Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Clear and Present Danger: Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Threat to the Stability of the Middle East and the Global Economy

Vladimir Putin & Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization Summit in November 2016
As Turkey’s relationship with the United States, NATO and the EU continues to deteriorate, the question on the back burner for the past several years is now front and center.  Is Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership a reliable Western ally?  Do his political values reflect those of NATO members, the Western alliance  and responsible members of the international community?   The answer to these questions is an unequivocal no.  As a result, it is time for the United States and the West to break definitively with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian, unstable and untrustworthy regime.

As Erdogan’s rule has become more repressive, and his foreign policy more quixotic and anti-Western, American and European analysts continue to argue that, despite his utterances and behavior, the West should “exercise caution” and effectively “turn the other cheek.”* After all, doesn’t Turkey occupy a critical geo-political position between the MENA region, Eastern Europe and Russia?  With a population of 80 million people, one of the most powerful militaries in the MENA region, and an economy four times the size of neighboring Greece, shouldn’t the West do everything it can to maintain a close relationship with Erdogan’s Turkey?

The lack of a serious Western policy towards Erdogan
But does “avoidance behavior” really constitute a serious policy in any meaningful sense of the term?  Or is such thinking – namely, basing Western policy on “hope” with no idea of what the ultimate outcome will be – an ostrich-like approach which can only lead to indecision at best and failure at worst?

“Realists” in Western foreign policy making circles point to Turkey’s important geo-political position, its military and economic power, and, above all, the need to maintain its NATO membership.  This approach is very much like a therapist who tells a wife that she should ignore her husband’s infidelities, and then continues to advocate “not rocking the boat,” even when her husband returns home drunk and beats her, and in front of their children.  No serious therapist would counsel patience and relying on hope when a women’s physical safety is at stake.

“Realists” seem to think that “waiting” will lead Erdogan to change his current policies and fall in line behind Turkey’s earlier behavior when it was far more supportive of Western interests.  These analysts should be disabused of such notions after reading Erdogan’s New York Times Op-Ed, “Turkey’s Views of the Crisis With the US” (August 13, 2018).

Yet again, Erdogan offers a laundry list of complaints about US behavior which are linked to unsubstantiated accusations, accusing the US of disrespect for the Turkish nation-state, interference in its internal affairs, and indirect responsibility for the failed July 2016 coup d’état by allowing the coup’s purported mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, to remain in the United States.

Can Erdogan find new allies to replace NATO, the EU and the US?
Erdogan ends his Op-Ed with the ominous words: “Failure [of the US] to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.” This threat underscores yet again that Erdogan is not only unreliable and has little concern for Western strategic interests, let along human rights and democracy, but is not in touch with reality.  Under these circumstances, what benefit does the US and the West derive from Turkey’s geo-political position if Turkey’s leader won’t cooperate with NATO, the US or other Western democracies?

Erdogan’s threats are in fact vacuous.  When he suggests Turkey may find “other friends and allies,” Russia quickly comes to mind.  However, Erdogan has already developed close ties to the Putin regime.  Over NATO objections, he purchased Russian surface to air missiles and he has pushed closer political and economic ties between the two countries. Thus, Erdogan has already cozied up to Vladimir Putin’s equally dysfunctional regime.

Further, Erdogan pursues closer ties with Putin’s Russia at his own peril.  Clearly, Russia and Turkey differ on several key policy areas.  First, Turkey seeks to become the conduit for Europe’s natural gas needs by constructing a pipeline from Central Asia to deliver the gas. Its Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and its Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) will by 2019  offer natural gas derived from Central Asia to Europe, which has seen a decline its own natural gas reserves.

This goal sits in direct competition with Putin’s Nord Stream 2 Pipeline which, developed by Gazprom, would provide gas to Europe through a pipeline running under the Baltic Sea.

Turkish policy in Syria also competes with Russian objectives.  Erdogan despises Bashar al-Asad and is committed to overthrowing his regime.  Russia’s goals are to assure that al-Asad remains in power. The Syrian dictator’s control of Syria ensures that Russia will retain access to Syrian air bases and the only port it has on the Mediterranean at Tartus.

