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Is Turkey Still a Bridge to the West?

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put his power and prestige on the line this month, pushing a constitutional referendum to create a Putinesque, all-powerful executive. He purged and arrested tens of thousands of Turks, closed or cowed the opposition press, made criticism a treasonable offense, manipulated electoral rules, and committed vote fraud. Yet the measure still barely passed, 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent.

Erdogan originally was a figure of hope, lionized by some in the West. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002, pushing aside a weak nationalist coalition. He spent several years liberalizing the economy, addressing Kurdish grievances, and dismantling the repressive, militaristic “deep state.” Even liberal secularists and feminists backed him. Turkey prospered economically and Turks enjoyed greater freedom. Erdogan knocked on Europe’s door and his government adopted legal reforms to prepare for negotiations to join the European Union.

There always were doubters. Erdogan once said “Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it until you arrive at your destination and then you step off.” But the AKP won a succession of electoral victories and appeared to be turning Turkey into a modern and moderate Islamic democracy. The West was pleased to find such a model and many of us, present writer included, let our hopes outrun reality.

Around 2010 or so, Erdogan changed direction, harnessing state power to punish critics in academia, journalism, and business, as well as enrich his cronies. Tax investigations became just one tool of repression. Erdogan concocted fantastic conspiracy charges to destroy the old military leadership. Critics, even children, were prosecuted for insulting his majestic person on social media.


He used greater political brutality to surmount every political obstacle. After spending years cooperating with Muslim teacher and cleric Fethullah Gulen and the latter’s Hizmat (or “Service”) movement, differences emerged in 2012 and the two allies dramatically turned on each other the following year. After so-called Gulenists were involved in charging leading AKP officials and family members with corruption, Erdogan purged the police, prosecutors’ offices, and judiciary.

In June 2015 Erdogan’s AKP lost its parliamentary majority. Rather than accept coalition rule, Erdogan reignited the conflict with Kurdish separatists and called another election five months later; his emphasis on security issues yielded victory. Even AKP officials were not above Erdogan’s suspicions: he sidelined a former president/prime minister/foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, and ousted Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, preferring men he could better control.

Erdogan blamed last July’s coup attempt on Gulen even before the putsch had failed and anyone had been arrested. Although some Gulenists appeared to be involved, the movement never had much success in penetrating the military, especially its top ranks. Western intelligence agencies discounted the claim that Gulen organized the plot.

Nevertheless, Erdogan used the failed putsch, which some believed he orchestrated or at least tolerated, to his advantage, rather like Adolf Hitler used the infamous Reichstag fire. Erdogan outlawed the opposition and seized extraordinary power. To be sure, Erdogan is more Putin than Hitler, but that is of little comfort for those who languish in jail on dubious charges, with little chance of a fair trial and even less hope to make a living if released.

Parliament granted him emergency powers, which he used against opponents and critics. Opposition leaders and lawmakers were arrested. Academics were dismissed. Schools were closed. Civic organizations were disbanded. Judges were ousted. Businesses were seized. Employees were fired. Bank accounts were frozen. Freedom of assembly was restricted. Publications were shuttered. Journalists were jailed, more than in any other nation, including China.

Even the most modest criticism of Erdogan, reasoned sympathy for the Kurds, or limited connection to Gulen—for instance, having an account in Bank Asya, founded by Gulenists—resulted in ostracism, detention, and prosecution. Some people were arrested for possessing a dollar bill, supposedly a signal of the Gulenist conspiracy. Those acquitted were rearrested and charged with new offenses. Judges who acquitted defendants were dismissed. Many spared jail were barred from leaving the country. Those able to flee Turkey had their passports canceled and, unlike other expatriates, were barred from voting.

The latest count is 47,000 arrested and 130,000 purged from civic life, including those forced from their jobs. Most are social pariahs, shunned by fearful friends and surviving on handouts from relatives. Some Americans have been caught up in the purge, including a Christian missionary, Pastor Andrew Brunson, bizarrely charged with being a member of an “armed terrorist organization.”

Thus, even before the referendum, democracy in any meaningful sense already was dead, with no rule of law, checks and balances, or any other restraint on government—especially executive power. Freedom House rates Turkey as only “partly free,” poor on political rights, worse on civil liberties, and unfree when it comes to the press. Unfortunately, the situation continues to deteriorate. The latest State Department human-rights report on Turkey runs 75 pages, and what it details is not pretty.

Erdogan called the referendum to ratify reality and satisfy his craving for affirmation. After years of trying to transform Turkey into a strong presidential system, Erdogan succeeded in placing 18 amendments on the ballot to make the president all-powerful and unaccountable. Despite the political Sturm und Drang, however, the campaign was largely Kabuki Theater. Erdogan already exercised dictatorial control, having gotten special “emergency” powers from parliament after last year’s attempted coup. Had he lost, his opponents figured he would create an incident to further hype fears and raise tensions, justifying another vote backed by even more brutal repression.

