Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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The Sources of Erdogan’s Conduct

by Steven A. Cook
June 2, 2014

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) poses with a painting depicting him as a miner, which was given to him from his ruling AK Party supporters, during a party meeting at the parliament in Ankara (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).


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 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.


Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Becca L

    Such a necessary reminder. The West has such a short-term memory for its actions in the region (there are several more than could be thrown on that list including the Iranian coup in the 1950s) and the way American media has handled recent events only exacerbates the problem. To dismiss Erdogan as anything other than a successful and extremely competent politician is a huge mistake.

  • Posted by Omerli

    The role of historical narratives undoubtedly play some role in the psyche of Turks and these do help explain WHAT the PM is doing as he pushes these buttons. As to WHY he is doing this and WHY NOW rather than earlier in his dozen years as PM, that probably has a simpler and baser truth. Stepping away from the politics of divisiveness and constant crisis will inevitably mean a focus away from the “other” camp into allegations of corruption which have reached the PM. Lowering tensions and stepping away from efforts to circumvent the rule of law and attempts to control the media can only mean that eventually the PM will land where he belongs, in court. In short, think of him as a mad driver, driving ever faster to prevent his passengers from disembarking. Neither that mad ride nor the constant ratcheting up of political tensions are sustainable. He will eventually end up in court and the sooner the better. In the meantime, all the damage he causes the country is acceptable collateral damage to him as he fights his pathetic existential political battle.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Right. People keep saying that Erdogan is mad. However, as Shakespeare wrote about Hamlet, ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.’

    A more detailed version of how Erdogan uses events of last century and before to outsmart his opponents can be read at the following blog-post .

  • Posted by Kevin

    Re Omerli’s mad driver analogy — under the Turkish constitution, is there any person or institution that even in theory can take the keys away from him before he wrecks the bus?

    PM Erdoğan may be engaged, as Omerli suggests, in a conscious, planned effort to distract while he attempts to cover his tracks. But is it not also possible that he is mentally unstable? He is, or at least was, a religious man. People who know they have violated their own fundamental norms but cannot face up to it can warp their perception of reality in order to project their unacceptable motivations onto others — and the expected punishment for their own actions.

    What difference might it make? I’m no psychiatrist, but I suspect the second case has a greater risk of violence. The reaction to a perceived threat to one’s core identity can be an irrational rage that demands destruction of that threat regardless of cost. It might make the difference between seeking to discredit Fethullah Gülen’s movement and (God forbid) seeking to have the “betrayer” assassinated.

    Let’s not forget that PM Erdoğan recently stated that whoever boos him deserves to be slapped (after slapping him, and letting his bodyguards do more), or the written statement last March by the Turkish Medical Association expressing concern for his emotional health after his callous response to the death of Berkin Elvan. Then there was the legal action against the medical professionals who dared to treat the wounded during the Gezi Park protests last year, implying that they should suffer or even die.

    It is fair to ask whether this man is at risk of a rampage of narcissistic rage that could cost lives, perhaps many lives. I presume Gen. Necdet Özel would not obey an illegal or irrational order putting Turkey at war with another country (although, according to PM Erdoğan, Turkey is already at war with Syria), but I have no confidence that PM Erdoğan would be disobeyed if he ordered police units to fire live ammunition at unarmed demonstrators, killing hundreds. Nor do I find it unthinkable that, outside the military chain of command, a brigade of Erdoğan’s faithful soldiers might mount a commando raid in rural Pennsylvania with incalculable consequences.

    Without advocating any departure from Turkey’s constitution and laws, I respectfully suggest that those in positions of responsibility consider how they might prevent such events, and if they were to occur, what their responses should be. I am a “nobody” with no position or connection with any official, Turkish or American, merely an American who cares about Turkey and feels these things must be said.

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