Finally, Putin is very suspicious of Erdogan’s efforts to develop strong tie with the Turkish language speaking countries which were formally part of the Soviet Union.  The Russian leader views  recreating the Soviet state in all but name as one of his key foreign policy objectives. His efforts to tie the ex-Soviet republics to Russia through trade and other economic policies runs against Erdogan’s efforts to tie these republics to Turkey instead as part of his “neo-Ottomanism.”

In many of the Central Asian “Stans,” Islamist forces have been gaining strength.  With Chechnya (the Chechen Republic) still under threat from radical Islamists, and the violence which has occurred there still fresh in the mind of all Russians, any meddling by Erdogan, himself an Islamist, in Central Asia counters Russia’s strategic interests in that region.

How has Erdogan undermined the West and MENA countries’ ability to defeat the Islamic State?
If Erdogan’s ability to enhance ties to Russia are circumscribed, his policies have followed the opposite trajectory regarding the US and NATO. In Syria, Erdogan looked the other way for years as Dacish fighters coming from European countries crossed the Turkish border on their way to join the terrorist organization. Erdogan has attacked the strongest force in northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which has been central in helping the US and coalition forces defeat the Dacish terrorist group.  Meanwhile, his own allies are themselves radical islamists.

Erdogan has also attacked the YPG (People’s Protection Units) which represents the Kurds of northern Syria who were brutally repressed by the Bashar al-Asad regime in Damascus. In the Kurdish majority city of Afrin, Erdogan’s allies in the so-called “Free Syrian Army” have been accused of kidnapping and raping local women.

Beyond Turkey’s negligible help in defeating the Dacish in Syria, Erdogan has diligently worked to destroy the Rojava Kurds’ egalitarian and ethnically diverse experiment in northern Syria under the YPG.  The Rojava Kurds have eliminated so-called “honor crimes,” dowries and have created a political structure in which all major institutions in the Rojava region are co-directed by a man and a woman.  Sustainable development benefitting all residents of the region has now been put at risk by Erdogan’s attack and designation of the YPG as “terrorists.” 

How has Erdogan’s domestic policy promoted political instability in Turkey?
Erdogan’s human right abuses distinguish him from other NATO member states. Selahattin Dermirtas, an ethnic Kurd and leader of one of Turkey’s main opposition parties, the HDP, sits in jail where he stands accused of “terrorism” due to criticism of Erdogan.  He ran for the office of president in this past July’s elections from his jail cell.

Demirtas’ People’s Democratic Party (HDP received 11% of the votes to win 67 seats in Turkey’s parliament.  His party, co-chaired with female MP Pervin Buldan, is the only cross-ethnic party with a substantial social base, precisely why Erdogan, who refuses to address the Turkish-Kurdish divide in Turkey finds the party so threatening.

Within Turkey, countless journalists, university academics and school teachers languish in jail and face trial for ill-defined offenses.  Those arrested are considered disloyal or for what the Turkish leader considers the slightest criticism.  The position of prime minister was eliminated in a faulty referendum which consolidated power in the position of the president.  In effect, Erdogan faces no checks and balances.

Colloquial wisdom has much to tell us regarding the West’s relationship with Erdogan; “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  Put differently, how many decisions does Erdogan need to make until the US, NATO, the EU and other Western democracies realize that he has no desire to promote stability in the MENA region, treat the large population of Turkish Kurdish citizens with even a modicum of respect, much less attend to their social and economic needs, or deviate from his desire to emulate the sultan-caliphs of the defunct Ottoman Empire, a desire driven by ego and narcissism.

Why Turkey must have an independent  Central Bank before any IMF economic bailout
In light of Turkey’s current economic threat to the global policy, one brought on not only be reckless borrowing which has produced loans which can’t be replayed, but reflect the country’s excessive economic corruption, the West should focus less on Turkey as a NATO member and more on its deeply troubled economy.

European banks in particular have a large exposure to loans made to Turkey which it appears borrowers are having an increasingly difficult time repaying.  While a collapse of the lira would affect only %0.2 of the equity of European banks, these loans total €140 billion ($159 billion).  

