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Ottoman Dreams: Why Are Americans Surprised by Turkey's Islamic Turn?

There is a distinct disadvantage to being an expert in certain professions and occupations. Standing too close to one’s subject, nose against the canvas, tends to lead to a loss of perspective. Clean demarcations and the multitude of critical details dissolve into an unintelligible blur. This is true of many different fields, from sports where team general managers make bonehead decisions to business in which CEOs bankrupt their companies. But it is especially true of politics where a variant of the law of diminishing returns seems to hold. With only a few exceptions, the more one professes to know, the less one understands. The closer one is to one’s subject, the farther one recedes from insight and comprehension. The reasons for this apparent paradox— apart from the usual ideological blinders — are an impermeable conviction in one’s political sagacity, historical ignorance, and an abysmal lack of common sense, which inevitably interfere with clear, perspectival thinking.

Over the last decade or so, this form of intellectual myopia was perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the West’s standard assessment of the “Turkish problem” — which was, of course, regularly and steadfastly deproblematized. The vast preponderance of politicians, journalists, academics, and talking heads, boasting an unwarranted attitude of inflated self-importance and influenced by the favonian winds of both the prevailing left-wing orthodoxy and a belief in a misnamed “realism,” sailed like the Israeli navy into a carefully prepared Turkish trap. Turkey was extolled as a beacon nation, a reliable member of NATO, a Western-leaning Muslim country, and a prime illustration of the compatibility between Islam and democracy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be just another little dictator with a trademark mustache (which, at the beginning of his political career, he refused to shave off when ordered to do so by his quondam superior). But he wore a suit and not a Ghaddafi-style caftan, carried himself with dignity, and talked a consoling line to his ministerial peers in the West. Moreover, Turkey had established strong bilateral relations with Israel, even to the point of collaborating on military matters.

All countervailing signs were studiously discounted in order to preserve a cherished illusion. That Turkey refused to allow American overflights during the second Gulf War was somehow brushed aside as a mere diplomatic blip. That it launched forays into northern Iraq to attack the Kurds, America’s allies in the war against Saddam Hussein, was quickly forgotten. That Erdogan twice welcomed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, indicted on charges of genocide by the International Criminal Court, was conveniently disregarded. Erdogan gave the show away as early as the 1990s, proclaiming that “democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off,” a revelation which had not the slightest impact on the supposed political acumen of most Western diplomats and public intellectuals.

Better had they listened to Serge Trifkovic, who wrote in The Sword of the Prophet: “If and when Turkey becomes a fully-fledged democracy, that instant it will become Islamic and anti-Western.” Even better had they read Erdogan’s celebrated 1998 poem containing the lines, translated as: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” But, of course, our nomenklatura do not read. Turkey’s brokering of a nuclear fuel exchange with Iran to frustrate a possible sanctions consensus aimed at the mullahs’ nuclear program and its complicity in the infamous flotilla episode are merely further indications of the trajectory it is plotting.

What we are witnessing is a new and distressing, unromantic version of what Russian novelist Boris Akunin calls, in his book of that title, the Turkish gambit. As Erdogan gradually but inexorably began to move Turkey out of the Western ambit, attempting to criminalize adultery as an affront to “Turkish honor” and to overturn the ban against veiling in classrooms, working against the so-called “deep state” by arresting key officers in the Turkish army that had been rooted in the secular-oriented Kemalist tradition, and demonstrably aligning the country with the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas nexus of radical Islamic forces, those who are presumed to know something about the international arena — the “experts” — remained generally blinkered and indifferent to what was afoot.

How else to explain the fact that the European Union urged the Turkish government to limit the power of the secular military establishment and in so doing strengthened the Islamic parties — a political act which further weakened the Western resolve to combat the growing Islamic threat? The European Commission’s 2005 report declared that the Turkish army should concern itself exclusively with “military, defense and security matters … under the authority of the government,” neglecting the fact that the secular aspects of the state were achieved and protected only by internal military interventions. Even today, in the wake of the Turkish-inspired flotilla to Gaza intended to further destabilize the Middle East at Israel’s expense, President Obama is of the opinion that “Turkey can have a positive voice in this whole process once we’ve worked through this tragedy.” If this is not a symptom of galloping dementia or complete stupefaction, then nothing is.

