Erdoğan as Özal

As expected, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared his presidential candidacy, making it all but assured that he’ll become the country’s first directly-elected president. Despite the widespread criticisms of his heavy-handed rule, his dismissal of the rule of law, his contempt for dissent, and his general insensitivity to problems not his own, Erdoğan remains very popular in a large portion of the electorate, while much of the rest does not dislike him (or the AKP) or mistrust him enough to vote for any other candidate.

Like a previous prime minister and president, Turgut Özal, Erdoğan is running for president for a simple reason: he’s not ready to retire from power. He loves it too much, and genuinely believes he’s a force for good for Turkey. He doesn’t have any other options to meet these needs: He’s not well liked on the international stage, like Abdullah Gül, and so cannot transition into a position at an international organization like the United Nations. Nor is there any other office in Turkey that, after the prime ministry, can afford him the chance to continue to influence Turkish politics and development.

Though he failed to get the parliament to endorse his version of a stronger presidency, Erdoğan will—like Özal before him—continue to dominate Turkish political life. As I noted, “It’s unlikely that whoever the AKP runs for prime minister will be strong enough to resist Erdoğan’s all-but-assured interference in governing.” We can expect that he’ll continue to pronounce on the conduct of Turks’ private lives and on how to develop the country. He’ll view the election as a mandate for his vision, which will make him even less interested in hearing criticisms of how he’s handled things—if that’s possible.

There are some rumors or hints that Abdullah Gül is considering running for prime minister. This might qualify what I said above: Gül will pose a stronger challenge to Erdoğan. Though Gül doesn’t have a solid power base in the party, he does have supporters. As prime minister he’ll have legal and statutory powers with which to withstand Erdoğan’s meddling. And as prime minister, he’ll be expected to make firm decisions on issues, unlike the hesitant and waffling pronouncements he made as president in order to avoid conflict with Erdoğan. If Gül acts assertively, then, we can anticipate some clashes over governing.

What will be interesting to see is how Erdoğan acts on the world stage. He’s not as popular among world leaders as the current president, or as Özal was, which probably irks Erdoğan. This will constrain his ability to be taken as seriously. I don’t think it’s likely he’ll moderate his conduct to play the role of elder statesman; it’s not in his nature. Also, there could well be further troubles for him in Turkey related to financial inappropriateness, the government’s harsh response to Gezi and the anti-corruption probe, and the mining accident, which will put him on the defensive. Erdoğan gets very ornery when he’s on the defensive.

In short, we can expect Turkish politics to continue to be exciting during Erdoğan’s presidential term.

 

How Erdoğan Has Reshaped Turkish Politics

Over at The Monkey Cage I have a piece on what the corruption scandals in Turkey mean for Turkish politics. A brief snippet:

Leaders who see themselves as infallible and who have no institutional constraints on their ability to make policy don’t leave power willingly. This can include leaders elected democratically. They weaken political institutions in their campaign to fend off challengers and remain in office. So whether or not Erdoğan survives is less important for Turkey than the damage being done to Turkish institutions, which in turn poses a real challenge for American interests in the Middle East that depend heavily on a strong Turkey.

Follow the link for more.

Turkish Politics is Exciting Again

From about 2002 to 2013, Turkish politics was boring. The AKP had come to dominate the political system, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had come to dominate the AKP. The Turkish Armed Forces, having seemingly expended its last strength pushing Necmettin Erbakan out in 1997, was moving in slow motion, unable or unwilling to confront the AKP government and stop the hemorrhaging of its own autonomy and power. No credible political alternative existed to either Erdoğan or the AKP, leaving elections to be more about how much stronger the two might get than a real contest for power.

