Since the outbreak of the Gezi Park protests, which began in May 2013, there has been an inordinate amount of commentary in the newspapers of record, opinion magazines, policy journals, and blogs about Turkey. The vast majority of it has been overwhelmingly negative. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have responded in a fairly typical fashion: They have sought to mint nationalist political gold from this bad press. In a calculated effort to derive the most political benefit from a cascade of critical editorials and articles, the Turkish government has vowed to fight what it considers to be an international smear campaign. The Turks deserve a lot of criticism, but to be fair, there is also a good deal of it that is either the result of malign intent or ignorance.
In the interest of good analysis, it is important to understand the issues about which the Turks can be fairly criticized and those where assailing them does not make a lot of sense.
Let’s begin with the topics about which it is acceptable to criticize Turkey:
- Erdogan’s thuggish approach to politics—This should be self-evident by now, but it has become clear since 2008 or so that the president governs the Turkish population that supports him and intimidates the rest. Erdogan and the AKP have routinely used the power of the Turkish state to intimidate detractors, using the tax authorities, courts, and police to strike fear into the hearts of opponents. He has also used government contracts—especially in the construction industry—as a way to co-opt business interests and then force firms to buy media properties, ensuring good coverage of the party and the president. If it all sounds Corleone-esqe, it is. As an aside, to say “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” in Turkish is: Ona reddedemeyeceği bir teklifte bulunacağım.
- Freedom of the press and freedom of expression—This too should be self-evident to anyone even half paying attention to Turkish politics. The recent arrests of journalists, editors, and even soap opera producers reinforces the fact that under Erdogan and the AKP, Turkey’s political trajectory is clearly authoritarian. The fact that the people detained were Gulenists—whose commitment to democracy has not always been without question—should not make a difference. Principle is principle.
- Anti-Americanism—This goes for the entire Turkish political establishment, including the opposition, the press, Kemalist elites, and big businesses, recognizing, of course, that there is overlap among these groups. As my friend and teacher Henri Barkey has often noted, no one in Turkey has ever publicly defended Ankara’s relationship with Washington. The relationship between the United States and Turkey has often been difficult—the Johnson letter of 1964 and the 1974 arms embargo being tow excellent examples—and there have been times when Washington has done things that directly and negatively affected Turkish security, such as Operation Iraq Freedom. Moreover, there is currently a difference of opinion on what to do with the Assad regime. Still, Washington has stood with Turkey on a variety of important issues ranging from PKK terrorism (including the 1999 apprehension of Abdullah Ocalan), EU membership, and the Armenian genocide, and it has never pushed the Turks to resolve the Cyprus issue. For all this, the Turkish elite traffic in some pretty awful anti-Americanism.
- Anti-Semitism—It is pretty clear that the AKP has fostered a new wave of anti-Semitism in Turkey. When he was in New York for last fall’s UN General Assembly meetings, President Erdogan expressed disappointment at being called an anti-Semite. He blamed it on the international media, claiming that he does not hate Jews, but reserves the right to criticize Israel for what President Erdogan believes to be war crimes. Fair enough, but there is too much Hitler lust coming from Erdogan, AKP officials, and their hangers-on in the press to make the “don’t confuse my ire toward Israel for Jew-hatred” to be credible. If anyone thinks that the opposition is any better, they should think again. Erdogan and his people got all the press attention for their bloodcurdling anti-Semitism, but the Republican People’s Party, the National Movement Party, and important elements in the mainstream press traffic in this filth as well.
- The AKP’s support for Hamas—As I have written before, and as Jonathan Schanzer and David Weinberg have exposed more recently, the AKP has a blind spot for Hamas, believing that the Turkish Islamist experience is somehow parallel to that of Palestinian terrorists. I am not aware that the AKP or any of its predecessor parties condone bombing buses and cafes. Still, Erdogan believes that the fundamental unfairness with which Hamas has been treated, especially after it won an election in early 2006, and the pressure the organization is under from Israel, the Europeans, and the United States is similar to what the AKP and its predecessors had to endure in the context of radical Kemalist secularism. It is all rather strange until you read the work of Belul Ozkan, who was a student of the former foreign minister and current prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Belul explicates the Davutoglu and the AKP worldview, which in brief believes that Turkey’s future is as a Muslim power and that Ankara must develop good ties with Islamist movements, including Hamas, around the region.