Of greater danger is the threat a collapse of the lira would have on other emerging market countries such as Brazil and Indonesia.  With Turkey in a downward economic spiral, investors in the industrialized North would be loathe to commit investments to other countries in the emerging market category.

With the Trump administration having slapped sanctions on imported Turkish steel, Turkey’s economy has received a further blow.  It has been a major source of US rebar which is essential to the construction industry, especially in erecting tall buildings.

A strong stance towards Erdogan is also the best move by NATO and the West in light of the increasing instability of the Turkish economy.  The reasons for the Turkish lira’s recently slide, having lost 62% of its value in relation to the US dollar this year (trading at 6.4 to the dollar at this writing) is not because Donald Trump has slapped sanctions on Erdogan and members of his inner circle. 

For years, the Erdogan regime has underwritten myriad loans to support the Turkish business elite with close ties to his AKP (Justice and Development Party).  These loans, which built on a since dissipated international appetite for emerging markets, primarily targeted the  construction sector, resulting in the building of a large number of high-end apartment buildings in Turkish cities, especially Istanbul, to house the AKP elite.  

Now that international interest rates have been to rise as the global economy has finally been able to escape from the worst of the 2008 fiscal crisis, holders of these loans are finding it difficult to repay them as they are valued in dollars.  As the lire has declined, the cost of relying Turkey huge foreign debt has become even more onerous.

Adding to Turkey’s economic woes are the constant utterances of Erdogan which further erode international confidence in the Turkish economy.  With the recent consolidation of power in the office of the presidency, Turkey’s Central Bank has lost its independence.  As Erdogan rails against higher interest rates (one of his favorite sayings is: “interest is the mother of all evil”), the Central Bank’s ability to stabilize the lira has been compromised. Meanwhile, he appointed his son-in-law Berat Albayrak, to the post of finance minister.

Could Erdogan follow the path of the former Shah of Iran?
The current US and Western relationship with Erdogan remind us of the relationship the US had with the former Shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. After the US restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne in 1953, in supporting the overthrow of the duly-elected prime minister of Iran, Mohamed Mossadegh, an aristocratic reformer whose sin was to seek higher royalty payments from the British owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

As is well known, the Shah was an extremely repressive leader. His policies were designed to marginalize the powerful bazaar merchant class and the Shi a clergy, dispossess the rural peasantry, a large sector of which migrated to urban slums in Iranian cities, and create a powerful Western economic compradorial elite which turned the Iranian economy into a satellite for international agrobusiness and assembling consumer durables for trans-national corporations.

The “tipping point” (or sufficient conditions) which pushed Iran to the brink of revolution in the late 1970s was the Sha’s decision to cut back on urban construction to reduce the inflation caused by the rise in inflation caused by dramatic oil price rises after the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973.  This policy led to many rural migrants who depended on income from construction suddenly facing economic ruin.  Their participation in demonstrations against the Shah and the refusal of the army to attack demonstrators was key to bringing down the Shah’s regime

As the Shah’s regime increased its strategic importance with the implementation of the Nixon Doctrine, US policy-makers consistently ignored its human rights abuses and corruption.  The Nixon Doctrine, which was a response in large measure to the high casualties of the Vietnam War, designated regional allies in strategic areas, rather than US forces, to assume the major role in protecting American interests.  With the Persian Gulf assuming great importance due to its supplying oil to much of the world, the Shah’s regime became the local US “policeman.”

The sale of large amounts of US arms to Iran, e.g., Grumman Aircraft,  also incentivized policy-makers to look the other way at the increasingly repressive nature of the Shah’s regime. The US even agreed to curtail its intelligence gathering forces in Iran at the Shah’s request.  Thus, the US lacked the necessary “eyes and ears” as the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 loomed as an ever-larger possibility.

Together with North Korea, the US’ relationship with the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran is the worst of any country in the world.  In a misguided effort which allowed an abstract understanding of “geo-political position” to guide American policy, the result was that the US has suffered almost 30 years of foreign policy crisis with the current Teheran regime.

