There is a lot that seems inexplicable about Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent conduct. In the last few years, the Turkish prime minister has squandered the good will of many of his citizens and his counterparts around the world. Erdogan once represented a kind of Turkish “third way” (as cliché as that sounds) in which political reform and compromise were combined with economic liberalism and a consciously Muslim identity, but now he is mostly known for bluster, intimidation, and the reversal of the impressive political reforms of 2003 and 2004. The prime minister’s routine bullying of his opponents seems rather unnecessary given his mastery of the Turkish political arena. That said, the most recent head-scratching episode came a few weeks ago upon the Turkish leader’s visit to the grieving people of Soma—the site of Turkey’s worst mining disaster ever. Erdogan, who was ostensibly there to express sympathy for the families of the 305 dead miners, ended up slapping a protester unhappy with the government’s handling of the catastrophe. If that was not enough, the ”Great Master” as his adoring press refers to Erdogan, reportedly called the poor man, “Israeli semen” as he stole away. Astonishing, to say the least. Recently, Michael Weiss of FP.com and Now Lebanon—a keen observer of events in Syria, Turkey, and Russia—asked whether Erdogan is a “poached egg.” Weiss’ work is always interesting and provocative, yet behind Erdogan’s sometimes curious behavior is a brilliant politician who deftly manipulates Turkey’s past greatness and humiliations, to powerful political effect.
It is easy for anyone who has ever been within five feet of Erdogan to conclude that he is among the best politicians of his time—only Bill Clinton seems better. The Turkish leader has an innate ability to reach a lot of Turks at their core. It is not just that he understands what makes his constituents tick, but it is almost as if he represents every dream, wish, and desire they have ever had for Turkey and themselves. For many, Erdogan is the ultimate expression of a new Turkish man—strong, emotional, pious, confident, and clear-eyed and unapologetic about Turkey’s greatness. This gives him a significant reservoir of support to do the kinds of things that the prime minister has been doing.
Take the much-discussed Twitter ban, which was lifted by court order in April. As I discussed in a previous post, the attacks on Twitter and the continuing YouTube blackout are winning political tactics for Erdogan. The same goes for the AKP’s efforts to exert control over the Supreme Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, the threats directed at the Gulen movement, the criminalization of first aid under certain circumstances, the gerrymandering of electoral districts, and the intimidation of the Turkish media. This runs the gamut from distasteful to frightening, but it is both entirely rational and a winning political strategy.
Erdogan’s seemingly thuggish approach to politics works so well because it is framed in a way that evokes a simplified version of Turkish history in which a great country and people were debased by the manipulation and double-dealings of outside powers and their local agents. Hammering away at the “interest rate lobby,” “international bankers,” “Zionists,” and “Pennsylvania”—Erdogan’s shorthand for the Gulen movement’s leader, Fethullah Gulen, who resides in a gated compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania—as the prime minister does so often, seems deeply strange and profoundly paranoid, but the historical record has bequeathed Erdogan a wealth of material that makes his current tale of Turkey-under-siege plausible to large numbers of Turks.
Americans and other observers may have a hard time remembering what took place almost a century ago during and immediately after WWI, but Turks do not. Here is a refresher:
- The recently much discussed (inaccurately) Sykes-Picot Agreement was actually the Sykes-Picot-Sazanov Agreement. There is some debate about the extent of Russian (Sergey Sazanov was the Tsarist era foreign minister) participation in negotiating the agreement, but it was enough that it imagined a post-war settlement in which Moscow controlled Istanbul and the Turkish Straits (the Dardenelles and Bosporus).
- When Hussein Rauf met Admiral Arthur Calthorpe aboard the British warship Agamemnon on October 28, 1918, the British commander assured Rauf that the allies would not occupy Istanbul. Of course, the British (and French, whom Calthorpe was also in theory representing) immediately went back on their word. As Margaret Macmillan wrote in her wonderful book, Paris 1919: “In London, the British cabinet received the news of the armistice [with the Ottoman Empire] with delight and fell to discussing how Constantinople ought to be occupied…”
- Then there is the Treaty of Sevres (1920), which not only brought the Ottoman Empire to a merciful end, but also made provisions for an independent Armenia and Kurdistan in Anatolia and granted Greece control over islands in the Aegean close to the Dardenelles as well as control over territory along the west coast of what is now Turkey and Eastern Thrace (now known as European Turkey or the Marmara region).
One might reasonably wonder what these distant events have to do with Erdogan’s conduct. Everything. When the Turkish leader spins conspiracies about foreign plots and parallel states, he is reminding Turks of a painful past, and telling them that he will never allow what befell the Ottoman Empire—which has been celebrated in the AKP era—to happen to Turkey. This is not to condone what Erdogan and the AKP’s leaders have done. Rather it is important to grasp the Turkish historical context in order to understand how the prime minister has manipulated it for his own political ends It also provides a clearer picture of Erdogan. The Turkish prime minister may seem off, but there is every reason to believe that he knows exactly what he is doing.