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Erdogan’s Grand Vision: Rise and Decline

“A great nation, a great power”—the recent Fourth General Congress of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party proclaimed this ambitious goal for 2023, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic. The Congress celebrated Erdogan’s leadership and reelected him as party chairman. With his party’s backing, and through a prospective new constitution that will create a powerful “presidential system,” Erdogan expects to preside over the anniversary celebrations as president of a transformed Turkey that dominates the Middle East.

But what would be the shape of Erdogan’s golden age?

Would Turkey be a moderating influence on political Islam, in particular on the Muslim Brotherhood parties now dominant in much of the new Middle East? Will Erdogan make the country a unique Islamic liberal democracy that will reconcile the Muslim world to the West?

Or is he presiding, as a growing number of observers fear, over an Islamist transformation of Turkey that would put it at odds with the West as it consolidates a “neo-Ottoman” regime? Those who worry about such an outcome find a portent in his remarks—well noted in Turkey but not elsewhere—at his party’s recent Congress. There, Erdogan urged the youth of Turkey to look not only to 2023, but to 2071 as well.

This is a date that is unlikely to be meaningful for Westerners, but is evocative for many Turks. 2071 will mark one thousand years since the Battle of Manzikert. There, the Seljuk Turks—a tribe originally from Central Asia—decisively defeated the leading Christian power of that era, the Byzantine Empire, and thereby stunned the medieval world. At the battle’s end, the Seljuk leader stepped on the Christian emperor’s throat to mark Christendom’s humiliation. The Seljuk victory began a string of events that allowed the Seljuk Turks to capture the lands of modern Turkey and create an empire that would stretch across much of Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

In evoking Manzikert, Erdogan recalled for today’s Turks the glories of their aggressive warrior ancestors who had set out to conquer non-Muslim lands and, along the way, fought off the hated Shias of their day to dominate much of the Middle East. Manzikert is thus not an image of a peaceful and prosperous liberal state that sways others by its example of tolerance, virtue, and goodwill.

Rather it indicates that as part of his vision of Turkish power and glory, Erdogan seeks to reverse the broad legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey in 1923. The recent AKP Congress aimed to celebrate Erdogan as a new and powerful kind of leader—now prime minister, later president—of Turkey, one ready to abandon Ataturk’s secular state structures and Western orientation. The warrior Ataturk warned against the allure of military victories; the politician Erdogan invokes them.

 

There is little disagreement among Turks about Erdogan’s character. He is famously self-confident and proud, even arrogant—qualities that have helped to make him a charismatic figure for many and an object of suspicion for others. He came of political age within the Turkish Islamist movement, which had long struggled to achieve influence within Turkey’s secular political order. In the early 1990s, the young Erdogan was an Islamist politician in Istanbul, rising to become a successful mayor of the city who addressed practical problems of sanitation, water, and traffic congestion. He was then a junior member of an earlier Islamist party that had ruled briefly but was overthrown by a secular, military-led coup in 1998 that constituted yet another defeat for the Islamist movement. Erdogan himself was jailed for the offense of citing a militant Islamist poem.

Then, in 2001, he formed the Justice and Development Party, known ever since by its Turkish acronym AKP. His rise since has been spectacular. His party has won three successive parliamentary victories (in 2002, 2007, and 2011) with ever-increasing margins—an unprecedented political achievement in Turkey’s republican history. During this period Turkey’s economic growth has been extraordinary by historic standards. Ever mindful of the obstacles that his Islamist roots faced in Turkey’s secular order, Erdogan has worked over his last decade in power steadily—but also cautiously, especially early on—to eliminate Ataturk-inspired restrictions on Islam and to undercut the old judicial and military order that guarded against the Islamization of Turkey. In this, too, he has been spectacularly successful, surmounting the obstacles that had stymied his early Islamist movement mentors.

But was his success in this regard simply a continuation of his earlier Islamist commitments? Many in the West were initially inclined to say no. For Erdogan’s early political reforms were advanced not in the name of Islam, but in the name of an essential and necessary “democratic” reform of the abiding authoritarian features of the Turkish state, and were proffered as the means to satisfy EU requirements for membership. As a result, many admirers of Erdogan argued that he had abandoned the Islamist convictions of his youth and now merely aimed to liberate traditionally religious Turks from the constraints and even discrimination to which they were subject under Ataturk’s secular order.

More generally, Erdogan was deemed to have found the way to reconcile democracy with Islam and so overcome the conflicts thought to bedevil Muslim progress, including economic progress, in the modern world. This earned him great respect well beyond the world of Turkish politics. President Obama declared that Erdogan was one of five world leaders with whom he felt the closest relations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deferred to Erdogan’s leadership in the Middle East, stating in 2011, at the early stage of the Syrian crisis, that the United States would follow Turkey’s lead.