The outbreak of the Gezi protests in May followed by this week’s anti-corruption probe turns everything on its head. The latter, in particular, represents the most serious threat to Erdoğan’s power since 2002. It’s clear now that the AKP’s dominance has its limits; significant and various groups within Turkish society and politics don’t accept the increasing authoritarianism of the party or its leader. What’s not clear is how long opposition to the AKP can be maintained, and what the outcome of this very public clash might be. But some things that bear watching are:

1. It is, as Michael Koplow reminds us, part of a long-simmering rivalry between the Justice and Development Party and the Gülen movement. Both are powerful and entrenched in the Turkish polity and in society, which potentially makes this struggle very destructive of Turkey’s institutions. Erdoğan’s decision to eliminate the dershanes (preparatory schools designed to help Turks study for university entrance exams but run by Gülen), the anti-corruption investigation itself (which is looking into banks, politicians, and business enterprises), and the AKP’s campaign of dismissing police chiefs and investigators (widely seen as a response to the anti-corruption probe) will leave some gaps in important Turkish institutions. How—or whether—they are filled could have long-term effects.

2. Was 2002-2013 an incubation period? The rise to power of Erdoğan and the AKP was facilitated by the infighting and self-inflicted, mortal wounds of the secular parties, most of which vanished by 2002, and the unrepentant radicalism of Erbakan and the Welfare Party. This left the political field open to the AKP, without any serious challengers. It might be that rivals and opposition parties needed that time to recharge and re-form. I’m skeptical of such a process, since neither of the two existing non-AKP parties (The Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Action Party) have the public support, organizational reach, or political savvy necessary to directly challenge the AKP and its leaders; and there aren’t any viable alternatives on the horizon either. But maybe in retrospect something else will be obvious.

3. The economy. I think that while both Gezi and the current anti-corruption probe pose serious challenges to the AKP and Erdoğan, there is still a long way to go before either loses power. These political processes might undermine their ability to protect their interests and promote loyal allies, but per my second point, it won’t matter without a political alternative. But the economic fallout of this instability could have a larger, longer, and more immediate effect. And because much of Erdoğan’s popularity rests on economic development and the economic gains that Turks have reaped since the 2000s, his and the AKP’s allure will be tarnished if these trends stall significantly or are reversed.

4. Is there hope for Abdullah Gül? Observers have long wondered about the polite rivalry between Erdoğan and Gül, the two preeminent leaders of the AKP. Conventional wisdom is that their respective powers are locked into a zero-sum game. On this point, Henri Barkey has a very interesting piece at Al-Monitor discussing whether Gül will, in fact, be the ultimate beneficiary of the Erdoğan-Gülen spat.

5. Finally, how will all of this affect Turkish foreign policy? Ankara’s international policy is in flux since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, but it hasn’t been stable since the end of the Cold War. Given Erdoğan’s tendency to see international conspiracies everywhere, he is likely to emphasize this point as part of his reaction to the anti-corruption probe. But more worrisome is how distracting this will be to Turkey’s efforts to construct a viable foreign policy in the region. Given Turkey’s economic and diplomatic weight in the Middle East, a Turkey that staggers around without a clear sense of direction will make resolving the region’s problems that much more difficult. And as Turkey has trouble getting others to take it seriously again, it will continue to feed Turkish perceptions of Otherness, superiority, and wounded pride, undermining its ability to look after its own interests and work constructively with allies.

Lieberman is Back

Avigdor Lieberman has been acquitted of all charges of fraud and breach of trust. This will have considerable effects on Israeli politics and foreign policy.

As Carlo Strenger writes, Lieberman will now feel emboldened and be in a stronger position to pursue his goal of becoming the top leader of the right in Israel. This will, as Amir Mizroch notes, have a direct impact on coalition politics in Israel.

In foreign policy terms it’s likely the impact will be even starker. A country like Israel—small, in a protracted conflict, surrounded by hostile forces—relies heavily on great power support. Yet Washington is already suspicious of Jerusalem’s intentions, while Europe is increasingly willing to separate Israel from the West Bank. These conditions require Jerusalem to navigate varied and sometimes conflicting interests and pressures with nuance, tact, a long-term perspective, and a commitment to maintaining friendly and close relations with its benefactors. Lieberman is not the man to do this.

