Commentary Magazine


Topic: Recep Tayyip Edrdogan

Turkey Demonstrates Why It Does Not Belong in Europe

It’s been the age-old dream of liberal Turks to join the European Union, and many American diplomats still repeat the mantra that Turkey as a member of Europe would be a good thing for both Turkey and for Europe. A decade ago, I certainly would have agreed with them. The thinking was that the Turkish workforce could have jump started Europe’s anemic economy, while European membership might have given Turkey that final shove into the liberal democratic camp.

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It’s been the age-old dream of liberal Turks to join the European Union, and many American diplomats still repeat the mantra that Turkey as a member of Europe would be a good thing for both Turkey and for Europe. A decade ago, I certainly would have agreed with them. The thinking was that the Turkish workforce could have jump started Europe’s anemic economy, while European membership might have given Turkey that final shove into the liberal democratic camp.

While many Europeans saw the Turkish military as the impediment to Turkey’s democracy—and, to some extent, it was—undercutting its power also eviscerated the only check-and-balance the country had. Because Western diplomats and NGOs cheering the weakening of military influence did not simultaneously insist on building an alternate check to dictatorship,  President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was given an opportunity. “Democracy is like a street car,” he once quipped. “You ride it as far as you need, and then you step off.” European and American policy simply stopped the streetcar, so that rather than jump off onto hard tarmac, Erdoğan could step daintily onto goose-down pillows, his ego stroked, as he abandoned democracy.

But, however corrupt he appears, Erdoğan isn’t simply a megalomaniac motivated by greed: He is an ideologue. “We will raise a religious generation,” he declared. He is an unabashed Islamist, intent on imposing his interpretation and embrace of his religion upon others. Muslims—or at least Sunni Muslims—can do no wrong in his fevered mind. That is why he sought to exculpate Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s genocidal campaign in Darfur, and why he has embraced and defended Hamas and even those associated with al-Qaeda. For Erdoğan, there simply is no such thing as terrorism if the terrorist is a Muslim and the victim is not.

The latest example shows that if Erdoğan has a choice between law-and-order and religious solidarity, he’ll choose the latter.

Back in 2013, a young Danish citizen of Lebanese background attempted to murder Lars Hedegaard, a newspaper columnist who had been very critical of Islam. He subsequently fled Denmark for Syria, but was arrested in Turkey six months ago. Denmark had been seeking his return to face charges. Now, it seems, he has “gone missing” in Turkish custody. Rather than allow him to face charges in Denmark, it appears Erdoğan simply let him go, perhaps as part of the “prisoner swap” that Turkey pursued to win the release of Turks held by the Islamic State in Mosul. Here’s the story from Reuters. The British government has also indicated that Turkey has freed extremists wanted in the United Kingdom.

All of these extremists will kill again. Turkey’s apologists—or perhaps those who shift positions to maintain their access to Turkey—might say that Turkey was simply acting in its interests by making a prisoner exchange. This is nonsense: Turkey might have returned these extremists long before its hostages had been taken in the first place. For example, the man wanted for attempted murder in Denmark had been in Turkish custody for two months before the Islamic State seized the Turkish hostages in the first place. Erdoğan has, on several occasions, faced a choice—one without any cost to himself or Turkey: He could have upheld the rule of law or he could have shielded violent extremists bent on murder. He chose the latter. Turkey’s subordination of the law to a sectarian agenda should end forever the idea of the country as a member of the European Union.

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Tape Suggests Turkey Supports Terror

This winter has been a turbulent one in Turkey, as a political dispute between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his former political ally, Islamist movement leader Fethullah Gülen has led to a series of revelations and leaks, each more embarrassing than the last. Initially, the leaks centered on corrupt ministers, like former European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış, who apparently enriched themselves on Erdoğan’s coat tails. Then they exposed how Erdoğan bullied the press. The latest leaks of recorded phone calls suggest something more nefarious afoot.

For the past several years, sectarian violence has escalated in Nigeria, and Islamist groups such as Boko Haram have conducted horrific massacres against Christian men, women, and children. Now, it seems, Turkey may have had something to do with that. The most recent leaked tapes record a conversation between an advisor to Erdoğan and the private secretary of the CEO of Turkish Airlines. The Turkish Airlines official, according to the tape, said that he does not feel comfortable with the (secret) weapons shipments to Nigeria, and he asks whether those weapons “are to kill Muslims or Christians.” The context of the conversation suggests he worries only after the former instead of the latter. The prime minister’s advisor, however, tries to assure him and says he will check with Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkish intelligence and get back to Turkish Airlines with an answer.

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This winter has been a turbulent one in Turkey, as a political dispute between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his former political ally, Islamist movement leader Fethullah Gülen has led to a series of revelations and leaks, each more embarrassing than the last. Initially, the leaks centered on corrupt ministers, like former European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış, who apparently enriched themselves on Erdoğan’s coat tails. Then they exposed how Erdoğan bullied the press. The latest leaks of recorded phone calls suggest something more nefarious afoot.