But he never intended there to be any doubt as to the result. European poll watchers politely said the election “fell short” of international standards. The surprise is the small size of his victory margin, even after intimidating opponents, guaranteeing positive press coverage, barring election monitors, rigging the electorate, preventing displaced Kurds from voting, banning public criticism, committing vote fraud, and counting uncertified ballots.

Optimists hoped that having legally secured his dominant position, he might now turn to uniting the country and pursuing the people’s business—for instance, restarting peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. However, the Erdogan who became prime minister in 2003 is gone. The close vote appeared to anger rather than humble him. The ruthless yet petty nature of his purge of even the harmless and innocent suggests that politics has become very personal to him. Pervasive repression has little to do with stability and security and much to do with ego and revenge.

Indeed, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim pledged: “Our struggle with internal and external enemies will be intensified.” Hundreds of Turks protesting the referendum results were arrested, many in dawn raids the morning after. A leading activist who filed an appeal against the result was detained and charged with “inciting hatred” for questioning the vote’s legitimacy.

Of course, Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism, whatever Erdogan’s motivation, does not set it apart. Other U.S. allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are worse; the latter is a totalitarian state waging war on a weak neighbor. However, Erdogan is doing more than defenestrating democracy as part of the Turkish political system. He has destroyed founder Ataturk’s secular heritage and shoved his nation down an Islamist path and toward an unknown destination.

Moreover, Ankara’s foreign policy has become overtly hostile to the West. Turkey is drifting away from Europe, tolerating the Islamic State, supporting Islamist politics, reigniting war with Turkish Kurds, battling Syrian Kurds rather than ISIS, getting friendly with Russia, and treating the U.S. as a frenemy at best. Washington and Brussels must ask: how long can NATO tolerate a member at odds with the alliance’s democratic values and strategic objectives?

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to have noticed. He’s shown a strange affinity for foreign strongmen, including Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Saudi royals. Erdogan also appears to be on Trump’s “friend” list, originally put there, perhaps, by Michael Flynn, briefly Trump’s national security advisor, who represented Turkish concerns as a consultant.

However, the president appears to be a true believer, having been the first foreign leader to make a congratulatory phone call to Erdogan after the vote. Ankara claims that Erdogan has been invited for formal talks, though the administration has yet to confirm the visit. After the ballot the State Department noted its usual support for Turkey’s “democratic development,” but no one was fooled.

After all, the message the president sent, whatever his intentions, was an endorsement of the destruction of what little remained of Turkish democracy. Ironically, in doing so he, and by extension the U.S., rejected Turks who are the most secular, liberal, and pro-American and embraced those most hostile to Western values and objectives. Worse, the president’s call ratified a geopolitical relationship that no longer exists. In practice, Turkey is no longer an ally. If President Trump wants to lead the fight against Islamic radicalism, he needs to look elsewhere than Ankara.

Washington sometimes has made ugly bargains in a dangerous world. But only when viewed as necessary to advance America’s strategic objectives. The Ottoman Empire long was considered the sick man of Europe. The Republic of Turkey is headed for a different kind of decline today. The U.S. no longer should ignore that government’s sustained assault on liberal democracy and other Western values.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.  A former Special Assistant to Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire [1].

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Is Turkey Still a Bridge to the West?"

#1 Comment By Wilfred On April 21, 2017 @ 12:25 pm

Receipt. Pay up, or begone.

#2 Comment By monster rally On April 21, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

“The U.S. no longer should ignore that government’s sustained assault on liberal democracy and other Western values.”

Egypt? Israel? Pakistan? India?

Is there anywhere that we are NOT ignoring “sustained assaults on liberal democracy and other Western values”? Except maybe Iran and North Korea?

When you prop up Muhammed Al Sisi, send billions to Bibi Netanyahu, and help the Saudi monarchy starve children in Yemen, you’re not likely to be taken very seriously when you criticize what Erdogan is up to in Turkey.

#3 Comment By Phil Giraldi On April 21, 2017 @ 2:04 pm

Thanks Doug. Turkey unfortunately has its own bible belt. If you look at a map of the referendum results you will see that Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and the entire Kurdish southeast of the country all voted no. Much of the mostly rural Anatolian heartland, consisting of deeply religious minimally educated folk, voted yes and there were enough of them to win (though maybe not in reality given the reports of electoral fraud). Erdogan has for the past six or seven years counted on the Anatolian reality to obtain victory for himself and AKP. Ataturkism has always been mostly prized by the largely secular urban educated and the military, who will increasingly become victims of Erdogan’s new Turkey. Many of my Turkish friends have already fled the country and are waiting nervously to see what will happen.

#4 Comment By Phoenix On April 21, 2017 @ 3:39 pm

A zebra never loses its stripes. Throughout history Turkey has carried deceptive diplomacy and brutal repression of its minorities, such as the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Erdogan is transforming himself into a bloody sultan taking Turkey back to the authoritarian dictatorship that devastated the entire region for 600 dark years.

#5 Comment By Elize Ratched On April 21, 2017 @ 9:33 pm

When the stability of your “bridge” depends on military coups every other decade or so, its probably better to take a different road.

