The Year of Erdogan

Few international leaders covered themselves with much glory in 2011. Turkey’s prime minister did the trick.

Few international leaders covered themselves with much glory this past year. Turkey’s prime minister did the trick.

In a year in which the Middle East was dominated by uprisings, violence, the fall of dictators, the rise of Islamic parties and changing alignments, Recip Tayyip Erdogan was left standing as the world’s most dynamic and impressive Muslim leader, with his country widely perceived as an increasingly important international player. His earlier intensive economic and political forays in the Middle East were a mixed bag, but this year he moved from initially wavering in support of democratic protestors to becoming a highly vocal advocate of popular democratic movements in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.

This impressed Europe, won the respect of publics in the Middle East and got the ear of President Obama. Indeed, despite his incessant criticism of Israel, Erdogan received a very positive welcome in the United States from Obama in September, more support for his war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and general approbation of his efforts in the Middle East, including the role of Turkey’s democracy in encouraging fledgling new ones. By all accounts he talks frequently to Obama, who values his views and efforts to support democratic insurgents. (Apparently Erdogan’s animosity toward dictators who attack their people does not apply to his support of the indicted war criminal who rules Sudan and gets significant Turkish investment.)

In the past decade, Erdogan has transformed Turkey and dominates the country like no figure since Ataturk. One prominent Turkish politician used to argue that Turkey needed a good driver to maneuver around all the potholes in the way of necessary change. Erdogan proved not only a great driver but also filled in many of the remaining potholes, most importantly beating the political stuffing out of the Turkish military, which permitted him to make major political and economic change.

Turkey has become a far more dynamic, democratic country with one of the highest growth rates in the world. That growth has enabled Erdogan to move with skill and authority in foreign policy, won him attention and mostly plaudits from much of the world, and put Turkey in the G-20. He is so dominant that for three weeks this month the country seemed to stop, and even his political enemies held their breath, from an ill-reported sudden stomach operation which left Erdogan temporarily house ridden. There were widespread fears that his majority AK Party simply would not be able to replace his absolute control and it would fall into factionalism, despite the party’s control of parliament for the next four years. The Turkish press lamented his absent dynamism.

How significant is Turkish influence in the Middle East? How applicable are the “Turkish model” and Erdogan’s leadership style to the area’s chaotic political change? These are questions that pervade policy discussions. Erdogan has brought to his Middle East efforts considerable personal advantages: the appeal of his strong religious beliefs within a secular state and a penchant for criticizing the existing global order that favors the West and Israel at the expense of Muslims. He also portrays himself as the voice of the oppressed. More practically, he has focused on expanding Ankara’s trade, investment and aid in the area, benefiting not only Turkey but also economic development in other difficult places such as Iraq, Libya, Syria (until recently), other Arab states and the Balkans. He used his break with Israel to fuel his popularity in the Arab world. He has not seen any negative consequences of this break because Turkey has become too important a player, and neither Israel nor or its American friends want to further escalate tensions with Turkey.

Erdogan also has shown a capacity to adapt quickly, to simply brush off his early mistakes in the Middle East by changing his stance in response to events. He has successfully done this on Syria, where only last year he was Assad’s bosom buddy.

The new year is likely to be a more difficult one for Erdogan, for Turkey domestically as well as in foreign affairs. Turkey has mostly escaped recession, but serious economic problems may be in store. Its trade deficit has reached extraordinary levels, and the lira has fallen sharply. Increasing incomes have been an essential part of his popular success, and they may fall with Europe’s decline. He has promised a new constitution next year to replace the current military-produced document, but it seems unlikely that he will get enough support from the political parties to do so. That will not help him with his most immediate and most difficult political headache, making peace with Turkey’s Kurds.

There also remains in Turkey and the West, fairly or unfairly, a dim view of Turkey’s domestic political scene: some claim that Erdogan has become a far more authoritarian leader with a strong religious agenda; that he dominates the judiciary; that he has imposed an increasing uniformity on the Turkish press, with an ensuing decline into self-censorship; that there has been widespread expansion of wiretapping; and that he has arrested numerous journalists charged with abetting coups. This perspective seems to worry the EU more than the United States.