For the past several years, sectarian violence has escalated in Nigeria, and Islamist groups such as Boko Haram have conducted horrific massacres against Christian men, women, and children. Now, it seems, Turkey may have had something to do with that. The most recent leaked tapes record a conversation between an advisor to Erdoğan and the private secretary of the CEO of Turkish Airlines. The Turkish Airlines official, according to the tape, said that he does not feel comfortable with the (secret) weapons shipments to Nigeria, and he asks whether those weapons “are to kill Muslims or Christians.” The context of the conversation suggests he worries only after the former instead of the latter. The prime minister’s advisor, however, tries to assure him and says he will check with Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkish intelligence and get back to Turkish Airlines with an answer.

Turkish Airlines, for its part, denies that they have smuggled arms, but it is a state company and no other state company has been able to stand up to the prime minister, nor has there been any indication that any of the telephone calls, while illegally recorded, are inaccurate in content.

There is already great evidence that Turkey has supported al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels in Syria, and the prime minister is quite open about his support for Hamas and, at times, Hezbollah as well. That Turkey appears to be supporting terrorism in Nigeria takes the problem outside the realm of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, if true, makes Turkey a full-blown sponsor of terrorism. Why any congressman remains in the Congressional Turkey Caucus is beyond me. And why, so long as such allegations hang over Turkish Airlines, U.S. authorities continue to allow it to fly over American cities or handle baggage transferred onto American airlines is a question that more responsible congressmen should begin to ask.

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Turks Show Kerry Who’s the Boss

President Obama’s brokering of what we were told was a rapprochement between his friend Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considered a great diplomatic achievement. But even though the United States continues to act as if that phone call actually did change something, virtually everything Turkey has done in the weeks since that conversation has served to expose this claim as a fraud. The latest instance of the Turks throwing cold water on these expectations came yesterday when the Erdoğan government rebuked Secretary of State John Kerry for having the nerve to ask that the Turkish leader forebear from undertaking a state visit to Gaza.

The Turkish insistence on going ahead with a gesture designed to prop up the Islamist dictators of Gaza shows that the entire premise of Kerry’s plan for a new bout of Middle East peace negotiations is based on false hopes and misperceptions. While Kerry already seemed to be setting himself up for failure with the Palestinians, the umbrage expressed by Ankara seems to indicate that more is wrong here than the new secretary’s faith in shuttle diplomacy. It’s not only that the administration seems blind to the realities of the Middle East. The former senator, who thinks of himself as a skilled and sophisticated envoy to the world, is handicapped by his blind faith in diplomacy and determination to ignore the power of Islamist ideology. And as this latest spat with Turkey illustrates, that failure may lead to Kerry making a bad situation even worse.

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President Obama’s brokering of what we were told was a rapprochement between his friend Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considered a great diplomatic achievement. But even though the United States continues to act as if that phone call actually did change something, virtually everything Turkey has done in the weeks since that conversation has served to expose this claim as a fraud. The latest instance of the Turks throwing cold water on these expectations came yesterday when the Erdoğan government rebuked Secretary of State John Kerry for having the nerve to ask that the Turkish leader forebear from undertaking a state visit to Gaza.

The Turkish insistence on going ahead with a gesture designed to prop up the Islamist dictators of Gaza shows that the entire premise of Kerry’s plan for a new bout of Middle East peace negotiations is based on false hopes and misperceptions. While Kerry already seemed to be setting himself up for failure with the Palestinians, the umbrage expressed by Ankara seems to indicate that more is wrong here than the new secretary’s faith in shuttle diplomacy. It’s not only that the administration seems blind to the realities of the Middle East. The former senator, who thinks of himself as a skilled and sophisticated envoy to the world, is handicapped by his blind faith in diplomacy and determination to ignore the power of Islamist ideology. And as this latest spat with Turkey illustrates, that failure may lead to Kerry making a bad situation even worse.

The question of Erdoğan’s proposed visit to Gaza is no minor point. Erdoğan’s pose as the savior of the Palestinians is rooted in Turkish ambitions to expand their influence and once again become the fulcrum of the Muslim political world. But that effort will require keeping the fires of conflict burning bright between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry’s hopes of restarting peace negotiations was probably doomed anyway, but the Turkish effort to strengthen Hamas vis-à-vis the corrupt and faltering Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank will make it impossible for the latter to even think about taking steps to make peace possible. So long as Hamas can count on Turkish backing, there will be no hope of productive negotiations, let alone peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry did the right thing by publicly trying to restrain the Turks from involving themselves in Palestinian politics. But he did so while laboring under the false assumption that the friendship between the American president and the Turkish prime minister was so strong that Erdoğan’s freelancing in the region was an aberration rather than a fundamental principle of Ankara’s policy. The blunder here was not in what he said. But by journeying to Turkey to make the request without any real idea that it would be respected he demonstrated to everyone in the region that he was not a force to be reckoned with. Having told Kerry that Erdoğan’s travel plans are none of his business, any hope of persuading the Turks to avoid inflaming the situation has been effectively spiked.

The point here isn’t that Kerry created a dangerous problem. That was Erdoğan’s fault. But by blundering about the region and allowing himself to be first stiffed and then publicly spanked in this manner, the secretary has diminished his influence as well as that of the United States.

This is an administration that once turned a minor housing start announcement in Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Biden into a major diplomatic contretemps in which it claimed Netanyahu had insulted it. But it is now finding out what it really means to be insulted by a nation that calls itself an American ally, and the result is far from pretty.

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