By Emanuele Ottolenghi, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
Reviewed by Michael W. Cotter
This opinion piece raises some justifiable concerns about the direction Turkey’s government seems to be taking. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been engaged in consolidating power both within the Justice and Development Party (AKP is the Turkish acronym) and his own hands since being elected for a third term in 2011. The country’s abysmal record in its treatment of journalists and its harsh reaction to demonstrators in Istanbul last year have received wide, and negative, coverage around the world. And legitimate concerns have been raised about whether Erdoğan’s actions are intended to fundamentally change Turkey’s democratic form of government. Those concerns increasingly lead to considerations of what, if anything, other countries, including the U.S., can or should do about influencing political developments in Turkey.
The author takes on this task with more conviction than clear analysis. His thesis is that the West, including the U.S., has ignored what he calls “Turkey’s recent autocratic turn.” He then lists recent actions that most observers of Turkish politics agree raise questions about Erdoğan’s intentions. Unfortunately, partly due to the fact that this short essay doesn’t allow a lot of background information, he jumbles these actions together in a way that both over-emphasizes the degree to which they are connected and ignores their context. In particular, his treatment of the ongoing graft scandal and subsequent dismissal of numerous police and judicial officials ignores the fact that both are related to a falling out between Erdoğan and an erstwhile supporter, Fethullah Gulen, which may or may not represent a threat to Turkey’s democracy. (See a review of Gulen’s organization in our February posting.)
Nor are the author’s proposals for what the West should do about events in Turkey particularly realistic. He recommends suspending Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU, which might have an effect if there were the slightest chance that Turkey will ever be admitted to the EU. He also suggests “reviewing” Turkey’s membership in NATO and access to undefined “sensitive armaments and dual-use technology.” Why this would have the effect of reversing Turkey’s current course rather than reinforcing it is not clear. And in any event the critical role Turkey has and will continue to play in the unfolding political changes in the Middle East argues strongly for strengthened, rather than weakened, ties to NATO and the U.S. According to his background as listed on the website, the author’s expertise is in Iran, Israel and Syria, which may explain his limited grasp of the NATO’s history. For instance, his comment that NATO winked at non-democratic members such as Spain under Franco. But Spain was not invited to join NATO until 1981, six years after Franco’s death when that country had re-established its democratic credentials.
It is possible that the West will have to re-evaluate its relationship with Turkey, but it is far from clear at this point that Turkey’s internal political future is as dire as this author argues. And in any event the critical role Turkey has and will continue to play in the critical security challenges unfolding in its neighborhood is likely to trump whatever concerns about its democratic future may eventually be realized.