He is better known for his bombast and belligerence than his discretion and diplomatic skills. In 2001 he proclaimed that Israel should bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam if Cairo turned its back on Israel. In 2009, when Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert apologized to Hosni Mubarak for Lieberman’s comment that Hosni Mubarak can “go to hell,” Lieberman compared their behavior to that of a “battered wife.” In 2010, at a private dinner, he scolded French and Spanish leaders on solving Europe’s problems first before turning to the Middle East; he then gave his comments to the Israeli press. In 2012, he equated Europe’s position toward Israel with its position toward the Jews in the period leading to the Holocaust. This August he compared Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

None of this is helpful and there’s no evidence Lieberman has learned to temper his reactions to decisions and events he doesn’t agree with. Take two of Israel’s most urgent foreign policy issues: the peace process and reconciliation with Turkey.

The peace talks with the Palestinians have certainly been difficult from the beginning, and they may be breaking down even sooner than expected. But if Lieberman disdains Arab and European leaders for not adopting Jerusalem’s positions, he seems to hate Palestinian leaders, particularly Mahmoud Abbas. In theory he supports a two-state solution, and has even claimed he’d leave his home in the settlement of Nokdim if it is actually achieved. But in practice his conditions don’t leave much room for progress: he mistrusts the Palestinians, wants a very constrained Palestinian state, opposes the division of Jerusalem, and prefers to exchange Palestinian citizens of Israel for settlers.

Israel is also at a delicate moment in the reconciliation process with Turkey. Granted, the process is stalled because of the Turkish government’s reluctance to move forward. But at least there is a process, a forum for discussion. Lieberman would prefer there be no process at all. Recall that the Israeli apology to Turkey for what happened on the Mavi Marmara took place only after Lieberman left office. He was adamantly opposed to any expression of wrongdoing, and generally thinks apologizing is poor policy and a reflection of weakness.

It is certainly not all Israel’s fault that it’s in the position it is. The Palestinians and Turks deserve their full share of the blame for lack of movement in their negotiations, for instance. But Jerusalem cannot escape its responsibilities, either. With Lieberman as Foreign Minister and a member of the innermost cabinet, Israel’s positions on these and other issues will harden. Even apart from his personal inclinations, his reinvigorated effort to follow Benjamin Netanyahu into the prime ministry will push him and his rivals to adopt more hardline policies as they compete for support from their rightist base. All of this will make it much more difficult to strengthen ties, build trust, and persuade others of the validity of Israel’s position.

Foreign policy—again, especially for small states—requires the ability to adapt to changing conditions, constraints, and opportunities. It’s just not clear Lieberman is interested in doing so.

Will the Egyptian Coup Affect Other Islamist Groups?

In the aftermath of the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government, observers have started to wonder what effect the coup will have on Islamist groups throughout the region. Shadi Hamid argues that the coup will have “profound implications for the future of political Islam, reverberating across the region in potentially dangerous ways.” It could well, he continued, convince such groups that participation in the political process is unwise. Less apocalyptically, Barbara Slavin contends that “Morsi’s removal is a warning that Islamic parties cannot count on religious identity alone to govern successfully and need to work constructively with others.”

The juxtaposition of these two pieces highlights the difficulty in trying to understand the coup’s potential consequences for the kinds of decisions other Islamist groups might make. But short of direct knowledge of the discussions Islamist leaders are holding behind closed doors, we cannot know for certain what drives their decisions. A glance at the history of Islamist involvement in pluralist politics suggests that the response is likely to be diverse and not a simple “no to elections.”

First, the specific countries or actors used for comparison matter. Hamid looks only at al-Qaeda, a group that has never suggested it might engage in the political process or that it should lay down its arms for a trial run at democracy. There’s no evidence that jihadist groups will change much of their behavior because of the coup. Alternately, will they plan more attacks out of fear they are on the defensive? Target more governments? Perhaps, but it’s also likely they would have done so if countries were becoming more democratic anyway, without the participation of Islamist parties.

Will McCants suggests that of comparable groups that do decide to participate, Salafi parties tend to be too radical and small to obtain broad support within the political system and so can participate without having to face the kind of choice the Brotherhood did. What Salafi violence might be precipitated seems due as much to intra-Islamist politics as anything else. (McCants continues that it’s too early to draw firm predictions.)