#6 Comment By Mike On April 22, 2017 @ 8:57 pm

It’s a mystery as to why the West has considered Turkey a bridge between East and West.
1. Being isolated from the Arab Middle East, Turkey has been no conduit to Arab civilization, politics, etc. to Europe. In fact, the average Turk considers Arabs, whose lands they occupied for nearly 500 years, “hayvan” (animal, typically donkey).
2. Turkey has not transmitted Western civilization, politics, etc. to the Arab world. In the post-Colonial era, Arabs have connected directly with the West, bypassing the hated Turks.
3. The picture is similar if one looks north/south.
4. Turkey has also blockaded Armenia, along with Turkic Azerbaijan.
5. Occupying 90% of the homeland of the Armenians (“eastern Turkey”), Turkey has tried to cut off Armenia from Europe. In the west, Turkey threatens Greece with almost daily flights over the Greek islands by the Turkish air force. Turkey also occupies northern Cyprus.
6. Being essentially an authoritarian and illiberal country, Turkey has not absorbed Western values, let alone transmit them to the East.Turks are also anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitic books, magazine articles, TV programs, social media are replete with anti-Semitism. The racism is so widespread that even Erdogan has not been shy in hinting that “international financiers”, read Jews, are plotting against Turkey.
7. The only truth re its reputed status as a bridge between East and West, north and south is the bridge in Istanbul which facilitates transportation between Istanbul and its eastern suburbs.
Please… drop the Turkey, the Bridge between East and West cliche. It’s false.

#7 Comment By Omar On April 22, 2017 @ 11:16 pm

I agree with what monster rally said. And I would like to add the point that the US Presidency is turning into a quasi-dictatorship, especially around the issue of war. The President can drop bombs here or there or start wars without any oversight, check or balance. It would have been better if the author engaged in some reflection on the state of the American Presidency while criticizing Turkey. As it stands this piece reads a bit like propaganda.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 23, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

On the one hand I want to applaud the criticisms. To express disappointment that Pres. Erdagon is taking advantage of situation to consolidate power to dictatorship. And that would be unfortunate.

But there is also a realization that in other parts of the world leadership is a dangerous – literally. And that a coupe whatever its manifestations might hyper escalate one’s paranoia and press against their desire to avoid being a control monster. And coupes are not rare events outside of the US and those environments fuel no small level of national dysfunction.

As such, each nation is tasked with forging their path. That is their sovereign right. And
whatever my concerns, I want that respect given here.

One of the bends that I think hinders effective international governance is how intent we are at being a sounding board as if there was something we could actually do besides express our opinion. Ultimately its the Turkish people who must decide and by a slim margin they have. If the monitors are unwilling to call the vote illegitimate then it seems the deed is one.

#9 Comment By Anonymous On April 24, 2017 @ 9:31 am

Ataturk was a mass murderer who killed hundreds of thousands of Christian Assyrians, Hellenes, and Armenians.
He carried on the gory work of the previous Turkish government of the Young Turk Party.
He also murdered thousands of Kurds in Dersim.
Ataturk was vicious and paranoid, killing his own Turkish comrades on the slightest paranoid suspicion.
There is absolutely nothing to admire about Ataturk, Mr. Bandow.

#10 Comment By Anon On April 24, 2017 @ 9:45 am

We Armenian Americans always told you to beware of Turkey.
We told you that Turkey committed Genocide against Christians and Kurds.
We told you that Turkey was not Western.
We told you that Turkey was not European.
We told you that Turkey was not reliable as an ally.
We told you that Turkey was never secular.
We told you that we knew Turkey over the course of hundreds of years and that you didn’t.
We told you that you were falling victim to wishful thinking.
We warned you over and over.
We particularly warned conservatives not to be taken in by Turkey.
Guess what?
You are still blind.

#11 Comment By Michael Kenny On April 24, 2017 @ 11:36 am

“The U.S. no longer should ignore that government’s sustained assault on liberal democracy and other Western values”. If Erdogan’s conduct is “Putinesque”, one would assume that Mr Bandow would advocate a hard line with Putin. My impression frrm earlier articles of his is that quite the contrary is the case. Equally, the “kick Turkey out of NATO” argument is a fairly classic “pro-Putin” argument. Is Mr Bandow being disingenuous?

#12 Comment By Halit On April 24, 2017 @ 11:00 pm

What Putin did to failed Soviet Union is breathtaking. Do you think Russia would be this position without powerfull Putin?
Powerful Turkish President keep the local usual bastards (Armenians/ Kurds and international bastards (Jews and western countries honest.
What Bush did without even consulted to Congress invaded Iraq Afghanistan And brought down empire. If this id not absolutely power I don’t know what is?
Turkey is not a bridge,Turkeys rutes is Othoman empire so any changes happens in Turkey based on empire.
So Turkey is no Arab country,Turkey is not your definition of any terrorist,or strangling to be practicing western values.
Turkey dealing with local and international enemies/ terrorists.