Unless my readers have spent the greater part of the last five weeks inside a subterranean cavern they have doubtlessly heard and seen much concerning the ‘freedom flotilla’ that attempted to break through the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the (botched) Israeli commando raid dispatched to stop them. Proving our collective inability to place world events in their proper context or proportion
, the raid left both the standard news outlets and the blogosphere aflutter; a month has passed and yet talk of Israel and Palestine is still all the rage
. Such longevity is a rare thing in an age of 7-second news cycles and soundbite sized attention spans. Among consumer and commentator alike the story of Israel and Palestine resonates.
I find this amusing, as this story is not about Israel or Palestine. As the more astute observers – Thomas Barnett
, Nitin Pai
, Walter Russel Meade
, and The Economist
come to mind – have pointed out, the Gaza strip is but a side show to the real drama. And the main actor in this drama is not America, the Palestinians, or even Israel. It is Turkey.
Or so it first seems. But at second glance this analysis also has its weak points. Declarations that Turkey is making its bid for great power status, trying to obtain ‘the bomb’, or that wishes to distance itself from the West all miss a central point: it is not Turkey that is doing this, but Turks
. Or in this case, one particular Turk: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
This realization is the last puzzle piece needed to put together a picture of the whole. Despite realist claims to the contrary, states like Turkey cannot be seen as unitary actors. They are entities divided, battlefields for factions and magnates. Struggles for power on the international stage occur midst struggles for power on the domestic. Rare is the action of any statesmen whose motivation is purely geopolitical.
And in few countries is this as true as in the Republic of Turkey.
Any article that presumes to discuss Turkish grand strategy without at least mentioning Turkey’s internal politics gets an automatic Fail. The split between the AKP and the military/Kemalists is broad, deep, and runs right across Turkish society. The two groups have dramatically different strategic visions for the country, and their rivalry is one of the major drivers of AKP foreign policy.
Internal politics are important everywhere. But in Turkey, they’re pretty much critical. You simply can’t make sense of the current government’s actions without taking them into account.
…This was a chess move by Erdogan and his AKP in their multi-front political, legal and constitutional struggle with Turkey’s entrenched Kemalists. Erdogan was facing a political crisis over proposed constitutional changes, and possible early elections. He’s now in a much stronger position than he was last week.
– “Chess move” isn’t exactly right. “Cheap, low-risk high-gain gambit” is more like it. If you play Hearts? Like leading a spade when you hold four low spades and no Queen. Worst that happens is, you clean out some spades at no risk of loss to yourself. Best, you nail someone with the Queen — which is more or less what happened here.
About the only negative for Erdogan is, he now must ride the tiger of enraged Turkish public opinion.
Mr. Muirs’s point merits further explication.
Prime Minister Erdogan is not only Turkey’s head of government, but also the chairman of the Justice and Development Party, more widely known by its Turkish initials AKP. Broadly defined, the AKP’s policy platform stands upon three pillars: the need for political and economic integration with the rest of Europe, support for economic liberalization and freer markets, and the protection of Islamic conservatism as a legitimate and lawful political force. The third of these has given the AKP notoriety both inside and outside of the Republic.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding statesmen of the Republic of Turkey, was an avid secularist. Convinced that the Ottoman Empire’s shameful performance in the First World War was the result of decrepit social and political institutions, Ataturk embarked on a great modernizing crusade to transform an empire of serfs into an industrialized, democratic, and independent nation state. As the old empire had been imbued with religious authority of the Caliphate, limiting the influence religion had in political affairs was seen as a central step in this transformation.
Atatürk’s reforms became the basis of ideology of the ruling Turkish elite for the rest of the 20th century. Known as Kemalists, the greatest supporters of Atatürk’s vision dominated every major political institution in the Republic. In particular, both the upper echelons of the Turkish court system and the Turkish General Staff became strongholds of Kemalist ideology. Both worked actively to frustrate Islamist political movements: the courts by using their constitutional power to veto laws and to ban opposition parties viewed as “anti-secular”, and the military by overthrowing elected governments labeled the same.
The Kemalist status quo was preserved for more than four generations. Things began to change when the AKP came roaring into power with the turn of the millennium. Champions of both European integration and Islamic conservatism, the AKP platform struck a chord with the country’s pious (yet globalized) middle class, bringing the party stunning electoral success.
