Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Erdogan-Gulen civil war within Turkish political Islam (Dani Rodrik & Claire Berlinski)

Since Turkey's AK Party, led by former Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began winning national elections in 2002, one of its achievements has been to break the political power of the Turkish military and, more generally, to dismantle the "deep state" apparatus of the old Kemalist establishment. (For more on that, see here.) A big question is whether, in the end, this process will lead to a strengthening and consolidation of constitutional democracy or the replacement of one quasi-authoritarian system with another.

The AK's campaign against the Kemalist establishment was carried out in collaboration with the followers of the cleric Fetullah Gulen, who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Over the past year and a half, that alliance broke down spectacularly and turned into an increasingly all-out power struggle.

(For some background, see these posts from December 2013 and mid-2014: Why are Erdogan and the Gulenists slugging it out?, Who is Fetullah Gulen, what is the Gulenist movement, and what are they up to?The civil war within Turkish political Islam, & Continuing civil war between Erdogan and the Gulenists within the apparatus of the Turkish state.)

Dani Rodrik, the (very fine) Turkish political economist who recently moved from Harvard's JFK School to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, offers this compact assessment of the current Erdogan-Gulen civil war within Turkish political Islam, the process that led up to it, and its implications for Turkish democracy:
Here is the one paragraph version of what is happening in Turkey.

During the last decade in which he has been in power, Erdogan has allowed the Gulen movement to take control over the police, judiciary, and large parts of the state apparatus. The Gulen movement in turn established a republic of dirty tricks, with illegal wiretaps and video recordings, fabricated evidence, framing of innocent people, slander and disinformation as its modus operandi.  The monster Erdogan created eventually turned against him as the common enemy, the military and the rest of the secular establishment, were vanquished. He is now trying to slay the monster. That means purges, bringing the judiciary under his control, tightening the screws on the Internet and social media, and greatly expanding the powers of MiT, the national intelligence organization. The collateral damage for Turkish democracy – or what remained of it – is huge.

We cannot look at all this and focus only on what Erdogan is doing without at least acknowledging that the Gulenists also bear considerable responsibility for bringing the country to its current crisis. The idea that there was something like the rule of law or Turkey was democratizing before Erdogan began to tighten the screws on the Gulen movement is dangerous nonsense. [....]
This may not capture the whole story, but it certainly captures some important dimensions of it.

Some might argue that Rodrik's perspective is distorted by the fact that his father-in-law, a military officer, was among those caught up and imprisoned in the McCarthyite witch-hunt of the Ergenekon/Sledgehammer prosecutions that ran from about 2007-2012. But it might also be suggested that this connection helped give Rodrik some special insights into what he calls the"republic of dirty tricks" used by the previous AK-Gulenist alliance as part of its long-term campaign to supplant the Kemalist establishment and dismantle its "deep state" apparatus. At all events, it's clear that this is a game in which none of the contenders has been especially concerned about playing within the rules of formal legality.

=> Back in 2011 Claire Berlinski & Okan Altiparmak, drawing on the Wikileaks cables about Turkey, offered this unflattering portrait of Erdogan and his style of political leadership
The Wikileaks cables on Turkey reveal a surprising paradox. U.S. diplomats present themselves as highly-informed, perspicacious observers of Turkey with more insight than one would expect into the Islamist complexes and prejudices of Turkey’s governing AKP, the role of the Gulen movement in Turkey, the political talent and personality of Prime Minister Erdogan, his increasing isolation from competent advisors, and the central problems that characterize AKP governance: lack of technocratic skill, corruption, and influence-peddling. Yet time and again, these diplomats fail to draw from these observations the obvious conclusion: This represents a risk to Turkey, the United States, and its regional interests. [....]

On January 20, 2004, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman penned a report of nearly impeccable insight into Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. He correctly emphasizes the luck that ushered the party into power in November, 2002, notes the Islamist milieu from which Erdogan emerged, and aptly characterizes his political talent and pragmatism. Edelman’s description of the prime minister’s personality is almost painfully prescient: “Erdogan has traits which render him seriously vulnerable to miscalculating the political dynamic, especially in foreign affairs… [his] authoritarian loner streak ... prevents growth of a circle of strong and skillful advisors, a broad flow of fresh information to him, or development of effective communications among the party headquarters, government, and parliamentary group.”

Edelman also observes central problems of AKP governance–lack of technocratic skill, corruption and influence-peddling–that are now well-known to foreign observers but were at the time little-remarked. Finally, he notes the “Islamist complexes and prejudices” of several key Erdogan appointees [....]

In subsequent cables, Edelman deepens these observations, noting that Erdogan has surrounded himself “with an iron ring of sycophantic (but contemptuous) advisors,” isolating himself from a flow of reliable information [....]

"According to a broad range of our contacts, Erdogan reads minimally, mainly the Islamist-leaning press. According to others with broad and deep contacts throughout the establishment, Erdogan refuses to draw on the analyses of the MFA, and the military and National Intelligence Organization have cut him off from their reports. He never had a realistic world view, but one key touchstone is a fear of being outmaneuvered on the Islamist side by 'Hoca' Erbakan’s Saadet Party. Instead, he relies on his charisma, instincts, and the filterings of advisors who pull conspiracy theories off the Web or are lost in neo-Ottoman Islamist fantasies, e.g., Islamist foreign policy advisor and Gul ally Ahmet Davutoglu."

