by Austin Bay
June 7, 2023
The runoff election victory of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is bad news all around.
The list of losers is long: Western and Eastern Europe, NATO, U.S. security interests in central Asia and North Africa. Financial markets aren't pleased with Erdogan's reelection. On June 2 the value of the Turkish lira hit a new low: 20.75 to the U.S. dollar.
But the biggest loser by far? The people of Turkey.
Erdogan won a close election but did so by employing a dictator's vicious tricks: state-directed media censorship, judicial threat and physical intimidation of his political opposition.
I've no evidence Erdogan's stooped to assassinating his political opponents -- yet.
Erdogan, however, is in the process of killing Turkey's democracy, and that's a very destructive historical crime with long term ramifications throughout the developing world, especially in culturally Muslim nations.
The Turkish Ottoman Empire missed the Enlightenment. The sultans made sure it did. Free speech threatens absolute monarchs (dictators with a crown). The Ottomans' World War I defeat left a social, cultural and political vacuum. Out of the chaos, Turkish nationalists, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, established the Republic of Turkey as a secular state.
Ataturk bequeathed Turkey what his biographer, Andrew Mango, called "the structure of a democracy, not of a dictatorship." His goal was to make Turkey a democracy capable of perpetual self?modernization.
Erdogan is Turkey's most significant political figure since Ataturk. But he knows he fades in Ataturk's shadow. Not capable of displacing Ataturk the man, he seeks to replace Ataturk's state.
Erdogan told us he would try. Early in his career Erdogan routinely employed Islamist poetry: "Democracy is merely a train that we ride until we reach our destination. Mosques are our military barracks. Minarets are our spears."
In 2017 Erdogan promoted a constitutional referendum to change Turkey's parliamentary system to a "strong" presidential system. Since 2018 Erdogan's "Big Man" Turkey has substituted institutionalized autocracy for Ataturk's structure and democratic orientation.
Here's my biggest worry: An Erdogan solidifying dictatorship -- reinforced with secret police -- may be an impossibly disruptive condition for NATO and put Turkish membership into question. It may also be an impossible condition for Turkey, for it seeds future disorder. Erdoganist Turkey lacks democratic balance.
Turkey's 2017 agreement to purchase Russia's S-400 surface-to-air missiles is an example of an Erdogan self-centered power tantrum. For good reason the U.S. regards Turkish S-400s as a unique threat to NATO aircraft. Russia might obtain data on NATO air defenses. Turkey could be a nominal political ally but a technological adversary.
So, the U.S. kicked Turkey out of the F-35 stealth fighter consortium. At times Erdogan has boasted Turkey can produce its own weapons. Turkey manufactures excellent if simple conventional systems. But in early May, Turkey's deputy minister of defense said Turkey's poor economy prevents the government from supplying the military with new equipment and weapons.
Blame Erdogan. He has utterly mismanaged Turkey's economy. But by holding all the levers of power, he managed a narrow win.
Here's a critical future scenario: Erdogan's government has suggested it would deny U.S. military forces use of the big Incirlik air base in south-central Turkey.
Closing Incirlik would severely impede if not obstruct U.S. and NATO military operations in the eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and Central Asia. The threat has NATO-wide resonance. Incirlik is a strategically located base, a logistics and training facility, a communication node, an intelligence gathering center, and an international transport hub. Closing Incirlik disrupts surveillance operations that contribute to international security.
Erdogan knows Incirlik gives him leverage. Is refusing to allow the U.S. to use Incirlik an impossible condition for Turkish membership in NATO? The U.S. provides the decisive slice of NATO airpower; in operational terms, does denying America access to Incirlik equate to a Turkish withdrawal from NATO?
The only winners in this confrontation are Moscow and Beijing.