The AKP won the 2002 parliamentary elections with 34% of the vote and 363 (of 550) seats in the Grand National Assembly. Two years later the AKP swept through local elections, taking control of 60 of Turkey’s 81 provinces.
Prime Minister Erdogan could not have come to power at a better time. Over the next five years Turkey would witness the highest economic growth rates in the Republic’s history, while Turkish art, politics, and entertainment would reach a level of prestige in the Middle East not seen since the days of the Sultan. In the 2007 general elections the electorate awarded the AKP for Turkey’s success, and the AKP captured 47% of the vote.
This was seen as a disaster by the Kemalist elements of the army and the courts. For a century Atatürk’s dreams had been Turkey’s reality, and now in the space of a few years all of this began to crumble away. Henri Barkey aptly summarized the state of malaise in which Kemalists began to find themselves in a recent Council on Foreign Relations round table
Turkey is going through a major transformation and it’s a very complex one. This political party, AKP, is really the product of economic reforms that happened in the 1980s where, for the first time, you had a new bourgeoisie emerge in Anatolia that is conservative, that is pious, but it is also very market-oriented. And as a result, they carried this body to power.
So it does have, shall we say, a pious conservative bent to it, but at the same time, you also have to realize that for the longest time, since the inception of the republic, that the Turkish regime or the Turkish state has been a very ideological state. There are very few societies like Turkey, or old Turkey if you want. It’s not Korea, Cuba, China and Iran, which are so ideological.
And you had a very stultifying, very static-oriented system in Turkey where the judiciary and the military essentially ran everything. This is crumbling now, but it’s also crumbling because — not just because of AKP coming to power; it is also crumbling because the military has made mistake after mistake after mistake. I mean, there is a reason why military officers should never become politicians and they should never run countries. I mean, you really see it in Turkey. And so, they have essentially made the problem for themselves bigger.
Seeing their world “crumbling” away, the Kemalists turned to the courts to stem the tide. Appointed by fellow judges, not legislators, the court system remained an avowed enemy of politicized Islam. In 2008 the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court indited the AKP for “hosting a hotbed of anti-secular activities.” The party was forced to defend its very existence in the Supreme court and only narrowly escaped being banned outright.
This was too close a call for the AKP. Mr. Erdogan and his fellow legislators began to work on a series of proposals to defang both the military and the court system, of which the most significant would give elected officials more control over the selection process of the supreme court. Promising to change the structure of the Turkish government itself, all proposals took the form of constitutional amendments. If passed, they would be the most important legacy of the Prime Minister’s career. He announced these proposals at the beginning of this spring.
The timing of the announcement was unfortunate. The economic crisis halved Turkey’s growth rate, and the approval rate of the AKP fell with it. By the time of his announcement, Primer Minister Erdogan ‘s approval rating was hovering somewhere near 27%. If Mr. Erdogan and his party wished to push such drastic reforms through the system they needed to restore their credibility with the people at large.
Thus the Gaza flotilla crisis.
The pattern for the flotilla was set more than a year previous. After declaring Israeli President Shimon Peres a murderer and then storming out the room during a televised Davos forum
, the Prime Minister returned home to a hero’s welcome and a boost in the opinion polls. Turkey’s alliance with Israel has never been popular in the Republic, and Mr. Erdogan’s outburst struck a chord with the Turkish public.
The flotilla allowed the Prime Minister to repeat his performance on a far grander scale. It changed the political balance in the Grand Assembly over night. A day before Mr. Erdogan and his party had been accused of usurping the rule of law; now Erdogan turned around and branded the opposition as pawns of Tel Aviv. The AKP’s poll numbers jumped upwards; Mr. Erdogan regained the credibility a year of economic decline had lost him. He could now push his reforms with a free hand.
The Prime Minister’s decision to force a row between Israel and Turkey over the flotilla was not entirely a choice made because of domestic necessities. There have been clear signs for years that Turkey and Israel’s strategic relationship was falling apart. It was simply a matter of time until this became clear to the world. Luckily for Mr. Erdogan, he could choose a time to his liking.