Turkey’s crisis is not about Erdogan

June 14, 2013

The decision by Turkish authorities to send the riot police in to clear Taksim Square — while expressing a more conciliatory tone in a meeting between the prime minister and a delegation of Taksim activists — is a high-stakes gamble at a moment of genuine vulnerability for the country. However, the thinly disguised glee with which the protests against the prime minister’s domineering rule have been met by observers in the West is as politically shortsighted as it is strategically misguided. That Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brought much of his recent troubles on himself — with his imperial manner and his government’s creeping encroachment on the civil and political liberties of his citizens — is evident even to many of his supporters. He and his thrice-victorious party now have an essential task of dialogue and engagement ahead of them, in order to ensure that what remains a fairly limited protest movement does not escalate further and undermine the momentum enjoyed by the Turkish republic.

For the West, however, two equally important tests have presented themselves: can it calibrate its concern for domestic political liberties in Turkey with an adequate appreciation of the economic and geopolitical value that the country provides? And is it willing to accommodate more generally — and more lastingly — an alternative model of a globalized, economically thriving democracy that nevertheless ascribes profound value to its religious and cultural heritage?

For all his success and standing, Erdogan was never, in the minds of most Westerners, “our kind of leader.” Proudly Muslim; resentful of the casual and damaging racism long directed at his country and his people by a standoffish Europe; and fiercely nationalistic in his attempt to carve out a Third Way of Islamist capitalist democracy, Erdogan’s success was often seen more as a rebuke to the West than a welcome demonstration of a Muslim society’s ability to combine modernity with national identity, religious devotion with commercial vibrancy, NATO membership with an independent foreign policy.

It is a measure of the still-resilient illusion of a Western-defined process of globalization that the right kind of emerging markets leaders — and their politics — should look and sound like ours. Well, Erdogan doesn’t and won’t. Nor did Lula of Brazil. And nor will President Xi Jinping of China, something made plain under the surface of pleasantries at last weekend’s summit with President Obama.

The Turkish model was never as flawless or widely applicable as its proponents made it out to be. Tarnished, however, as it is today by over-zealous police enforcement in the streets of Istanbul and the arrogant reaction of a bewildered leadership with a sterling record of electoral success and economic growth, the danger is that the world now loses sight of just how valuable Turkey’s example remains to global politics as well as economics.

It is not simply a matter of Ankara succeeding in tripling GDP per capita; or repaying Turkey’s $23.5 billion debt to the IMF amidst a global economic crisis; or transforming Istanbul into a hub of global trade and investment, and overseeing the emergence of a Turkish banking and corporate sector whose resilience and vibrancy is the envy of much of the world.

Across a range of issues critical to Western security and geopolitical interests, Turkey is playing a role that is often far more constructive than many of our so-called allies in the wider region. From Syria to Iran to Iraq to Lebanon — and even most recently Israel — Ankara has pursued a carefully balanced strategy that has sought to preserve its strategic independence with a desire to end the conflicts and tamp down — rather than inflame — the sectarian tensions that threaten to unleash a whole new level of regional conflagration. That Erdogan’s government, at the same time, has launched a domestic political dialogue with the country’s Kurdish separatist movement is testimony to a vision of inclusive, pluralist politics that every ally of the West in the region could learn from.

Ultimately, however, this crisis is not about Erdogan — and for the West to treat it as such is to mirror, fatefully, the prime minister’s own inability to distinguish his personal power from his party’s record of delivering broad-based prosperity. Rather, this is about the importance of sustaining Turkey’s emergence as a successful capitalist, emerging market democracy — and understanding that it will continue to chart its own unique path to that destination.

In its eagerness to cut Erdogan — and his vibrant, politically legitimate, independent-minded, and remarkably successful state — down to size, the West is tempting a very real case of “be careful what you wish for.” Two years ago, at the time of Hosni Mubarak’s fall as the Western-backed dictator of Egypt, a curious lament was heard in the same corners of Western opinion that now are cheering Turkey’s troubles: that Egypt could go the way of Turkey. We — and the Egyptians — should be so lucky.

PHOTO: An anti-government protester gestures in Istanbul’s Taksim Square June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

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