Slavin considers Turkey and Iran. But in the former, the AKP split off from the more hardline Welfare Party and may already have been undergoing a mild internal struggle over the character of the party. In fact, the military coup that ousted the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and the subsequent campaign to shut the party down convinced Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that participation in the democratic process was quite necessary. In Iran, the government is structured along a strict but specific interpretation of Shia Islam as conceived of by Ayatollah Khomeini that none of the main actors within the state want to change.

Second, the history of Islamist groups in the Middle East suggests that coups or similar “shocks” against them or Islamist parties in other states haven’t prevented non-jihadist groups from participating in democratic processes. In December 1991 the Algerian military cancelled elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front appeared to be doing very well, leading to a vicious civil war that lasted into the 2000s and killed over 100,000 Algerians. In 1997 the Turkish Armed Forces removed the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and then proceeded to purge Islamists from government, the bureaucracy, and the military.

Yet in 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP by its Turkish acronym) participated in national Turkish elections. In January 2006 Hamas participated in Palestinian elections. After its victory, Israel, the United States, Canada, and others began to hold back funds they had been channeling to the Palestinian Authority; after Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Israel—again supported by the US and Canada—imposed a blockade on the entire Strip. In July 2007 and then in 2011, the AKP continued to participate in parliamentary polls (winning the government both times). In 2008-2009 and 2012 Israel attacked Hamas in Gaza, forcing it to seek a ceasefire in both wars. And in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt actively participated in elections despite the fact that the military—once their nemesis—remained a powerful actor, while in Libya the process is complicated by the existence of both jihadist groups and parties that want to participate.

The evidence is only suggestive, but it’s enough to demonstrate that coups or similar shocks against Islamists haven’t precluded participation in subsequent democratic processes. But we need more than sweeping statements for effective comparisons, so that our conclusions are not skewed.

Erdogan’s Democracy

Yesterday at The National Interest I analyzed the conditions that helped lead to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP’s particular understanding of democracy. I also considered how the United States should respond to the Turkish protests:

The protests that have roiled Istanbul, Ankara, and several other cities in Turkey over the weekend have caught most observers by surprise. But the conditions that led to them—and shaped the government’s reaction—have been building for some time. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has emerged out of decades of a particular Islamist experience in Turkey, which has shaped its understanding of democracy and the role of government. The party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to have internalized this experience to an even greater degree. All this makes the demonstrations in Turkey a particularly difficult thing for the United States to respond to.

Follow the link for more.

Taksim Square Meets Rothschild Boulevard

When the Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests first broke out, analysts immediately thought of the Arab Awakening. The comparison might seem obvious at first glance—Tahrir and Taksim can also make for a nice alliteration. I suggested that the better comparison might be Israel’s social justice protests (better known as J14).

Over at Ottomans and Zionists, Michael Koplow does a good job of exploring why such a comparison might be the appropriate way to go—including the nature of democracy and the popularity of the ruling party in Israel compared to the Arab states. I think he’s right: both the Israeli and the Turkish protests were driven by middle-class voters, who demanded/demand greater public accountability and participation in governmental decision-making. Few were/are advocating for a wholesale change in the system.

If J14 is the model, then we also need to think more about how the protests might end.

Israel’s social protests began in 2011, and continue into 2013. But the momentum has diminished considerably, for a number of reasons. Analysts of the Turkish protests and the demonstrators themselves might take note of these reasons, and learn from the Israeli experience.

First, because the protests were driven by middle class voters, it was hard to keep the momentum going for too long. Protestors need to work, take care of their families, and so on. By the end of the first year, rallies were held on the weekend and had taken on more of a party-like atmosphere, a place to hang out, than an effort to effect genuine political change.

