At Large

Taking a Sledgehammer to Ataturk

How long will Turkey remain an American ally?

By 3.26.10

Stern faced, defiant yet not a little concerned, Turk generals, admirals, and special forces chiefs were led unceremoniously from police vans to constabulary headquarters. Of the fifty ranking military officers rounded up at the end of February, only twelve were finally charged with planning a coup. There was nothing unusual in the news of a possible coup -- there had been four since 1960 -- but the arrest of serving and retired military officers for planning to do so certainly was news. Suspiciously, the follow-up to this story has disappeared from the headlines.

The gauntlet has been thrown down by the Islamist civilian government of P.M. Racep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). As a result Turkey is in the throes of political change that can alter the entire political balance in the Middle East. Since the post-WWII Truman Doctrine this one time center of the Ottoman Empire -- turned Republic of Turkey in 1923 -- has been counted on as an American ally.

Turkish forces fought courageously with the U.S./UN troops during the Korean War and joined NATO in 1952. U.S. missiles were stationed in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union and American U-2 spy planes secretly flew out of Anatolian bases to photograph Russian sites. The role of Turkey's military in these years had been accepted at home and abroad as a guardian of secular dominance and legal process as perceived by the republic's first president, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk.

The first important break in Turkey's military commitment to the West occurred in 2003 when, in spite of enormous pressure from Washington, the newly elected Erdogan government in Ankara refused American transit through Turkey into northern Iraq. The U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division was forced to arrive in Iraq via a long sea trip through the Suez Canal and 'round the Arabian Peninsula to the Persian Gulf to land instead in Iraq's southern ports.

While the 4th ID ultimately was able to play an altered -- if still major -- role in the fighting, U.S.-Turkish relations had been hit with a new reality. Apologists for the Erdogan government pointed to the traditional animosity of Turkey to the Kurds of northern Iraq, whom Ankara did not want to benefit from a U.S. presence. While that certainly was a factor, a stronger impetus came from the new Turkish government's desire to pursue an amicable relationship with its Muslim neighbors, who were adamantly supporting efforts to prevent another "crusader" invasion of the Islamic Middle East.

The essential element of Islamic political unity had received a major boost. The sharp political division between the strongly secular military and the Islamist-oriented civilian leadership of the AKP became even more stark after the AKP's victory in 2007 with nearly 47% of the vote in the general election. At the same time as the military was growing increasingly worried about the direction of the conservative religious government in Ankara, the AKP leadership began seeing a military coup under every carpet. Matters became even more confrontational as the Erdogan government proceeded on a path to improve relations with both Iran and Syria to the detriment of the long-standing special relationship between Turkey and Israel.

As if by some form of Turkish magic, hours of tapes of a 2003 war game were recently discovered in which the military brass played out a scenario wherein a provocation would be created with the Greek Air Force, among other things, to justify the installation of military law in Turkey, nullifying existing civilian control. This "evidence" was adequate to have government prosecutors order the initial fifty arrests last month and the ultimate charges against the twelve chosen leaders.

The colorful name of the supposed coup operation was Balyoz, which means "Sledgehammer." The heavy-handedness of the coup charge itself suggests the same code name could be given to the government's operation. The fact that there was a seven-year gap between evidence of a coup cabal and the police roundup was immediately noted by spokesmen for the accused.

The Chief of the General Staff, Ilker Basbug, was as close to apoplectic as this studiously calm soldier could be when he charged that a "psychological campaign" was being waged to disparage the Turkish military. Underlying General Basbug's fears is the likelihood that the AKP is laying the groundwork to rescind the 1980 constitution, which has always been seen as a military-dictated instrument.

The objective would be to replace the existing basic law with a document diminishing the armed services' influence on domestic politics and opening the way for a reduction of the commitment to a secular society that was the bedrock of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk's original vision of the new republic. With the military no longer the guardian of the secular nature of the Republic of Turkey, the way would be open to greater Islamic influence in governance and law.

The arrests may inadvertently produce the exact action they were intended to block. That is now something about which the armed forces must be thinking!


George H. Wittman, a member of the Committee on Present Danger, was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.