Erdogan basked in this praise, calling the 2011 AKP election triumph a victory not just for Turkey, but for its Ottoman heritage. Indeed, as far back as October 2009, his foreign minister had explicitly invoked Turkey’s former imperial grandeur: “As in the sixteenth century, when the Ottoman Balkans were rising, we will once again make the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, together with Turkey, the center of world politics in the future. That is the goal of Turkish foreign policy and we will achieve it.”

But for this and other reasons, Erdogan’s critics doubt his commitment to democracy. They note that in his early career he openly advocated for the political empowerment of Islamic law and likened democracy to a train that one can choose to leave at any time. They note, too, that his government has not only expanded the sphere for ordinary expressions of Islam—for example, the wearing of headscarves—but has at the same time contracted the universe of other liberties. Indeed, his critics, especially journalists and even sitting members of Parliament, often find themselves sued or in jail. They whisper of a growing culture of fear that grips Erdogan’s foes.

In addition to the threats to freedom of expression, concerns about the nature of Erdogan’s governance and his future plans have generally focused on three important domestic arenas. First, his slow, artful, implacable, and legally high-handed prosecutorial attacks on the old military leadership, long-time guardian of the Ataturk-envisioned secular order. These have been characterized by very long pre-trial detentions and the use of possibly forged evidence, practices that have generated criticism from the EU, which was generally sympathetic to the desire to rein in the military. Second, Erdogan’s steady promotion of Islam throughout Turkey’s bureaucracies and particularly in schools to raise what he called a “new religious generation” and promote a more religious Turkey. Third, his attempt to solve Turkey’s longstanding problem with its large Kurdish minority’s demands for respect and cultural freedom not by structural reforms but by appeals to “common Islamic values.”

Yet in the last year Kurdish terrorism inside Turkey has reached a level of violence not seen for over a decade. The state has lost control of much of southeastern Turkey, the Kurdish heartland. Roughly half of the Kurds are secular, and while others share traditional tribal values, Erdogan’s appeal to Islamic solidarity has not mitigated what they regard as a history of mistreatment. Kurdish demands for equal rights or even autonomy are particularly troubling, because Kurds are becoming more assertive throughout the region, particularly in neighboring Iraq, and because Kurds in Turkey are nearly one-fifth of the Turkish population and also a fast-growing group. By some estimates, in roughly two decades there will be more Kurds than Turks born in Turkey. Erdogan speaks openly of this demographic challenge, but is left to urging Turks to repopulate and trying to build relations with foreign Kurds, especially in Iraq, to stave off external support for the militants in Turkey. Meanwhile, the Turkish military resists taking on the ugly task of restoring order, in no small measure because of the assault Erdogan has launched against its leadership.

In short, Erdogan’s response to domestic troubles has raised new concerns while failing to convince his critics of the sincerity of his “democratic” ways. They remain convinced that he favors an Islamist agenda.

 

But for all Erdogan’s domestic problems, his grasp has most outstripped his reach in foreign affairs. Here, too, his agenda and failures seem to reflect a fundamentally Islamist vision, albeit one that he may be in the process of redefining.

Under Ataturk, Turkey insulated itself from troubled Middle Eastern politics and Islam’s anti-modern pull by associating with Europe and the West. Almost from the beginning of his rule, whatever the symbolism he offered the West, Erdogan has turned this legacy inside out, emphasizing Muslim solidarity and engagement with the Middle East as Turkey’s true destiny. Erdogan’s new direction was partially embodied in the AKP’s now famous, if often ridiculed, policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Under this approach, Turkey would embrace not only the Sunni-led states of Turkey’s former imperial realm, but also the broader Islamic world. This included most notably Shiite-led Iran and Alawite-led Syria, the two neighbors most identified with ideological hostility to the West. Erdogan has met with mixed results in the Sunni realm, and disastrous rebuffs elsewhere.

Erdogan’s reorientation of Turkish foreign policy led to an early embrace of forces hostile to Israel. Previously, Turkey had maintained close relations with Israel and a distance from the Palestinian “movement.” As early as 2004, Erdogan had declared his sympathies with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, even though it was opposed by the more secular and nationalist Palestinian Authority, led by Western favorites Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. In 2006, after Hamas won the Palestinian elections, Erdogan welcomed its senior leadership to Turkey in a celebratory fashion. With his shift came a steadily increasing rhetorical assault on Israel’s Palestinian policies. After the Gaza war of 2008–2009, Erdogan publicly insulted Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos Conference, calling him a “killer.” In 2010, he conspired to provoke the “flotilla” incident, which aimed to delegitimize Israel’s maritime embargo of Gaza. More recently, he called Israel a terrorist state and threatens to escalate this schism with Israel.

