By Barry Rubin
I’m not going to bash or rant about a Newsweek article about Turkey by Owen Matthews-shocking and dangerous as it is–but rather talk about what is wrong and inaccurate about it. That article is part of a new wave of defeatism sweeping the West, though it still remains subordinate to the more ostensibly attractive idea that there is no real conflict or at least one easy to fix by Western concessions.
Here’s the title: “The Army Is Beaten: Why the U.S. should hail the Islamists.” Yes, we should thank the Islamists for taking over Turkey. But wait a minute! The ruling AK party says it isn’t Islamist. Indeed, I have been viciously attacked by them in the Turkish media for saying so. Up until now the line–including that from the regime itself–has been that we shouldn’t be afraid of them because they are really just democrats. But now some are willing to face the truth and still sugarcoat it.
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“The political logic should be simple. The arrest of a shadowy group of generals for allegedly plotting a bloody coup should be a victory for justice. The end of military meddling in politics should be a victory for democracy. And greater democracy should make a country more liberal and more pro-European.”
Each of these sentences makes a false assumption and must be examined a bit.
Sentence one: Arresting military officers is only a victory for justice if they are guilty. Why does the author assume they are guilty? In fact, the claims are ludicrous. That a group of officers created a 5000 page plan for a coup that involved attacking mosques and massive attacks on civilians. It is one of a series of such accusations for which no real evidence has been presented, in which a widely disparate group of people have been arrested as alleged conspirators when their sole connection is that they are critics of the government.
This is ridiculously gullible. It’s like the famous sentence by a newsweekly magazine that even if the Hitler diaries were forgeries (they were) that would tell us a great deal about the history of the time. If in fact the arrests were trumped-up to tame the army so that the current regime can impose a dictatorship in practice it was not a victory for justice but for injustice. Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and Islamists in general lie a lot (and a lot more than democratic government) so why should they be taken at their word, especially when any serious examination of evidence shows the truth.
Sentence two: Of course, in general, keeping the army out of politics is a victory for democracy, but that ignores the specific history of Turkey. The army has viewed itself and been accepted there as the guardian of democracy. This history is certainly imperfect but when the country has been sliding into anarchy in the past or fallen into the hand of those who threatened to destroy the republic, the army has stepped in briefly, gotten civilians to reorganize things on a stable basis, and quickly gone back into the barracks.
The Turkish army is not like those of the Third World which hunger for power, destroy democracy, and unleash corrupt and repressive regimes. On the other hand, this article–and many others–show ignorance about the actual shifts in Turkey.
For example, there is no awareness that the regime is seizing control of the media; that the party leader (which means the prime minister for the ruling party) simply picks candidates for parliament as he pleases; that the reforms have strengthened the prime minister’s power and not parliamentary democracy; and that women are being forced out of high positions. Merely weakening the army doesn’t mean more democracy when in almost every other respect there is less.
Sentence three: If indeed-as is the case-the regime is systematically cracking down on the free media and imposing its control over all the institutions. This is not leading to greater but to less democracy. There should be a lot more reporting on what’s happening within the country instead of just repeating the regime’s claims.
Indeed, the author states:
“And with the last major obstacle to the ruling AK Party’s power gone, Turkey’s conservative prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will be free to implement his vision of a more Islamic Turkey. More democracy, then, doesn’t necessarily lead to more liberalism, either.”
The assumption here is that this is what the Turkish people want. Yet it should be noted there are some big problems for that claim. Turkey’s electoral system is so weighted that the AK has received near-monopoly control on the basis of a vote that in most parliamentary democracies would have produced a coalition government.
Moreover, many or most Turks who voted for the AK weren’t doing so because they wanted Islamism-as public opinion surveys clearly show–but because they thought (mistakenly, even according to this author) that it was a mildly conservative party.
And finally, the AK is seizing control over institutions so as to be sure that it will never lose another election. It is destroying Turkish democracy, a point made rather obvious by a long list of such actions over non-military institutions like the civil service, courts, and media. The author-and many others-are simply taking the regime’s word for it and ignoring what the government is actually doing.
The author concludes by saying: “It’s also clear that Turkey under the AK Party will remain a Western ally, and NATO will remain Ankara’s most important strategic partner.”
Then, this unusually candid if wrong author explains:
“How do we know? The AK Party says so, and it has no real options. There’s no rival alliance, not with Iran, the Arab world, or Russia, which could possibly rival the clout Turkey has, with the second-largest Army in NATO.”
Of course, Turkey has options. And here is the option the regime has chosen: To keep as much as possible the Western alliances while the content of its policy favors radical Islamist forces.
Incidentally, this “no option” argument is the root of a huge amount of confusion in the Middle East. Supposedly, Iran has “no option” but to become moderate; Syria has “no option” but to dump Iran; the Palestinian Authority has “no option” but to make peace. Yet over and over again the local forces find an option that they are quite happy to pursue other than the one laid out for them by Western observers. They have their own view of the world, ideology, and goals (often the goal of the regime being to amass wealth and stay in power).
And one of the key factors in this process is that–rightly or wrongly–they think they are winning so why should they change course or make compromises? And certain other ideas are calculated into their list of options: soon Iran has nuclear weapons. And the divine being is on their side. And the West is weak, stupid, cowardly, and easily fooled.
Now of course, the Turkish government doesn’t have to say: America stinks and we’re pulling out of NATO. It can keep the benefits of these relationships, having their cake and eating it, too. But in practice Turkey is moving closer to Iran and Syria, with the leaders of both of these two countries openly pointing out that fact. The question is what does it mean for Turkey to be a Western ally in a practical sense? If it supports Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas, just how does Ankara function as a Western ally? It’s meaningless.
So, the article concludes, “The world would be wise to side with the AK Party, not seek a return of the discredited generals.” I’m not sure why the generals are supposed to be discredited by ludicrous accusations orchestrated by an anti-American (in practice) government which needs to destroy them. Rather, it is the current regime in Turkey that should be discredited.
Still, it’s a pretty neat trick when a regime repressing Turkish democracy and increasingly siding with the enemies of the West can convince people in the West that this is a good thing.
Incidentally, the New York Times has only a slightly more nuanced editorial than the Matthews article. Among other things, it take at face value that the story about the military planning a coup was broken by a small “independent” newspaper in Turkey. Actually, that publication is a front from the regime and is most unreliable–a point one might expect the Times to have discovered. The story was part of the regime’s strategy, not some journalitic scoop.
As the theme song to the television show “MASH” put it:
“The game of life is hard to play,
I’m going to lose it anyway,
The losin’ card I’ll someday lay;
So this is all I have to say…
“That suicide is painless…
And I can take or leave it if I please.”
The Western world should reject playing that particular card as its strategy.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).