The Israeli leadership is and was no less deluded, pretty well ignoring all the signs that pointed to Turkey’s estrangement both from the West in general and Israel in particular. The fact that Mein Kampf had become a bestseller in Turkey, that a Hamas delegation was lavishly welcomed in Turkey after its 2006 electoral victory, that state-sponsored Turkish TV ran a melodramatic serial reviving the ancient blood libel, and that Israeli President Shimon Peres was rudely snubbed and defamed as a killer of children — the famous “56 words” — by Erdogan at the World Economic Conference in Davos in February 2009, among other provocations, did not produce a significant shift of political direction in the country’s foreign policy. Somehow, it was felt, the unpleasantness would all blow over in the course of time and normal relations would be resumed.

By the early years of the new century — Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002 — it was evident to anyone with half a brain in their heads, that is, to those who were not “experts” or members of the lumpen political and intellectual classes, that Turkey was constructing an adversarial identity. It was painfully clear that Turkey had embarked on the renewed political agenda of “neo-Ottomanism” in an effort to reassert its imperial legacy and to establish what foreign policy adviser Ahmet Davutoglu calls “strategic depth.” Such is Erdogan’s Ottoman dream. “Erdogan might be dreaming crazy dreams about being a great liberator,” says Michael Ledeen, “taking back the Holy Land, and reconstituting the Empire/Caliphate.” Crazy or not, one thing seems certain: a country that was once known as “the sick man of Europe” is now a healthy and vigorous Anatolian athlete engaged in a test of wills it has no intention of failing. Indeed, the failure is ours.

“Belief in the empire,” writes Jason Goodwin in Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, “had long since leached away when the First World War swept out of Europe,” the last caliph dying in exile in 1944. But “that prodigious performance known as the Ottoman Empire” is making a robust comeback. For Turkey is well on the road to becoming another Islamic totalitarian state, a tendency it has always incubated despite the Kemalist revolution, bridging the divide between Shi’ites and Sunnis and steering, along with its new ally Iran, toward hegemonic status in the Middle East. As Mark Steyn points out, Turkey’s Rumelian heritage — “western, European, secular” — is being dismantled piece by piece. A country which is 99.8% Muslim, flexing its muscles under Erdogan’s charismatic leadership, has effectively repudiated the Western alliance. Since it does not look like Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), stands much of a chance against Erdogan in the next round of elections — Erdogan’s inflaming of anti-Israel sentiment is obviously meant to strengthen his cachet as a hero of the people — only a military revolt can change the equation. But as we have seen, the Kemalist echelon in the armed forces appears to have been thoroughly emasculated.

In A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin shows how, after the First World War, the Middle East and the debris of the Ottoman Empire served as “an essential component or a testing area of [the] worldview” and “the vision of the future” of the region for the major statesmen of the time. It was then that “the modern Middle East … was created,” and it was the foolish and shortsighted decisions the principal actors adopted from which “the crisis of political civilization that the Middle East endures today” arose. We are now, mutatis mutandis, observing a repeat of the same old tragi-farce.

Will the “experts” finally sit up and take notice? This does not seem probable, precisely because they are ostensibly specialists, “authorities,” some educated beyond their means, others scarcely educated at all, cripplingly devoid of commonsensical awareness, but practically to a man and a woman convinced of their political skill and foresight. And yet none, or very few, seem capable of drawing back and focusing objectively on the “big picture.” Too deeply invested in discerning the brush strokes of policy, they cannot perceive the broad composition and the dimensions of the frame. Interestingly, not one seems to have taken the measure of the Turkish flag whose five-pointed star most likely alludes to the five pillars of Islam, now the sustaining columns of the Turkish presence in the international domain. Turkey, no less than Iran, has become a trial and catechism of the West’s political stamina and intelligence, whose outcome, regrettably, does not encourage.

It is only fair to mention that some reputable analysts feel the situation is not as grim as it looks. Daniel Pipes, for example, feels that Turkey has overreached itself. Now that “Erdogan has gratuitously discarded his carefully crafted image of a pro-Western ‘Muslim democrat’,” he remarks, it is “far easier to treat him as the Tehran-Damascus ally that he is.” On the contrary, I suspect the disclosure of Erdogan’s true purpose will have little effect on the oxymoron of Western political thinking. Barring the unforeseen, the Ottoman dream may well become a reality, thanks largely to the mental astigmatism of our political executive.

For the fact of the matter, to put it bluntly, is that we are led by imbeciles who cannot see past their canvas-pressed noses.