Erdogan’s hostility to Israel and sympathy with its terrorist enemies has not only proven popular in domestic politics, but is also broadly consistent with his eager embrace of Sunni Islamism and especially the Muslim Brotherhood, as became clear in the position he took on the “Arab Spring.” As authoritarian rulers fell in Tunisia and Egypt, Erdogan was quick to embrace as comrades the Muslim Brotherhood parties that moved into the power vacuum. Having first opposed a Western intervention in Libya, he soon claimed a leadership role in that conflict. In his so-called “victory tour” of the Arab Spring countries in mid-2011, Erdogan was received as a rock star.

But Erdogan’s ambitious vision of reaching out to and leading the Middle East even beyond its Sunni core soon ran into natural contradictions. Iran, in particular, as it sought nuclear weapons, domination of Turkey’s neighbor Iraq, and regional leadership, could be seen as a natural state rival of Turkey. Yet Erdogan, in accord with his ideas about his—and Turkey’s—grand status in the region, undertook at crucial moments to undermine Western initiatives to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and opposed sanctions against the mullahs’ regime. As the Arab Spring reached into Syria, Erdogan initially positioned himself to defend Syrian Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan prematurely announced Assad’s agreement to reform, only to be given the back of Assad’s hand as the Damascus regime turned increasingly violent and the Alawite-Shiite alliance hardened. As the conflict has deepened, Erdogan’s interests have been repeatedly thwarted and his proposals pushed aside, to his embarrassment and disadvantage. Erdogan tried to retake a leading role by hosting the Syrian National Council, a body claiming to represent the internal opposition against Assad, but also known to be dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. That body has now been displaced by a new coalition of Syrian opposition forces that has been internationally recognized. At the same time, Iran mocks Erdogan as a tool of the West and Israel, and Assad’s forces and Turkey’s exchange artillery fire.

Seen in the light of these regional problems, Erdogan’s evocation of the Battle of Manzikert during the AKP’s Fourth Party Congress this past fall takes on an additional coloration. While Manzikert was a great triumph over that era’s leading Christian power, the Christians were not the primary focus of Seljuk Turk policy. Instead, the Sunni Seljuks were mainly focused on their primary religious and temporal enemies, the main Shiite and Arab power of the time, the Egyptian-based Fatimid Caliphate (in the eleventh century, Iran was not yet Shiite and was part of the Seljuk Turk empire). Indeed, not long before Manzikert, the Seljuks had readily accepted a truce with the Christians so they could attack the Fatimid-controlled city of Aleppo, in today’s Syria.

Thus, the historical symbolism of Erdogan’s speech may have artfully highlighted for Turks an age-old agenda, one held by modern Turkey’s ancestors and now by Erdogan. Turkey must outstrip the growing influence of today’s leading Shia power, Iran; beat back the Christian world; and surmount the incipient military and economic power of Egypt, the historic champion of the Arabs. As in the distant past, the most immediate obstacle to these ambitions is the Shiite power Iran and its allies; and Syria is once again a front in that conflict.

An early sign of this policy shift against Iran came in the spring of 2012, when Erdogan described his party’s historic mission in a way that excluded Shiite Iran: “On the historic march of our holy nation, the AK Party signals the birth of a global power and the mission for a new world order. This is the centenary of our exit from the Middle East . . . whatever we lost between 1911 and 1923, whatever lands we withdrew from, from 2011 to 2023 we shall once again meet our brothers in those lands.”

At the party Congress a few months later, Erdogan may have invoked Manzikert to signal that he would not just distance Turkey from its Shiite challengers, but actively oppose them.

The Syrian crisis, then, has exposed weaknesses in Erdogan’s early claims and weighs heavily on his reputation, at home as well as abroad. By a large majority, the Turkish public is now dissatisfied with and opposed to Erdogan’s Syrian policies. The critiques come not only from opposition parties, but from within previously supportive groups. Indeed, Erdogan finds himself and his grand design for Turkey confronted not only by Syria’s tyrant, but by an alliance made up of Russia, Iran, and the latter’s allies in this matter, Hezbollah and the Shiite government of Iraq. He finds himself dependent upon others—the United States, NATO, even the head of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government—for assistance. Before he had belittled the relative importance of the US and others in the region; now he complains sourly about their lack of activity and welcomes their support. In response to Syrian attacks on Turkey, Erdogan called for emergency meetings of NATO, invoking provisions for common defense. He is now receiving on Turkish soil US-made Patriot missile batteries manned by American, Dutch, and German troops. While he has made periodic shows of military force, he has clearly pulled back to the edge of history, allowing Saudi Arabia and Iran to move into the foreground, respectively, by arming the Syrian rebels and the Syrian tyrant.