Cables from January 2004 to March 2005 return repeatedly to the themes of the cronyism, incompetence, and corruption in the AKP:

"AKP swept to power by promising to root out corruption. However, in increasing numbers AKPers from ministers on down, and people close to the party, are telling us of conflicts of interest or serious corruption in the party at the national, provincial and local level and among close family members of ministers. We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the U.S. purely altruistically are lame." [....]
And yesterday Berlinski offered this colorful addendum about the other major figure in the AKP-Gulenist slugging match, Fetullah Gulen. Many western analysts seem to have pretty favorable impressions of Gulen and his agenda, but not Berlinski. And in this particular piece, she's not trying to avoid sounding intemperate.
Until recently, I lived in Turkey. It seemed to me then unfathomable that most Americans did not recognize the name Fethullah Gülen. Even those vaguely aware of him did not find it perplexing that a Turkish preacher, billionaire, and head of a multinational media and business empire—a man of immense power in Turkey and sinister repute—had set up shop in Pennsylvania and become a big player in the American charter school scene. Now that I’ve been out of Turkey a while, I’ve realized how normal it is that Americans are indifferent to Gülen. America is full of rich, powerful, and sinister weirdoes. What’s one more?

It’s normal, too, that Americans view news from Turkey as less important than other stories in the headlines. After all, Turks aren’t doing anything quite so attention-grabbing as hacking Sony, destabilizing the postwar European order, or rampaging through the Middle East as they behead, rape, crucify, and enslave everything in their path. Thus, the reader who has noticed the news from Turkey might believe the story goes something like this: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian thug running Turkey, has been rounding up journalists who bravely exposed his corruption.

That American readers now understand that Erdoğan is a corrupt authoritarian is an improvement. (They may vaguely recall that not long ago, he was viewed by the large parts of the Western intelligentsia—and by the very same news organs reporting the latest developments—as a liberal-minded reformer.) But this is actually a story about two thugs.  The details may be hard to follow, but the devil is in the details. The journalists recently arrested by Erdoğan are loyal to Gülen, who has made himself quite cozy in the United States. The phrase commonly used to describe this state of affairs—“self-imposed exile”—should not leave the reader nodding pleasantly. It should leave him wondering, “What does that mean? Why have we offered him exile?”

In failing to stress the double-thugged nature of this situation, American officials have unwisely conveyed to the world that we prefer Gülen to Erdoğan. So does the commentary oozing from think tanks, journalists, soi-disant experts, and European luminaries. We’d be better-advised at least to pretend to be against all corrupt authoritarians. We might even be wise to suggest, if only by means of a hint, that yes, we do understand that this has been a long decade of Turkish crackdowns, many inspired and executed by Gülen’s thugs. We might even indicate—in some subtle way—that while authoritarian crackdowns are not to our taste, there is at least some dark and cosmic justice in the world when the authors of crackdowns get a smackdown of their own.

It is certainly possible that we give the impression that we prefer Gülen to Erdoğan because we do indeed prefer him.  [JW:  This strikes me as implausible. My guess is that the US government has no favorite in this fight. But then what do I know?]  But readers should be reminded (or informed, if they were not aware) that Gülen is the one in the United States, where he is accruing power daily, and Erdoğan is at least separated from us by an ocean. It would seem Gülen now has enough power that when his boys get locked up, the West squeaks, whereas we didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow when anyone else’s boys were rounded up, and haven’t much bothered to do so at any similar moment in the past decade. We may prefer Gülen because he is smarter and vastly more subtle than Erdoğan. But if only for this reason, he may well be the more dangerous of the two. It seems all-too-plausible that many Americans don’t even realize he’s here, much less that he is a thug.

I hope that our policy makers, at least, are fully aware that Gülen is no noble figure. Perhaps they are of the belief that he’s a thug, but at least he’s our thug. Gülen seems to think that we may be the thugs, but that we are his thugs. He is behaving accordingly, directing campaign contributions to politicians in the districts where his schools operate. [....]

I hope this isn’t the case, but it’s consistent with the evidence. Also consistent is another disturbing hypothesis: We still have no idea who Gülen is, and truly believe Erdoğan—head of our NATO ally—is locking up modest martyrs whose only crime was to expose his corruption. The corruption is real, the lockup is real, and, yes, Turkey is our NATO ally. But Erdoğan hasn’t been rounding up journalists of no special distinction (or none, at least, beyond their principled stance against corruption). He has [most recently] been rounding up Gülen-allied journalists, who are not so much epic heroes in the battle against Turkish corruption and for Turkish press freedom as they are operatives for the Turkish president’s existential rival.

Turkey does have epic heroes. One of them is named Ahmet Şık. The people now being locked up only very recently had him locked up, because he wrote a book suggesting that Gülen’s thugs were precisely the kinds of people who might practice corruption and lock up journalists. Şık is a better man than I, so to speak, for he found it in his heart to respond to the latest news with these words: “The former owners of the period of fascism we experienced a few years ago today are experiencing fascism. To oppose fascism is a virtue.” My first reaction was different: “Lock them up and throw away the key.” It took me several minutes to remember that I am an American and thus opposed to fascism, too. As all right-thinking people should be. [....]

Turkey has requested that we extradite Gülen. What should we do about that? Americans must be baffled, given what they’ve been told. Common sense might say, “Of course we would extradite a corrupt authoritarian to our trusted NATO ally.” If that fails to happen, it might suggest that one—or many—of our inbuilt assumptions is wrong. [....]
Maybe. Or maybe this portrait of Gulen and the Gulenists is just a little overwrought?  I don't feel qualified to say for sure, though I do think it's clear that this account has, at least, considerable elements of truth in it. (And Berlinski's analyses of Turkish politics have always been well informed and acute, so anything she says needs to be taken very seriously.)

At all events, Turkey is a sufficiently important country, for a lot of reasons, that this unfolding political drama is also very important ... so we should all stay tuned to see how it develops.

—Jeff Weintraub

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