What needs to be placed at the forefront of any US and Western policy is political leadership and political institutions.  The “fish rots from the head down.”  A country can possess enormous strategic interest.  However, if a nation-state is ruled by an authoritarian, corrupt and erratic leader, and if there are no institutional checks and balances on that leader, strategic value as a concept possesses little if no value to those countries which seek to cooperate with the country in question.

At present, the US should worry less about Turkey’s standing in NATO, and whether Erdogan will try and strengthen ties with Russia and perhaps China, two of the West’s strongest adversaries.  Instead the US, NATO and the EU should:

1) prevent the IMF or other international lender from offering Erdogan relief from the economic crisis he created unless the Turkish Central Bank is independent and competent economists, rather than his relatives, administer the appropriate state ministries and agencies concerned with the economy;
2) stand firm against Erdogan in northern Syria and not allow Turkish forces, and especially their surrogate militia, the “Free Syrian Army” attack the Rojava Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces;
3) maintain a steady criticism of Erdogan’s policies of firing and imprisoning teachers, academics, journalists, professionals and members of opposition parties who criticize his authoritarian rule;
4) stop worrying about Turkey’s efforts to strengthen its ties with Russia, a policy it would follow no matter what the policy positions of the US and the West, because Erdogan will only create problems for Putin which will undermine, not enhance, Russia’s position in the MENA region.

An example of this "support Erdogan at all costs" mentality, see Ty Joplin's articles at 
al-Bawaba, e.g., "Turkey is cozying up to Russia, disavowing the US,"


Mike R. said...

Neo-con Western imperialist ideology and hubris at its worst, Eric, masquerading as academic analysis. Turkey should simply, as you say in almost every paragraph, "serve Western interests" and accept to become a puppet state of the U.S. If not, then it must be punished and hurt (see your final "proposals"). And if it still doesn't work, then just trash the country, as you are also advocating.

Haven't we learned anything from the failure of such archaic "foreign policy thinking"? (cue: Iraq). Alain

Alain said...

This latest blog piece is a perfect textbook example of neo-con' Western imperialist ideology and hubris at its best (namely, at its worst) presented as geostrategic analysis.

Turkey should simply, as you candidly writes in almost every paragraph, "serve Western interests", "fall in line" (a whole mindset is revealed in that expression), forget about its autonomy, national independence, and any type of choice and latitude (according to Davis Turkey should even take orders about where to buy its own defense systems!). It should just do what it's told and accept to become a puppet state of the U.S. If not, then it must be expelled from NATO, punished diplomatically and politically, hurt economically (see the "proposals" at the end of the article) and God knows what else. And if the economic and other types of harm recommended still do not work, then just trash and discard the country right here right now, drop it like a pair of old socks without waiting, as Eric is also advocating.

So, in a nutshell and quite recognizably, quintessential Western imperialist hegemony both with and without the "neo" at its most naked and pettiest. At least it is candid and has the merit of clarity.

Furthermore, Eric, there's no serious thought or consideration here on what could and most likely would be a slew of negative consequences for your own country, for NATO, and for the region if our Powers that Be were foolish enough to listen to you. If the goal of your article were actually an analytical one, shouldn't you at least have listed those negative consequences, even as mere hypothesis, and explained how expelling Turkey from NATO (as if it were ever a realistic possibility to start with as opposed to wishful thinking) could only turn out to be counterproductive and result in a weakening of NATO itself, in pushing Erdogan even more in the arms of Russia and China, in other countries including Russia, China, Iran, Qatar and others coming to Turkey's rescue to fill the void, in further weakening Western and U.S. influence there not to mention the billions in lost business (which are already going to others), in a surge of already high anti-Western sentiments in Turkey and beyond, and so on and so forth and more blowbacks?

Remarkably for a political scientist specialized in the Middle East, you didn't even mention that the very first and immediate consequence of expelling Turkey from NATO would be the loss of the important (some would say crucial) strategic NATO/US military air base of Incirlik in Southern Turkey and the US and NATO would therefore shoot themselves in the foot big time. That's not very smart geostrategy. But why not at least explain that? (you're not limited in space.)

