT implement its draft agreement with Israel. There are two factors involved here. First, Erdogan, as usual, is overreaching abroad, getting nothing because he tried to get too much. Second, though, Erdogan doesn’t care because his real intended audience is domestic, using the flotilla aftermath to stir up hatred against Israel and now claiming he has forced Israel to surrender in what constitutes a great victory for Turkey. What Israel’s conciliatory behavior actually did was to expose the Turkish regime’s bad faith, showing that it is impossible to deal with it, an experience comprehended now in Washington for the first time.
Now Erdogan has vetoed Israel’s participation in NATO maneuvers and Erdogan says he won’t send back his ambassador unless Israel stops all sanctions against the Gaza Strip. He knows that this demand will kill the deal. Yet at home he can claim to be the champion of Muslims and of Palestinians. That domestic propaganda is all that counts for him. Similarly, after agreeing to postpone his provocative trip to the Gaza Strip Erdogan then merely rescheduled it for May. And on top of that, Erdogan then announced he would (for the first time) send an ambassador to Palestine even when refusing to send an ambassador back to Israel. Once again, he threw a pie in Obama’s face.
Why does this make sense? Again, because he doesn’t care about the international implications but only domestic political bragging rights. Moreover, none of his antics materially hurt Israel but–note this well–there are some interesting ways in which Erdogan is going to lose by forfeiting Israel’s cooperation.
Meanwhile, the West, especially the mass media, has not yet quite caught on to the fact that the Turkey of Kemal Ataturk, the secular republic, is gone. Massive rural migration to the cities has created a wave of traditional behavior that has been funneled and retrained as Islamism. Turkey has also become an increasingly repressive state where journalists tremble, critics may be thrown into jail on trumped-up charges, and a cultural revolution to reverse Ataturk’s reforms is far advanced. Erdogan’s greatest achievement in terms of the international scene is that by his maneuvers and Obama’s approval, he has made the world uninterested in the escalating repression in Turkey including ridiculous Stalinist-style show trials of dissidents. The latest event is the sentencing of an internationally famous Turkish concert pianist to ten months’ imprisonment for tweets “insulting” Islam and a court decision claiming a 700-year-old church was illegally run as a state museum making possible its conversion into a mosque.
Thus, Erdogan has put together a winning combination: fake victories abroad; repression, seizing institutions, and mobilizing support through patriotism and Islam at home.
If you are interested in reading more about Turkey’s history—during World War Two–you’re welcome to read my book Istanbul Intrigues online for free.