Second, there was a concerned government effort to shut the Israeli rallies down, including the use of force. While this alone isn’t necessarily enough to put an end to protests, it certainly dampens enthusiasm for all but the most die-hard. In the Arab states, it was extreme police violence, including the killing of demonstrators, which helped galvanize the masses. One might even argue that the Israeli police—and the Turkish police thus far—are inadvertently maintaining a “proper” balance between “light” and extreme violence, and thus depriving the protestors of another spark.

[Update: It's been pointed out, particularly by Gabriel Mitchell and Dahlia Scheindlin, that the Israeli police's use of force was either minimal or more in line with the coercion used against Palestinians rather than Jewish-Israeli protestors. Both points are well taken. My purpose was to note some common use of force in both cases (beatings, arrests), but yes, the Turkish police response has certainly been far more violence.]

Third, the government co-opted many of the demands of J14 by appointing the Trajtenberg Committee to look into the reasons behind the unrest and to suggest plausible ways of accounting for their concerns. The Committee took its role seriously, meeting with protest leaders (at least in the big cities) and trying to offer some solutions. These tended to fall within the government’s neoliberal priorities, but it was genuine. Showing itself willing to meet protestors’ demands took some of the wind out of J14’s sails.

Fourth, in a political system that boasts strong parties and a strong executive—particularly where the government has considerable control in the parliament—extra-parliamentary movements have a difficult time translating their activities into political gains. This was certainly the case in Israel, which apart from the settler movement does not have a tradition of powerful interest groups operating outside the political arena. There’s no indication that Turkey is much different.

Fifth, some of the main leaders of the social protests had political aspirations. Whether they were intentionally using J14 as specific vehicles or not, after the first year and a half they started to move into the political arena, particularly into the Labor Party, which they argued was the next stage in achieving real social-economic change.

Finally, Israel held an election in January 2013. While it was some time after the start of J14, it was close enough that protestors could manifest some of their concerns and demands into voting—which again removed some of the impetus for keeping the rallies going. That the Labor Party and Meretz (traditionally associated with more government involvement in society) gained seats and the centrist Yesh Atid absorbed many of the middle class votes that reflected the J14 demands may have satisfied the base of the demonstrations for now.

It’s too early to say definitively that J14 had a major effect on policy in Israel. Now that the government budget has been presented in Israel and it’s proven tough on the middle class—to be fair, a tough budget was necessary given Israel’s deficit—protests might regain the momentum they had two years ago. But then again, they might not; that many of their demands have not been met could be an indication that the system has simply absorbed them without any lasting change.

Are similar conditions emerging in Turkey?

Analyzing the Turkish Protests

I’ve long complained, broken-record style, that when something big happens in Israel, observers who aren’t close Israel watchers or well versed in its history and politics leap to provide commentary and draw conclusions. This leads to poor analysis, misperceptions about the country, misguided implications.

There is some of that when it comes to Turkey, but there have been a considerable number of very good analyses of the recent protests based on sharp observations. All of them build on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s illiberal and non-democratic style of policymaking, and most seem to agree that the demonstrations might harm Erdoğan’s position but not undermine him completely. Many worry about what this means for the future of Turkey. But each emphasizes something different, and so a compendium of what’s been written so far might be useful.

If there’s anything to add, let me know.

In chronological order up to June 4:

June 1: The Monkey Cage: “A Breakout Role for Twitter

• An analysis of Twitter’s role in the demonstrations. See also the June 3 update: “Twitter and the Turkish Protests—A Weekend Update

 June 1: Hugh Pope, Dining with al-Qaeda: “A Ringside Seat as Istanbul Protests

• On the varied motivations behind the protests.

June 1: Me, Mideast Matrix: “Was Taksim Inevitable?”

• An argument for thinking of the protests as part of a long-term process in Turkish politics.

June 1: Aaron Stein, The Atlantic: “Protests Show Turks Can’t Tolerate Erdogan Anymore”

• First big piece out on the genesis of the protests. Still very good for understanding them.

June 1: Zeynep Tufekci, Technosociology: “Is there a Social-Media Fueled Protest Style?”

• Compares social media and protest from Taksim to Tahrir.