You are bashing the "Realists", but in foreign policy matters it's still better to be a cautious Realist than a reckless Irrealist or an Absurdist. Didn't Iraq at least teach us that? (Apparently no)

Alain said...

(Continued from previous response)

You even equate, again in perfect neo-con' (or Kissingerian if you prefer) fashion, U.S. interests with those of the world: "To achieve its desired outcomes, not just for its own national interests but for those of the international community as well [but of course, US interests = the world's interests, evidently], the US needs to exercise the considerable power – military, diplomatic and economic - at its disposal."

The old-die hard "American exceptionalism", utterly blind at how the world has radically changed. Eric, at least in this piece, you are thinking and writing as if we were still in the Cold War bipolar or post-Soviet Union unipolar era when the U.S. only had to snap its fingers, blackmail, twist some arms, flex a little diplomatic or military muscle and its puppet allies or foes, all scared, would fold, or "fall in line" and "serve our interests", to use your expressions.

But those days are over and are not coming back Every serious analyst knows that Yet, somehow, you are still thinking as if nothing had happened (nostalgia for the Clinton days of the U.S. as "the world's only remaining hyperpower", maybe?). In the process, the foreign policy "thinking" you are producing is not just obsolete, archaic, still rooted in old-fashioned American Exceptionalism ideology that no longer corresponds to the state present and future of the world and can only lead to more hubris and disasters

It's also as shown above misleading for your audience (as much of what you write on this blog even on Iraq), fraudulent (since you're serving us Western hegemonic imperialist ideology in lieu of solid analysis), and in the current new era, dangerous too. Your thinking (the old Western imperialist ideology masquerading as analysis, really) is even at times very Trumpist now

As former Italian Ambassador to the U.N. and Middle East Peace Process Special Envoy for Syria Marco Carnelo writes in his excellent MEE piece "When political establishments start to believe in their own propaganda, and they drive their own people to do the same - as the US did with the Iraqi’s "weapons of mass destruction" - the chances of miscalculation and, consequently, of conflict, increase. "

Incidentally, by pushing Erdogan in the arms of Russia, you would also be strengthening Putin by forcing Turkey to consolidate what is at the moment a merely tactical and very uncertain alliance. So not only your recommendations would weaken NATO, but they would also strengthen its alleged adversaries! That's smart.

This other quote too perfectly applies to your own piece and foreign policy attitude: "At times, the easiness and haste with which Washington identifies new threats appears ridiculous. In the last quarter of a century, the most powerful nation in the world has framed Panama, the Serbian Republic, the tiny island of Grenada, a bunch of fanatics in an Afghan cave and a series of embattered Muslim nations as clear and present dangers to its own national security. "

So now, it's also Turkey who is somehow a "clear and present danger", a quasi existential threat to the US, the EU, NATO, world peace and the whole Western civilization as we know it? That is frankly ridiculous.

Alain said...

And when I say that this really bad analysis and reckless foreign policy recommendations, if followed, could only weaken the "Western Alliance" and the U.S. itself, check how the U.S. did not even get invited by Angela Merkel in the forthcoming (still tentative) 4-nation summit on Syria, which does include Turkey though, with Russia, France and Germany:

If you're looking for another "clear and present danger" for the West, a real rather than an imaginary one, how about focusing on Trump rather than our new usual suspect Erdogan for a change, since Trump has from day one been busy undermining and attacking every single standard, norm, and value of American and world politics not to mention the global economy too, from "Muslim travel bans" to White Supremacists at the White House, violating and ending international treaties signed by his country (Iran deal, Paris climate protocol etc.), setting trade bareers, gratuitously declaring an economic war with China, declaring Jerusalem capital of Israel therefore trampling with glee the rights of the Palestinians, seeking to undermine our precious EU ally itself (which now owes him to get increasingly ostracized from the rest of the Western world too as the 4-nation summit Merkel episode shows), attacking international trade agreements too, and so on and so forth.