- Iran—The Turks helped weaken the West’s position on Iran’s nuclear development. In 2010, Erdogan went to Tehran and blessed the program, and in the same year Davutoglu hammered out the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian Tehran Research Reactor Agreement. Ankara has turned the other way to pervasive sanctions-busting, and in a fit of pique at the Israeli government, Erdogan blew some of Israel’s intelligence assets in Iran.
- Syria and extremist groups—Over the weekend, the Turkish military accused the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (known as MIT) of shipping weapons to al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria. Hakan Fidan, one of President Erdogan’s most trusted advisors, runs MIT. Need I say more? It goes without saying that if these allegations prove to be true, the United States would be remiss if it did not take action against Ankara for this egregious violation of a norm American officials have worked hard to establish since the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. Then again, they would also have to take action against a variety of other allies including Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
All that said, it is not acceptable to criticize Turkey for the following:
- Pursuing its own national security interests—The paradigmatic case here is Kobani. The Turks took a lot of heat for parking a few tanks within sight of the town this summer and then doing nothing to help the Kurds caught admist the ISIS onslaught. It made for very bad pictures, but the Turks have had good reasons to stay out of the Kobani fight and more generally resist American strategy in Iraq and Syria. It is worth repeating that (a) the Turks are wary of Kurdish nationalism and the PYD, the Syrian-Kurdish version of the PKK which has waged war on Turkey since 1994, (b) Turkey borders Syria and Iraq and so taking on ISIS in Kobani, thereby helping Ankara’s Kurdish enemy, would open Turkish cities up to retaliation by the so-called Islamic State, and (c) the Turks believe the problem is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and so will not fully commit to the anti-ISIS effort until there is a strategy for dealing with Damascus. If you are sitting in Ankara, this is all makes sense and is perfectly consistent with Turkish national interests. You can make similarly good cases for Turkey’s energy relationship with Iran and trade ties with Russia.
- Palestinian-Israeli conflict—The Turkish political establishment is fair game on anti-Semitism, but not for criticism of Israel. The Israelis have a lot to answer for in their treatment of the Palestinians under occupation, including Gaza. In addition, any objective reading of the current situation indicates that the Israeli government is neither capable of nor interested in a serious negotiation with the Palestinian Authority and have done much to make the “there is no partner for peace” narrative a self-fulfilling prophecy. Before the hate mail starts pouring in, this is not to excuse the perfidy of Hamas (and Turkish support for it) and the corrupt, weak-minded, double-dealing of the Palestinian Authority.
- Turkey’s approach to Egypt—Given Turkey’s history of military interventions, President Erdogan’s arrest and detention in 1998, and the AKP’s vision of Turkey as the leading Muslim power, it is perfectly reasonable for Ankara to assail Egypt’s July 2013 coup and the political process that unfolded after it. The very fact that Ankara’s stance has contributed to Turkey’s isolation in the region is clearly less important for President Erdogan than both principle and the domestic political benefit he gains from the perception that he is upholding democratic ideals and protecting Muslims.
- Turkey and NATO—It is hard to fault Turkey for not believing that NATO will come to its rescue. It is true that NATO Patriot missile batteries are deployed along the Syrian-Turkish border, but this is a symbolic show of force in response to what is basically a nonexistent threat. In other words, it does not cost NATO anything. The Turks are likely correct that if there was any significant spillover from Iraq and Syria into Turkey, Brussels would likely signal that the Turks are on their own. That’s probably fine given the Turks’ profound mistrust of foreign forces on Turkish soil. Remember the aftermath of World War I? You don’t? Well, the Turks do.
- Wanting regime change in Syria—Bashar al-Assad burned Prime Minister Davutoglu, embarrassed President Erdogan, has killed 206,603 people, and driven 1.5 million Syrians into Turkey. Of course, they want him to go. The problem for Ankara is that Turkey does not have the power to engage in regime change in Damascus and, absent an American intervention, the Turks have gotten themselves involved with extremist groups fighting Assad.
No doubt I am missing some reasons to criticize Turkey and I have probably left out reasons to refrain from assailing Erdogan. Still, readers get the idea. The Turkish government has proven to be a problem in a variety of areas, let’s be clear about what they are.