June 2: Sinan Ulgen, Foreign Policy: “Erdogan’s Dilemma”

• On the de-democratization of politics under Erdoğan and the AKP.

June 3: Claire Berlinski, City Journal: “Erdoğan Over the Edge”

• On the details of the demonstrations.

June 3: Steven Cook and Michael Koplow, Foreign Policy: “How Democratic is Turkey?”

• This piece lays out the reasons why Turkey was never, under the AKP, as democratic as Washington thought—which is a problem.

June 3: Alexander Christie-Miller, Bülent Journal: “Gezi Park: Towards a New Political Consensus?”

• More on the “perfect storm” of issues that drove the protests.

June 3: Gareth Jenkins, Tablet: “Obama’s Turkey”

• On Erdoğan’s metamorphosis into an autocrat, which coincided with a nostalgia for Ottomanism.

June 3: Shashank Joshi, The Telegraph: “Hubris and Nemesis, with a Turkish Accent”

• Emphasis on understanding the protests as something other than secular vs. Islamist, with a tie-in to Turkish foreign policy.

June 3: Michael Koplow, Ottomans and Zionists: “Why Turkey is Erupting in Protest”

• An examination of the contours of the protests as they occurred to this point.

June 3: Joe Parkinson, Wall Street Journal: “Conflict Redraws Fault Lines”

• Drawing on interviews, the piece concludes that the protests represent the emergence of a new popular middle class politics.

June 3: Jeremy Pressman, Mideast Matrix: “US Policy in Turkey: White House and State”

• Building on Steven and Michael’s piece, Jeremy asks whether the US really has let Turkey off the hook when it comes to expressing concerns for its illiberal democracy.

June 3: Claire Sadar, Atatürk’s Republic: “What Can We Say About Occupy Gezi?”

• A collection of thoughts on events thus far.

June 3: Justin Vela, Foreign Policy: “The Struggle for the Heart of Istanbul”

• An explanation of how the violent police response turned the protests into a broad-based demonstration against the government.

June 4: Henri Barkey, The National Interest: “All the Prime Minister’s Yes-Men”

• “At the root of the problem is the combination of both his personality…and the emergent de facto one-party, one-man political system.” There’s no-one to provide alternate advice.

June 4: Steven Cook, Foreign Affairs: “Keep Calm, Erdogan”

• An argument that Erdoğan really has little to fear from the protests, because he’s just so much in command of Turkish politics. Still, things may be changing—too soon to tell.

June 4: Me, The National Interest: “Erdoğan’s Democracy”

• An examination of the conditions that shaped the AKP’s understanding of politics and democracy, and how this complicates American policy toward Turkey.

US Policy in Turkey: White House and State

Steven Cook and Michael Koplow suggest the United States government has held Turkey up as a democratic model even as, they write, “Turkey has essentially become a one-party state.” But prior to the recent protests, have U.S. public statements refrained from noting deficiencies in Turkish democracy? It depends where you look, the White House or the Department of State. U.S. rhetoric has not been uniform.

The White House has chosen to highlight military and economic cooperation, not political reform, in a way very consistent with Cook and Koplow’s piece. With nearby states in the Middle East like Egypt in the midst of political upheaval, Turkey served as convenient model of success. Turkey = Islam + democracy + US ally. What could be a better illustration for the president?

When Prime Minister Erdogan came to the White House on May 16, 2013, President Obama did not raise concerns about illiberal Turkish behavior in either the joint press conference or in an op-ed Obama published that day in the Turkish Daily Sabah. Obama focused on trade and investment, mutual security (NATO, terrorism), and Syria. Reporters did not ask either leader about the state of Turkish democracy.

Four years ago, when Obama traveled to Turkey in April 2009, his language was a little different; he did mention democracy. Obama highlighted a shared U.S.-Turkish commitment to “religious freedom, respectful of rule of law, respectful of freedom.” More importantly, in his speech to the Turkish parliament, Obama carefully asked for continued Turkish progress on reform: “These achievements have created new laws that must be implemented, and a momentum that should be sustained.” He went to great lengths not to single Turkey out, juxtaposing his comments (concerns?) on Turkish democracy with a reminder of how U.S. democracy too is a work in progress: “I say this as the President of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be President of the United States.” (The fact that he was speaking in the Turkish parliament might very well have shaped how such comments were delivered!)

