Friday, February 24, 2012

Talking Turkey: Stop Calling this Repressive Regime a “Model Muslim Democracy”

Ralph Peters

Whenever an old alliance comes apart, our foreign-policy establishment behaves like the spouse who pretends away a partner’s ever-more-flagrant infidelities—hoping that patience and indulgence will somehow bring the straying party around. But real life doesn’t work that way for lovers or for states. When we look away from shameless betrayals, it only encourages further bad behavior.

And sometimes the situation requires a divorce. With no more support payments.

The worst current case of a supposed ally gone wildly, viciously wrong is, of course, Pakistan, which our government refers to as a “friend” even as the real rulers in Islamabad—the military and the security services—shield the world’s most wanted terrorists; support, supply and train insurgents who kill and maim our troops; and cut off our main supply route to Afghanistan (presumably, in thanks for the billions of dollars we send the Pakistanis year after year). But another, potentially graver case goes largely unremarked, when not willfully misinterpreted: Turkey, a NATO member and long-time ally (at least, on paper), is suffering from increased repression, the step-by-step subversion of its democratic system, and creeping, clawing Islamism. Yet, to listen to our president, cabinet members and diplomats, you’d think Turkey was a shining city on a hill and its slick Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced “AIR-dew-on,” btw), the Thomas Jefferson the benighted Middle East has been awaiting. In naïve comments aimed at the Muslim world, our leaders lavish praise on Turkey as a “model Muslim democracy” that proves that democracy and Islam are readily compatible.

Well, democracy and Islam may or may not turn out to be compatible, but during its decade in power, Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party has severely restricted freedom of the press and jailed hundreds of journalists on nonsensical charges; has done all it can to pack the courts with party members and religious conservatives; has arrested senior retired and active-duty military officers on trumped-up charges of planning a coup--so Erdogan can undercut the military’s role as guardian of the secular constitution; has moved to cripple opposition political parties as it pursues its vision of forming yet another Muslim one-party state (much like yesteryear’s Baath parties in the Arab world); has staged outrageous provocations against Israel (another former Turkish ally) to rally Arab Islamists behind Erdogan; and has worked an artful double game against Washington.

PM Erdogan himself is a born authoritarian on a mission from Allah to destroy the secular state that has been the great legacy of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk—a visionary who insisted on the separation of mosque and state, on women’s rights, on secular education (not Koranic schools) and on a western orientation. Ataturk knew that, for Turkey to progress, it had to leave the squalor and stagnation of its former domains in the Middle East behind. Erdogan embraces the region’s moral filth and social backwardness.

The prime minister intends to erase Ataturk’s secular state and to Islamicize society. But that’s not all, folks: Even more egomaniacal than Russia’s latest czar, Vladimir Putin, Erdogan dreams of assembling a 21st-century version of the Ottoman Empire, letting a re-awakened—and devout—Turkey reassume its role as leader of and spokesman for all of the Middle East’s Muslims, with Erdogan as sultan and caliph, head of government and head of the faith, in the old Ottoman

Anyone who thinks this is an exaggeration needs to go through a few of the experiences I’ve undergone. I first went to Turkey in 1979. It was a poor, struggling country, but the only place you saw women in headscarves was in the gecekondu, the slums for new arrivals from the countryside. Istanbul was a determinedly cosmopolitan city, home to artistic and literary geniuses, such as the Nobel-Prize-winning Orhan Pamuk. Today, the city is vastly richer…but freedoms are being curtailed one after another, and headscarves and “modest” garb increasingly outnumber Western outfits on the women you pass in the streets. It’s a country plunging backward into a mythologized, sanitized, fairy-tale Ottoman past that, in reality, ended in misery, slaughter and ruins.

The last time I passed through extreme southeastern Turkey in 2004 (returning from covering the Kurds in newly free northern Iraq), I not only was shocked to see that every woman who appeared in public was covered from head to toe in black drapery, but got an angry lecture from a border-guards officer convinced that only the USA was blocking the rebirth of the Ottoman Empire in all its imagined grandeur. Such views may sound insane to us, but this well-educated young man believed every word he said.

And that was in the immediate wake of Turkey’s betrayal of us on the eve of the war to depose Saddam Hussein. Already given to delusions of grandeur, PM Erdogan believed that by refusing to allow our troops to pass through Turkey in route to Iraq, he could stop the war and save Saddam Hussien (who shared Erdogan’s hatred of the Kurds). Of course, we instantly forgave the Turks, who had been happy to forget decades of generous aid, diplomatic support (including for Ankara’s bid to join the European Union), and protection against a hungry Russian bear.

