Commentary Magazine

The Odds on Turkey

To the Editor:

Michel Gurfinkiel’s article, “Is Turkey Lost?” [March], is an excellent primer on contemporary Turkish politics and its antecedents, but he makes a few dubious assertions and errors, and omits some important points.

Mr. Gurfinkiel is quite correct to draw attention to the influence of the National Council of Security (MGK) in preserving the secular Kemalist state. But since its founding in 1961, the MGK has never enjoyed “almost exclusive control of the armed forces”; this is the province of the powerful military chief of staff, who himself sits on the MGK. Though formally subordinate to the prime minister of the republic, the chief of staff has historically enjoyed considerable autonomy.

Mr. Gurfinkiel also skips over the seven reform measures that the government of the Justice and Development party (AKP) and parliament have passed since 2003 diminishing the influence of the MGK. Prior to the reforms, the military dominated the MGK. Now, all of its members are civilian except for the chief of staff. The reforms have also stripped the MGK of its executive authority, prohibiting it from launching national-security investigations on its own and shifting its budgetary authority to the prime ministry.

As I argue in my recent book, Ruling But Not Governing, no one should be under the illusion that Turkey’s recent reforms mean the end of the military’s much-vaunted autonomy and its ability to influence the political system. General Yasar Büyükanit, the current chief of staff, has demonstrated that the military remains a major player with a series of pointed statements about northern Iraq and the threat to Turkey from Islamic fundamentalism. Still, the reforms of the last three years have gone far toward clipping the army officers’ wings.

As for the title question of his article, “Is Turkey Lost?,” Mr. Gurfinkiel seems oddly reluctant to answer it directly. Perhaps this is because Turkey is not lost. Rather, Ankara is coming into its own, enjoying an unprecedented confluence of economic development, political stability, and diplomatic prominence in its immediate neighborhood. Indeed, Turkish foreign policy seems to be coming more in line with Atatürk’s maxim, “Peace at home, peace in the world.” This dictates that Ankara maintain friendly relations with all of its neighbors, regardless of their character. This may irk Washington and lead to major diplomatic blunders like Ankara’s hosting of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal last year. But from Turkey’s own perspective as a leading power in the Muslim world, this independence allows it to play a significant role in mediating between Washington and its antagonists in the region.

If Turkey is lost as a reliable American ally, however, the primary factor has been the war in Iraq, which figures surprisingly little in Mr. Gurfinkiel’s analysis. In this light, his eloquent discussion of Turkish anti-Americanism lacks context. The Turks, as he points out, were opposed to Operation Iraqi Freedom. But he fails to discuss why. In the run-up to the war, Ankara expressed its concern that toppling Saddam Hussein would destabilize Iraq, leaving Turkey to confront a range of national-security problems. And, indeed, the war has coincided with growing nationalist sentiment among the Kurds in northern Iraq, renewed terrorism by the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) against Turkish soldiers and interests, and unrest in Turkey’s own predominantly Kurdish southeast region.

Ankara, of course, has much to answer for when it comes to the political alienation and underdevelopment of its Kurdish regions, but the fact remains that a large majority of Turks believe that the war has negatively affected their security. As ordinary Turks see it, Washington’s inability or unwillingness to shut down the PKK and squelch what they see as the (Iraqi) Kurdish drive for independence adds insult to injury. It is no wonder, then, that at funerals for Turkish soldiers and civilians killed at the hands of the PKK, mourners sometimes chant “Down, down PKK! Down, down U.S.A.!”

Steven A. Cook
Council on Foreign Relations
New York City



To the Editor:

Michel Gurfinkiel’s article is a reasoned and balanced assessment of the Turkish political scene. For many decades, the story of Turkey has been told to the West only by its Westernized secular elite, which has portrayed the country’s more traditional Muslims as backward-minded know-nothings. The implication, of course, was that Westerners should not encourage Turkey to become a real democracy but rather continue to support the semi-autocracy of the secular elite.

But the supposedly backward Muslims of Turkey have transformed themselves quite remarkably in the past few decades. Their involvement with the free market and democracy has led them to embrace liberal ideas (of which there is a distinguished indigenous history dating back to the modernist Muslim intellectuals of the Ottoman Empire). In contrast to other countries in the Islamic Middle East, Turkey has been able to cultivate an authentic tradition of moderate Islam. Necmetin Erbakan’s radical line developed in the 1970’s as a reaction to this, but he never received full support from major Islamic groups like the Nur (“Light”) movement. Thus, after the dramatic failure of his brief moment in power in the late 90’s, the reformist wing of his party felt comfortable moving out and creating a “conservative”—but decidedly not Islamist—party, the AKP.

