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Civil-Military Relations in Turkey, Objectively Speaking

by Steven A. Cook
April 23, 2012

Turkish officers stand at attention during an official ceremony to mark the 88th anniversary of Republic Day at Anitkabir in Ankara (Umit Bektas) Turkish officers stand at attention during an official ceremony to mark the 88th anniversary of Republic Day at Anitkabir in Ankara (Umit Bektas)

Since January, I’ve written a few posts on fascinating developments in Turkey’s civil-military relations.  It is a critical and evolving story that will have long-lasting effects on Turkey’s political development.  Please let me know what you think.

The arrests of military officers and retired senior commanders continued last week with the detention of former Deputy Chief-of-Staff Çevik Bir and a number of other officers for the “28th of February Process” (also known as the “post-modern coup”) of 1997.  The arrests, combined with the detention of hundreds of other officers for plots against civilian governments going back to the 1980 military intervention, as well as the simultaneous resignation of four members of the General Staff last summer, have altered the balance of power between civilians and military officers in Turkey. Yet have the trials “pretty much resolved” the threat of future military interventions as one former U.S. government official who served in Turkey blithely declared recently?

The answer is no.  This seems wildly counter-intuitive, but it is important to dig below the surface and get beyond the now routine perp-walks of officers (both former and currently serving) to understand that civil-military relations in Turkey remains fraught.  The political reforms that the AKP began in 2003 and 2004 represent critical first steps in bringing Turkey’s autonomous officer corps under civilian control.  Particularly important were changes to the National Security Council, known as the MGK, which was one of the primary channels through which the General Staff influenced Turkish politics.  Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, the number of civilians on the MGK was increased so that they outnumbered officers, the frequency of its meetings was reduced, the MGK secretariat was prohibited from initiating “national security investigations,” its leadership was placed under a civilian, and the MGK’s budget was placed under the control of the prime ministry.  Most importantly, the AKP changed article 118 of the Turkish constitution, which directed the government “to give priority consideration to the recommendations” of the Council.  In the context of Turkish politics and the past patterns of civil-military relations, this was tantamount to a direct order.  In addition, officers were removed from the Higher Education Board and the Radio and Television Broadcasting Board.  These panels existed, in part, so that the military and its civilian allies could police Turkish academia and media to ensure Kemalist orthodoxy on religion and nationalism.  The AKP-dominated Grand National Assembly was also able to wrest some aspects of the military budget from the General Staff’s control.

Overall, the 2003-2004 reforms seem to have set civil-military relations in Turkey on a healthier trajectory, though they are incomplete.  Indeed, the military made a bid to upend Turkish politics in May 2007 when the General Staff sought to prevent then-foreign minister Abdullah Gul from becoming president.  In a replay of the 1971 “coup by memorandum” set in the early 21st century, the commanders posted a statement opposing Gul on the General Staff’s website.  The commanders failed, but it was abundantly clear that more needs to be done on civil-military relations.  For example, although the AKP—along with the Republican People’s Party—has floated the idea of overhauling the internal service codes of the armed forces, which justify the military’s intervention in politics, they have yet to do anything about them.  Also, the curricula at military academies and staff colleges have to change.  Officers in Turkey are socialized to believe in the superiority of the armed forces and the legitimacy of the military’s place in the political system.  It may very well be that the multitude of cases against Turkey’s commanders will force younger officers to rethink the military’s traditional role, but these cases may, in fact, make the opposite impression on captains, majors, and colonels.

Indeed, the way the AKP has gone about subordinating the officer corps through criminal prosecutions can actually undermine the party’s laudable efforts to eliminate the officers’ capacity for political mischief.  It seems that the government’s strategy has shifted the 2003-04 effort to bridle the military through institutions—rules, laws, decrees, and regulations—to establishing what Samuel Huntington and civil-military relations scholars after him referred to as “subjective control” over the armed forces.  This is when one particular group of civilians seeks to maximize their control over the armed forces and in the process undermines the professionalism of the armed forces.  In fact, there can be no professional armed forces under subjective control.  In Turkey, this holds the prospect of damaging the corporate coherence of the officer corps that has been a hallmark of the armed forces since the 1960s coup d’etat.  This is not to suggest that the officer corps does not debate issues behind closed doors, but under present circumstances, the AKP’s efforts could produce a politicized and factionalized military.  Younger officers who are now seeing their commanders in the dock were educated and socialized in a system that identified them, in the words of then-Chief of Staff General Kenan Evren, as the “essential element of the nation [that] will continue to fulfill the honourable tasks befalling them tomorrow, just as they are doing so today, under Ataturk’s inspiration.”  It is true that fewer and fewer Turks believe this narrative about the military, but what is important is what the officers believe.

Instead of subjective control, Turkey needs “objective control” of the armed forces.  Incidentally, this has little to do with the institutional changes outlined above, though those are critically important.  Huntington defines objective control as the militarization of the military, making the armed forces a professional force through the clear definition of a specifically military sphere and leaving officers to develop their professional competences while limiting their ability to interfere in civilian affairs.  This was the path that the AKP had been traveling until the wave of arrests that began in 2010.

Turks who support the trials of officers for a variety of misdeeds committed during coups or plotting against the governments that the military was sworn to uphold will quite rightly ask, what should have been done?  This is a very good question to which there is no satisfying answer other than that civil-military relations requires a balance and the public prosecutor’s current path is a potentially dangerous one.  Turks have every right to demand justice, but they must do so in a way that ensures both that the responsible officers answer for their crimes without destroying the integrity and cohesion of the armed forces.  If they don’t heed that warning, there will be more Kenan Evrens and Çevik Birs.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by turkish guy

    People are mistaken if they believe that army can be subdued in any way. And changing the laws etc will not have any effect. It can be like this for 5-10 years but even after 100 years of these laws, Turkish psyche will revert to old laws when the country faces an existential threat. Turks believe in soldiers to save them from hard times, just like Ataturk did. The concepts and methods you use to understand the role of army stem from European philosophy, which is not applicable to Turkey. You can watch this video, and replace China with Turkey: http://www.ted.com/talks/martin_jacques_understanding_the_rise_of_china.html

  • Posted by Colin J

    Would establishing objective control include removing educational materials in the Turkish armed forces regarding their role for interference and changing the curricula? Or would those attempts spark the military to see their identity under threat, leading them to leave the barracks in order to preserve that historical legitimacy? It seems that in changing the formal institutions (education, curricula), you will eventually get the informal institutions to change (self-identity of the military). But in the meantime, doesn’t this also heighten the potential for military intervention, just like the post-2010 subjective control attempts? If both courses increase this risk – one on the objective route and one on the subjective route, then is there an answer out there? Could subjective control prioritized over objective control (in that the civilian sphere makes itself dominant for good through Huntington’s subjective control mechanisms, and then allows for professionalization to occur) lead to an optimal outcome, or would it just lead to the military intervening as you hint?

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