Given all this, should we just cut ties and declare Ankara an enemy? No. What we need is just a more-realistic grasp of what Turkey’s government is up to—rolling back freedom, secularism and democracy, while supporting Islamists throughout the Middle East. And we need to stop preaching to other Muslim states that Turkey’s a “model Muslim democracy.” Because, if it is, Muslim democracy is going to be pretty damned ugly and not very democratic.

Underlying all this is our lunatic American insistence that nations have friends. That’s nonsense. States have allies, not friends. Some relationships may be much stronger and warmer than others, but every government acts in its own perceived interest. Except our own. We have trouble figuring out what our interests really are. And diplomats whose world-view is locked down in the last century aren’t helping.

We need to recognize that, while we can work with Turkey as an ally on some issues, on other matters we’re destined to be enemies. We don’t need to be constant antagonists, but we do need to be realists. We can work together where our interests coincide. I can imagine Turkish and U.S. Air Force aircraft flying joint missions over Syria, and there’s a chance that we can cooperate in support of the old Northern Alliance (once our good allies, until we sold them out to Hamid Karzai) after our bloody boondoggle in Afghanistan falls apart in its entirety.

Whether we can work together on Iran is a question that cannot yet be answered, but it’s certain that we must not let Turkey use Israel as a scapegoat for all of the Middle East’s self-inflicted problems: No more phony relief flotillas to Gaza.

The one benefit we currently get from the Turks is our use of Incirlik airbase in southeastern Turkey. It’s a great strategic location, but we can only fly missions the Turks approve--and they didn’t approve combat missions during our march to Baghdad. The next time the Turks refuse our request to fly essential combat missions from Incirlik, we should close out our presence, cut military ties, and move to expel Turkey from NATO (a long-overdue step).

As for PM Erdogan’s dream of becoming sultan and caliph, well, that’s a hallucination that suggests the need for medication. While Turkey’s current economic strength—relatively speaking—allows it increased clout in the Middle East, Arabs remember full well the centuries of suffering they endured under the Turkish yoke. They’ll take what the Turks offer, exploit the relationship strategically, but will never submit to Turkish overlordship again. (Turkey’s dream of two decades ago of building an ethnic-Turkic empire in the “stans” of the former Soviet Union fell apart for essentially the same reason: People wanted to rule themselves and weren’t going to replace Moscow with Ankara.) Oh, and the Saudis see themselves as the ultimate defenders of the faith nowadays, with the Ottoman caliphate gone and good riddance.

So what does all of this add up to? We have a newly aggressive Turkey led by a narrowly religious demagogue who dreams of building an empire nobody wants but his fellow Turks. He supports Arab revolutions for selfish reasons, intermittently embraces Iran’s theocrats—and probably hopes Iran will go nuclear, since that would give Turkey top-cover to develop its own nuclear weapons. Erdogan is a very dangerous man. If there’s a saving grace, it’s that he’s most-dangerous to his fellow Turks.

I have no axe to grind against Turkey—only against the well-mannered, well-groomed fanatics who are dragging it back into the moral cesspool and vast human prison of the Middle East. I’ve enjoyed each of my once-frequent visits to Turkey. My wife and I even spent our honeymoon on a bus trip from Istanbul to the Iranian border and the shadow of Mt. Ararat. Turkey has more layers of history than any other country, and Turkish hospitality has been remarkably generous to me. Istanbul remains one of the world’s most intriguing and seductive cities. But I liked it better when the newspapers had more freedom and young women didn’t feel compelled to wear headscarves and stare at the pavement as they walked by.

When President Obama naively and blithely held up Turkey as a model for Muslims everywhere, he didn’t have a clue. Today, he bears at least part of the guilt for every imprisoned Turkish journalist, for every Turkish patriot thrown into prison on manufactured charges, for every murdered Kurd, for Turkey’s abuse of Israel, and, above all, for PM Erdogan’s dangerous delusions of grandeur—which our nonsense has encouraged. Unfortunately, President Bush was no wiser—and I’m not sure any of our current presidential aspirants even know where Turkey’s located.

Note to all of our political leaders: It’s time to stop gobbling the b.s. and start talking Turkey.

Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and former enlisted man, a controversial strategist, a journalist, and the author of 28 books, including the new historical novel, Cain at Gettysburg, which goes on sale on Tuesday.

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