In short, concrete successes in foreign policy have eluded Erdogan’s grandiose claims. The region’s vast troubles seem impervious to his remedies. Turkish elites—both from the opposition and among many who had been supporting him—have noticed the gap between rhetoric and reality; and Erdogan now finds himself mocked in the Turkish press for his frustrations.

 

For the moment, Erdogan’s public pronouncements betray no doubts about his vision and capacities. Rather, he remains self-confident, assertive, and even aggressive. In December 2012, as earlier this fall, he returned to the theme of Manzikert, praising those who will raise a generation that “will reach the level of our Ottoman and Seljuk ancestors by the year 2071.” He recently repeated his intent to change the “separation of powers” of the Turkish state that, in his view, limits the capacity of the government to go forward with important projects. Some fear that would make Erdogan more powerful than an Ottoman sultan. Given the AKP’s strength within Turkey, only a possible split in his party may derail Erdogan from his course. But it may well be asked why others, especially non-Turks, should follow him when his results so far have been at best ambiguous.

Many of his growing number of domestic opponents now believe that Erdogan’s initial decision to put Turkey “back into” the Middle East, and his inclination to see the future in Islamist terms, threatens rather than enhances Turkey’s strengths. Ataturk’s Western orientation launched Turkish progress; Erdogan’s creeping Islamization may sap that forward movement without successfully wooing Middle Eastern states into a neo-Ottoman network. For now as ever, despite Islamists’ faith in Muslim solidarity and Muslim virtue, ferocious rivalries and inflexible dogma still rule the day. Rather than the solution, Islamism itself may prove to be a key problem, as it congeals around bitterly hostile Shiite and Sunni “camps.”

But even the leading role in the Sunni camp, bedrock of his bid for influence, is not assured for Erdogan. As Egyptian ambitions revive, the Muslim Brotherhood party there will lay claim to the natural leadership of Arab countries as well as the Islamist movement. Arab states do not readily welcome a return of Ottoman days. Even in the darkest days after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, for example, Iraq’s new leaders rejected Turkey’s help to secure Iraq’s borders against extremist insurgents.

In the West, much of the early enthusiasm for Erdogan’s “Turkish Model” now seems premature and quixotic. Erdogan has often proven to be a hindrance to important Western concerns, such as limiting Iran’s nuclear program and terrorist reach and defusing Arab-Israeli problems by pushing for responsible Palestinian behavior. He has played little role in guiding the Arab Spring toward outcomes favorable to democratic interests or for that matter guiding it at all. As for the heralded bridge he was to build between modernity and Middle East realities, so far it touches neither shore.

Nor has deferring so publicly to Erdogan’s leadership served the West well. The US may see Erdogan as a mediator between Islamism and the West, but the region sees his Islamist leanings and regular practice of flouting our interests. When the US defers to policies such as those that have topped the Erdogan agenda, other powers in the region conclude not unreasonably that America has either limited interest in the Middle East or limited capabilities. Either way, American prestige and the capacity to shape events plummets.

It may be that for all the specific policy failures he has suffered, Erdogan is playing a long game that is justified by what he sees as the gradual withdrawal of the US from the region. Perhaps this was subtly in the background of his insistence on offering young Turks the metaphor of the Battle of Manzikert. Manzikert began a process that ultimately led to the downfall of the Christian Byzantine empire, but not because Christian losses on the battlefield were great. Rather, the Byzantine’s downfall came from internal dissention and weaknesses that followed from the loss and continued for decades. Byzantine aristocracies fought among themselves for power, rather than attending to the strength of the empire in its dangerous world. They overspent and cheapened their currency. So long unrivaled, they abandoned the strengths, unity, and dedication that had been the foundation of their hard-won standing.

The Byzantine emperor Romanos also paid a high personal price for misjudging the Turks. Having lost at Manzikert, he faced years of civil war within Byzantium. Ultimately, he was overthrown, brutally blinded, and exiled. Publicly humiliated, he spent his last days in the Anatolian heartland riding on a donkey with a rotten face.

Hillel Fradkin is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Lewis Libby is a senior vice president at the Hudson Institute.

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