In one week, this past one, he even managed to openly threaten of all sorts of harm, economic military and other no fewer than 5 countries! (Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Venezuela) including one NATO ally. And that's not Madman Theory, but real psychopathology from a crazed out-of-control megalomaniac hell bent on destroying any imaginary enemy, declaring war on any regime that just does not submit to the US (largely eroded) power, and destroying all transnational constructs including those that effectively serve US interests (GATT, Paris climate deal, Iran deal etc.) in the name of an archaic populist hypernationalism.

But you don't seem to see THAT "clear and present danger" though it's pretty plain and visibly active everyday.

Thank God the rest of the world is not as blind: ""Polls: U.S. is Perceived as Greatest Threat to Peace in the World Today"

Alain said...

Eric Davis writes: " In many of the Central Asian “Stans,” Islamist forces have been gaining strength. With Chechnya (the Chechen Republic) still under threat from radical Islamists, and the violence which has occurred there still fresh in the mind of all Russians, any meddling by Erdogan, himself an Islamist, in Central Asia counters Russia’s strategic interests in that region. "

There are no fewer than 5 conspicuous problems in that brief 4-line paragraph.

First spontaneous reaction to that part was "Could you say 'radical islamist' one more time so we be real scared???" More seriously: 1. You're not defining in any way, even briefly, what you mean by "Islamist" ("radical" or not) 2. You're using this word in an essentializing manner, as if the reality of what it covers were a monolithic one, always the same, as opposed to highly diverse, plural, contextualized, changing etc. But in your stigmatizing and demonizing, simplistic and misleading rhetoric, it just means and is meant to mean "bad", "dangerous", "reactionary", "anti-Western", "toxic", etc. 3. So, you are clearly using "Islamist" in the same crude way it is used in mainstream media and politics: merely as scare to easily discredit whoever you attach that term to 4. By so doing, you superbly ignore (deliberately, as one can't think you would not know this) all of the recent (or not-so-recent) scholarship on Islamism and Islamist movements that has shown both the diversity of what we call "Islamism", how it's usually not what we mean in our crude and common use of that term, and the frequent convergence of Islamist movements with our own professed, supposedly 'Western" ideals of human rights, justice and democracy. By so doing, this growing academic trend in the study of Islamism has already gone a long way towards debunking the scare commonly associated with "Islamist" movements. But none of that computes in your analysis and rhetoric, and you will admit that even from a purely scholarly point of view (besides the clear ideology and politics of your writings as mentioned in my previous longer response), it is a problem too.

See for example the many works of Francois Burgat (one of the world's top scholars and best connoisseur of Islamisms, internationally recognized as such) especially his latest "Understanding Political Islam. A Research Trajectory on Islamist Alterity 1976-2016") or Emmanuel Karagiannis' groundbreaking and widely praised "The New Political Islam. Human Rights, Democracy, and Justice"

See also, in the actual political reality, how Islamist parties and movements including those labeled "radical" are often far more democratic and certainly less violent than their secularist opponents e.g. Ennahda in Tunisia, Morsi and the Muslim Brothers in Egypt vs. Sisi, Turkey's various contemporary Islamist parties (Erbakan's National Salvation Party, the JDP, even the Liberation Party) vs. the putschist secularist military, Morocco's Justice and Development Party etc.

(Continued next)

Alain said...


5. Utterly oblivious of all of the above, you blame Erdogan for having "Islamist allies" or being himself an "Islamist" as if calling him or anyone "an Islamist" is enough to make him toxic (clearly your goal here). But you don't say a word on the fact that the U.S. and the E.U. themselves support, and unconditionally so, "radical Islamist" regimes of the worst most repressive type like the KSA and Bahrain, whose human rights situation is nothing less than "dismal" and who joined military forces to kill the Arab Spring too. Not a word either on the U.S. postwar history (well documented in several threads on this list too) of supporting, arming and funding for decades militant Jihadist groups, the crucial support given by Reagan to the Afghan Mujahideens and bin Laden himself in their wars against Soviet invasion being only the most famous example.

Let's end here for this one paragraph.

Alain Gabon

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