A longtime U.S. ally has become openly hostile to the West. So what now?
Among NATO’s most serious problems is Recip Erdogan, the president of Turkey. He is more than a political nuisance, because he threatens both the commitment of NATO’s members to defend each other and the Westernized composition of the nation he leads.
In the last half of the 19th century, under the Ottoman Empire’s last caliph Abdulmejid, Turkey was known as “the sick man of Europe.” Abdulmejid’s government was corrupt, dissolute, and entirely vulnerable. That third element led to the Gallipoli Campaign, which, in 1915-1916, saw troops from Australia and New Zealand under British command thwarted in their attempt to land and seize control of the Dardanelles.
One Turkish officer, Mustafa Kemal, found himself at the center of the invasion force. His counterattacks and ability to hold ground were the reasons the invasion failed.
After the war, when the Ottoman Empire fell and Abdulmejid’s reign ended, Mustafa Kemal became the leader of Turkey who was not as much followed as worshiped. In 1934, Mustafa Kemal became known as “Ataturk,” father of Turks. He remade the Islamic Ottoman state into a secular, non-Islamic nation aimed at joining the Western world.
Eighty-three years later, Turkey is led by a man whose principal goal is the re-creation of the Turkish Islamic state, Recip Erdogan.
Erdogan is not a dictator imposed by a military coup (though Turkey has had its share of them). He is highly popular, despite his many despotic actions, primarily because the Turks seem to have forgotten the reason for Ataturk’s success.
If you examine Erdogan’s past, it is no surprise that he is an Islamist. Erdogan is the product of a Turkish imam-hatip school. These are Islamic religious schools that aren’t quite the “madrassas” we’ve heard so much about since 9/11, but they are much like them. The imam-hatip schools reserve 30 percent of their students’ time for religious instruction. They teach Sunni Islamic law — Sharia law — as the exclusive legitimate source of authority. Those schools teach the political ideology we refer to as radical Islam.
Erdogan repeatedly has made clear his allegiance to radical Islam again and again throughout his presidency. He became prime minister in 2002 and has ruled the country ever since. His presidency, which began in 2014, is about to be converted into a pseudo-caliphate by a constitutional referendum that will be voted on next month.
Since Ataturk, the Turkish army has had the duty of maintaining the secularism of the Turkish state. It has had its successes and failures, but as Ataturk recognized, Turkey cannot be an Islamic state and a Western ally. For decades, many (if not most) Turkish officers have been trained in the U.S. and England and have been assigned to officer exchange programs that enabled them to serve with American forces.
From Korea to Afghanistan, Turkish troops have been a strong presence in NATO deployments. Gradually, since 2002, Erdogan has been weeding out non-Islamists from the Turkish armed forces. Graduates of the imam-hatip schools weren’t permitted to become officers in the Turkish army, but that may soon change. Erdogan has said those schools are “the hope of Turkey and the entire Muslim nation.”
Last July’s attempted coup against Erdogan sealed the Turkish army’s fate. Hundreds of non-Islamist senior officers were purged from the military. They and the journalists taken prisoner are among the more than 200,000 people arrested and (or) fired from their jobs in Erdogan’s response to the coup attempt.
Erdogan’s hopes lie in the referendum that will be voted on in April. It’s likely to be approved by the voters. In sum, the constitutional amendments it contains concentrate all executive power in the president and extend his legal term in office for at least another decade.
The referendum has been the source of Turkey’s recent conflict with Germany and Holland. About 1.5 million Turkish citizens live in Germany, but that doesn’t count the numbers who have come as refugees in the past two years. Turks make up the largest alien population in Germany.
At least 400,000 Turks live in Holland. Again, that number doesn’t reflect how many entered in the refugee floods of 2015-2016. All told, about four million ethnic Turks live in the EU nations.
Because those Turkish citizens can vote in the Turkish referendum, Erdogan is eager to get their votes. When he sent Turkish government representatives to hold rallies in Germany, several German cities wouldn’t allow the rallies to be held. Erdogan said the Germans were behaving like Nazis.
Holland went further, banning two Turkish government ministers from entering the country to hold such rallies. Erdogan accused the Dutch of Nazi-like behavior.
Relations are worsening by the day between the EU nations — almost all of which are NATO members — and Turkey. Last year, the EU entered into an agreement with Turkey to stop the flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. The EU promised to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens, which it hasn’t done based on Turkey’s poor human rights record. Now, Erdogan is threatening to open the floodgates to another million or more refugees to enter the EU. He has threatened to send Europe 15,000 refugees every month.
Last month, in a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Erdogan held a joint press conference in which Merkel referred to “Islamic terrorism.” Erdogan, furious at her statement, insisted that “Islam is peace.”
Turkey has been — in strategic and literal terms — a cornerstone of NATO. But Erdogan’s actions have been entirely inconsistent with that role. He negotiated an agreement with Russia’s President Putin to build a gas pipeline to and through Turkey to reach back into Europe. That’s not nearly the worst of it.
For more than a year, Turkey has reportedly been quietly supporting ISIS. It may have supplied money, arms, and troops. Erdogan has sided with Russia and may have a pseudo-alliance with Putin to help keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria. Turkish forces have made attacks against ISIS, but they have concentrated their firepower more on the Kurdish forces with which we are allied.
Last week, Erdogan blocked military exercises with NATO “partner” nations. He is evidently willing to continue to escalate his conflicts with NATO, believing there will be no response, because he has the EU over a barrel on the refugee issue.
Also last week, the Turkish foreign minister, reacting to the Dutch election, said that “holy wars will soon begin” in Europe. Shortly after that, Erdogan gave a speech in which he discussed the EU court ruling that allows EU nations to ban the wearing of the Muslim hijab by women. He said, “Shame on the EU. Down with your European principles, values and justice. They started a clash between the cross and the crescent, there is no other explanation.”
The “cross and the crescent” reference was nothing less than an accusation that the EU was reviving the Crusades.
There is no provision in the NATO treaty that permits throwing a member nation out of NATO. Turkey no longer makes a pretense of being a democratic state. As the Islamic state it has become, it cannot coexist with democracies.
Erdogan’s Turkey has been, for decades, trying to join the EU. It has apparently given up trying and is now more an ally of Russia than part of NATO. That was made most clear, after the July coup when Erdogan cut off electricity to our Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey. Two months ago, Erdogan’s government hinted that he would shut the base down after we refused to support Turkish attacks in Syria.
Incirlik has been our key to the Middle East. Aircraft operating from there can quickly reach Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and pretty much the whole region. If Erdogan tried to shut the base down, it would be very tough to find another base location in the area, and it would cost billions to set it up to function as Incirlik does.
Threatening to cut off our foreign aid won’t be effective because Turkey gets only about $200,000 a year from us. It’s a trifle. Threatening Turkey could bring about a closer Turkish-Russian alliance.
What to do? President Trump has to make it clear to Erdogan that any further interference with Incirlik’s operations will not be tolerated.
Our leverage is not entirely limited. Mr. Trump can begin by turning up the rhetorical heat on Erdogan, saying that NATO cannot tolerate his failure to cooperate and urging the EU to keep the door closed to refugees. Erdogan’s threats to use the refugees as a weapon against NATO nations should be viewed as a breach of the NATO treaty.
At some point, Erdogan’s actions will be a clear breach of the EU treaty. We’re not there yet, but Mr. Trump can and should hint that we’re thinking in those terms.