The AKP has been in power since 2002, and is likely to run Turkey for at least another five years after the elections that will be held this coming fall. Some Kemalists fear that the party is steadily undermining secularism, but these fears do not seem very realistic when one considers the nature of the secularism they have in mind. Turkey’s French-inspired laïcité is more intolerant than France’s, and the reforms that the AKP is hoping for—giving graduates of religious high schools equal access to the universities, allowing headscarves on campus—seem to be in line with a First Amendment spirit. Recently, an influential former general argued that secularism in Turkey is in danger “because Darwinism is being challenged.” Such arguments, along with alarmist remarks about the personal religiosity of AKP leaders (and their wives!), are no more convincing then those of liberals in the U.S. who call President Bush “the American Taliban.”

As for foreign policy, the AKP’s dedication to Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union is a matter of consensus among its members. Its attitude toward the U.S. has been more complicated. Some blame the party for the rampant anti-Americanism in Turkey, but this can be better explained with reference to the public reaction to the war in Iraq. The liberation and empowerment of Iraq’s Kurds has especially infuriated Turkish nationalists. Mr. Gurfinkiel may be right that the AKP has been influenced by anti-Americanism, but it has hardly been the source of it. And when compared with other political parties in Turkey, the AKP looks (and has been accused of being) pro-American.

Mr. Gurfinkiel is right that the strongest competitor to the AKP at present is the ultra-nationalist bloc—which happens not only to be fiercely anti-American but also passionately against the free market and free speech. Turkey will be “lost” only if those illiberal forces win.

Mustafa Akyol
Istanbul, Turkey



Michel Gurfinkiel writes:

I am flattered that Steven A. Cook considers my article “an excellent primer.” But what about the “errors,” “dubious assertions,” and “omissions” that he nonetheless ascribes to me?

The main “error” he finds lies in my assessment of the role and legal powers of the MGK. Clearly, I did not undertake to write a detailed report about the institution’s changing relation to the civilian government and the armed forces. My concern was to point out that something as odd (to Western eyes) as the MGK exists at all in Turkey, and that its underlying purpose, in my view, has been to maintain the supremacy of the (Rumelian) military establishment over the (predominantly Anatolian) civilian political class. In his own description of the MGK, Mr. Cook concurs with this analysis. It is rather subtle of him—or should I say Byzantine?—to dispute my observation that the MGK and not the government wields “almost exclusive control of the armed forces,” and to state instead that “the powerful military chief of staff,” who remains the main force at the MGK, “has historically enjoyed considerable autonomy” from the prime minister, and that the “military’s ability to influence the political system” has not ended.

The only “dubious assertion” Mr. Cook discusses is the notion (which he assigns to me) that Turkey should be seen, from a Western perspective, as “lost.” He himself suggests that Ankara is not lost, just more independent, and on this I certainly agree. I made clear throughout my article that the Anatolians, whose influence has been growing since the 1960’s, have generally been pro-Western and pro-American, and that the current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and large segments of his party are eager to stay reasonably close to the West. But let us not understate the visible shift that has occurred. Until recently, Turkey was regarded by the West as an immovable ally, and both sides derived much benefit from the relationship. This state of affairs is over. Turkey as a special friend is lost.

Finally, Mr. Cook finds me guilty of “omitting” the Kurdish problem. His contention that Turkey’s opposition to the American invasion of Iraq stemmed from its concern about pan-Kurdish nationalism is a bit of conventional wisdom, but I see no grounds for it. Turgut Özal and the Turkish military did not oppose the Gulf war in 1991, when PKK terrorism was endemic all over eastern Turkey and when Saddam’s defeat meant more autonomy for the Kurds in northern Iraq. Twelve years later, on the eve of the American invasion, the global strategic position of Turkey had enormously improved, including on the Kurdish front: the PKK was a spent force and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was imprisoned. Moreover, the Bush administration was willing to give Turkey a paramount role in the post-war environment. But realizing that an outbreak of nationalist and anti-American hysteria could be a powerful tool against the recently elected AKP government, the Turkish establishment opted to oppose the war.

As for “ordinary Turks,” assessing their opinion is more complicated than Mr. Cook lets on. Turkey is not exactly a First Amendment nation—it is still a place where writers can be intimidated or murdered for speaking out on the Kurdish and (worse) the Armenian questions. At the very least, one has to take account of the establishment interests working to promote militant nationalism of the sort in Mr. Cook’s anecdote about chanting at funerals.

I thank Mustafa Akyol for his interesting remarks. But he may be too optimistic about the AKP administration. One reason the establishment has played the anti-American and anti-Western card so heavily since 2002 is that it strikes a chord among Erdogan’s Islamic followers. Admittedly, some are Özal’s true heirs, both neo-Islamic and deeply pro-Western. Others, however, come from Necmetin Erbakan’s Refah party, which blended Islamic nostalgia with fascist infatuations and strong anti-American and anti-Semitic prejudice. Erdogan himself and his closest political friends may now have converted to Özalism—one hopes this is the case—but their original political faith was with Erbakan.

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