They were not earth-shattering words, but he did explicitly mention the need for Turkey to do more work on the issue.

What about State? In late 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a different tack. In a speech in Washington, DC, hosted by the American-Turkish Council, Clinton focused mostly on economics and mutual security. But she also, gently I thought, raised substantive concerns about democratic reform:

The third point is that Turkey’s ability to realize its full potential depends upon its resolve to strengthen democracy at home and promote peace and stability in the neighborhood. The ongoing constitutional reform process is a valuable opportunity, and I’ve had very productive conversations with President Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, and others about this process, about its inclusivity and transparency that results in a document that deepens respect for human rights for all Turkish citizens, including the right to speak and worship freely. All minority groups need to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. I was particularly impressed by Prime Minister Erdogan’s statement during Ramadan that property would be returned to religious minority groups, and we also hope to see other positive steps, such as reopening of the Halki Seminary.

A vibrant economy depends upon the free exchange of ideas, the free flow of information, and the rule of law. Strengthening due process, cracking down on corruption, helps any country grow more rapidly, and also protecting a free and independent media, which plays a role that is very important.

She hits a lot of the key points: the constitution, a free media, rule of law, and human rights for all Turkish citizens. She did not juxtapose it with America’s own imperfections and continuing democracy implementation agenda. Fast forward 18 months and I can imagine those kinds of talking points were intentionally left out during Erdogan’s visit.

Department of State reports are even more at odds with Obama’s May 2013 comments. State’s Human Rights Report said many positive things about Turkey but also highlighted a number of shortcomings. The report’s executive summary listed the “most significant human rights problems during the year” including:

-      “Deficiencies in effective access to justice”

-      “Government interference with freedom of expression”

-      “Inadequate protection of vulnerable populations”

The summary continued:

Other significant human rights problems during the year included: Security forces committed unlawful killings. Authorities obstructed demonstrations. Security forces allegedly used excessive force during sometimes violent protests related to the Kurdish issue, students’ rights, and labor and opposition activities. The government obstructed the activities of human rights organizations, particularly in the Southeast. Impunity remained a problem. The government investigated reports of abuse by security forces, but the number of arrests and prosecutions was low, and convictions remained rare, although the number increased from previous years.

As is typical with the State report, the full text of the Turkey section includes a variety of examples. Also typical of coverage of US allies, the criticism is usually embedded in positive statements. For example:

The constitution and law provide citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections based on universal suffrage. However, the government restricted the activities of some political parties and leaders.

That kind of good cop, bad cop statement is similar to comments by Daniel Fried, U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, on February 27, 2009 in advance of a Secretary Clinton trip to Turkey and elsewhere:

And Turkey itself has been going through a very important evolution at home, moving in a democratic direction, but also with a lot of strains as Turkey addresses issues of its democracy in its – under its secular – its secular system.

(Another annual State report worth considering is on International Religious Freedom. This from May 20, 2013: “Embassy and consulate representatives, as well as visiting U.S. officials, met frequently with government officials and representatives of religious groups to discuss religious freedom,…”)

And even outside the Obama administration, one can see that pros and cons writing. In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations released a major report on U.S.-Turkish relations. It noted: “Over the course of the past decade, Turkey has simultaneously become more European, more Muslim, more democratic, and more modern.” The report also notes many concerns about the practice of Turkish politics (pp. 20-26). Overall, it takes a middle ground: “On balance, it is clear that though the AKP took dramatic steps in 2003 and 2004 to forge a more open, modern, and pluralist society, questions remain about Turkey’s democratic transition. In some areas, the AKP-led government has used the same nondemocratic tools as its predecessor, making it appear no more liberal than previous Turkish governments.”

What it looks like, then, is a clear difference in past reports and statements from State – which criticize Turkey on democracy issues – versus the White House line as exemplified by the Erdogan visit in May. So when Cook tweets “Nary a word of criticism. It’s always sunny in Istanbul,” perhaps he meant the White House only.

Three broader thoughts:

1. IR 101: Different U.S. agencies may have different perspectives and policies on the same issue.

2. Public statements alone are not policy (and may be at odds with actual policy). Do they have any effect? Why issue them at all? Who does consume such words?

3. If the White House is ignoring illiberalism in Turkey, it looks like Turkey fits as a classic US ally: strategic needs (Syria, Israel, Arab Spring writ large, economics, NATO) trump pressing an ally on liberal reform. So what we may be hearing with changes in Obama’s rhetoric from April 2009 to May 2013 is a changed region in which the White House is even more willing to underplay the question of political openness and reform In Turkey (which, of course, would be ironic because you underplay illiberalism so as to highlight Turkey as…a liberal democratic model).

UPDATE: Thanks to @tcwittes for suggesting two other State examples: Clinton criticism in July 2011 and comments by William J. Burns in January 2012.

Was Taksim Inevitable?

The events unfolding in Turkey over the last few days are very telling. I’m not on the ground there, but plenty of people who are have been tweeting and posting on Facebook their experiences and impressions. It’s too early to convincingly declare the implications of the protests, but there are some larger processes at work here that are important to think about that, I think, will inevitably have some effect.

The AKP has been in power since 2002. No government—in a democratic, authoritarian, or mixed system—can be in control for that long without generating some frustration, resentment and opposition among the public. This is especially the case when the party in power pursues a specific political-ideological-economic agenda, bound to cause some dislocation and alienation.

The AKP has certainly done so. When it first came to power, analysts and pundits debated whether the party, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, were really moderate, reformed Islamists or simply disguised fundamentalist Islamists of the Welfare/Virtue/Felicity Party and Necmettin Erbakan kind.

I argued that both were Islamist, but just had different ways of expressing it in policy. Where Erbakan was belligerent and bulled his way forward, Erdoğan was more politic—and in doing so managed to get a lot more done than his predecessor, including removing the military’s ability to intervene in civilian politics.

With the Turkish Armed Forces no longer a serious threat (of its own volition, in addition to being forced out), other parties more a cardboard cutout than a serious political opposition, an economy that was already growing before it came to power, and broad support across different segments of the population, the AKP won an increasingly large share of the popular vote over three elections, culminating in about 50% of the vote in the 2011 poll.

This allowed the AKP to implement its foreign and domestic policy agendas, which were, in fact, tied together by a broader economic plan. Erdoğan’s own populism and ego increasingly came to the fore, engendering a detached approach to the average Turk (even while he displayed deep concern for and emotional attachments to Palestinians and Syrians) and underlined by expanding authoritarianism, shrinking tolerance for criticism, and a sense of infallibility.

All this came to a head in the case of the construction plans for the Taksim Square area. Hugh Pope’s description of the protests highlights the variation of motivations behind them.

At the moment there’s no serious contender to take advantage of these wide-ranging dissatisfactions; and anyway, Turkish politics has long been marked by the inability of a single party to represent a variety of interests (until the AKP). But perhaps one or more might arise before the next election, riding the momentum of the protests—if it can be maintained.

Depending on how events in Syria unfold—if more refugees stream into Turkey, more shells strike it, or more bombs target Turks—Erdoğan’s room for maneuvering might be further constrained.

On the other hand, Erdoğan might make some concessions here and there and be able to ride things out, weakened but not in danger. Especially if he’s able to move into a strengthened presidency, the protests will become more a footnote to him than a warning or something to be taken seriously. This could still, though, have an effect on the party’s ability to maintain its dominance.

Either way, we should think about the Taksim/Gezi protests as part of a long-term process. Turkey’s political, social, and economic structures are still changing, and the insertion of such a dramatic event could well alter their trajectories—either by the government consciously accounting for the protests, or by the government trying to ignore them and then having to account for the consequences of it.