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Guilty Men: Turkey and How Democracies Die
I see many comments and questions here for me today about Emmanuel Macron, the next round of French elections, and what they mean. I’ll get to them soon, I promise. Though with what’s happening on the Korean peninsula, I can’t blame anyone who thinks, “That’s enough of France; we’ve got bigger things to worry about.”
That’s kind of what I’m thinking, and I live here.
Today, though — at last — here’s the article I’ve been working on about the referendum in Turkey.
The first draft of that thing was monstrously long. My editors at The American Interest helped me organize some very unorganized thoughts, and they very wisely suggested I take out enough of my personal vituperation that I might one day be able to eat lunch in Washington again.
There’s of course a much longer version of this article, though, still waiting to be born. And it will be. That too will go in the book. It’s connected to everything else that’s happening in Europe, and to this strange new world we’ve all entered.
It only took me so long to write this piece because I was trying to reduce what I saw and lived through over the course of a baffling decade to an article that you’ll be able to read in ten minutes. I think I did it, though. I think in the end it makes sense. (And I know you’ll tell me if it doesn’t.)
Lest there be any misunderstanding, start with this: “Make no mistake,” I wrote. “Turkey did this to itself. It’s an inexcusable conceit to imagine that everything that goes wrong in the world is somehow under American control and thus our fault.” That point is obvious, and I think we can take it as given.
But this article isn’t about that. It’s about the parts that were under our control. And we did not, in my view, acquit ourselves well — or even understandably:
At every turn, we misunderstood events, deliberately or through laziness; at every opportunity to speak when it might have made a difference, we were silent or said precisely what was least useful; we rewarded every step toward despotism with praise, indifference, or investment.
Had all the experts, politicians, human-rights monitors, and democracy-promoters spoken up before this and all the previous democracy-eviscerating lies and purges and referenda, who knows whether they might have made a difference? At least the West would have appeared to stand for something, to have principles. But we were so quiet that you could be forgiven for thinking that this—one referendum, one day—is how democracies die.
No: they die bit by bit, lie by lie. It’s hard to kill even a democracy of the imperfect sort Turkey’s was. It takes years.
The story of what really happened in Turkey still matters, even if it’s too late to help Turks. We all need to have a good think about how democracies die, because they’re dying like flies. It’s not too late to learn how it really happened. If we don’t, we can’t hope to draw the right lessons. These might apply to democracies still alive. They might even apply to our own.
Turkey and its politics became very personal to me. Obviously. I doubt I’ll ever fully understand what took place while I lived there, or why the West — to the extent there’s an entity called “the West” — behaved the way it did. I probably won’t live long enough to see the unsealed archives.
So I can’t tell you, as a historian would, what really happened.
Nor do I have the talent to make you feel what what it was like to live there during these events. That’s a job for someone who’s been given different literary gifts.
My job, I decided at last, is just to tell you more about this strange period in Turkish history. To leave you thinking that there are some very strange questions about it, and about how we reacted.
I don’t have the answers to those question. But I still think they’re worth asking. If only we could answer them, we would understand ourselves better.
I can’t say I know what we would learn, exactly. All I know for sure is that years after I left, I’m still asking them.Published in General
The West wasn’t local.
It was none of their (this mythical “west” of which you speak) business to interfere in Turkey’s internal politics.
The Turkish constitution obviously has flaws – the simplest being it is too simple to amend.
The Turkish people voted for it – I will not deny them their moral agency in this decision by blaming anyone else.
That was worth waiting for. Clearer vision and expressions might have changed little but you’re right, clarity is always better than self delusion which never works out well. We just had 8 years of it. Good title because this is how democracies die and the point that Islam was just the vehicle is important. There are always vehicles and fads for concentrating power and such concentrations always provide opportunities for rent seeking and broader deeper corruption which grow through time. My collarly to Gresham’s law– opportunities for corruption and rent seeking are always worth more to the corrupt and with time they drive the non corrupt out of power. When all is said and done they’re all fascists, whatever works, whatever builds one’s power and weakens one’s competitors. We’re starting to see it right here in river city. I’m not talking about Trump, he may be the first President to work in the right direction in my life time, Reagan excepted, but that is why conservatives are holding their breath.
How is this different than what is currently going on in France?
Could we, I don’t know, learn from history?
The author throws around a lot of “we”, “us” and the “the West”. But clearly it was the foreign policy and economics establishment that so wanted an example of good Islamism that it was prepared to overlook reality. (This point is made.) Perhaps another reason this establishment has lost the support of so many in “the West”.
There is also the author’s characteristic concern that we “feel”, “care” and “notice” these things, as though that would, in itself, be a good thing. What is the purpose of such displays of empathy? (Perhaps some type of midichlorianesque temporal feedback will remake the past…)
The peroration suggests another purpose:
Here I think we can be glad that sufficient folks in the right places drew the appropriate conclusions and prevented Hillary from becoming President. I wonder what these other fly-blown former democracies are? (If the answer includes Hungary and Poland you’ve lost me.)
As yet, I haven’t read past “eating lunch in Washington,” (I will, promptly continue reading) and ask if anything at all there is digestible. Of course, we do live in times where “eat the rich” sentiments are becoming very fashionable. We all know about who is consumed – eventually – in revolutions. (back to reading now).
Mark Styne’s demographics pretty much is all I needed to see. The rural areas outgrew the urban areas. The Islamism supporters outgrew the Western supporters.
Now that Turkey has disembarked from the democracy train, is it still your judgement that it was better, or at any rate less bad both for Turkey and the world that Erdogan survived the coup attempt than it would have been if the Gülenists had prevailed?
If it is, that speaks volumes about what we’re harboring in Pennsylvania.
It seems to me that we are all awaiting a Ceausescu moment. Just as the linked LA Times article from 1989 describes the Ceausescus, the establishment seems to awaiting a time not far off (in the time frame of nations): “[W]hen [their] moment of clarity came–when an angry crowd did the unthinkable and shouted [them] down during another cliche-ridden speech …all [they] could do was stare slack-jawed, a bewildered old [establishment] about to run.”
This, from the American Interest article, is the part that needs unfolding. It’s not clear to me how Western opinions ever mattered. What could US or European politicians have done to stymie Erdogan’s rise to power? It seems to this ignorant American that sidelining Turkey in any way for Erdogan’s actions would just as likely helped him to play the defiant nationalist, ala Putin, as it might have made Turkish citizens long for an amenable relationship with Western economies.
On a related note, what do you make of Steyn’s argument that Erdogan was empowered largely by demographics? Mark claims the ideological descendants of Ataturk have been outbred by advocates of Islamic authoritarian government. That’s surely not the whole story. But was it a major factor, if true?
Glenn Reynolds: I’m going with a mix of bribery and the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Sometimes one can be too close to a situation. I know that even the very best of us can lose it a little and allow our emotions to take over. Here is the vital information that I needed to know about and yet couldn’t seem to get. Everyone was glowing about Turkish democracy now they are screaming it’s over. This is what is important.
We are now able to talk about the fundamentals. Separation of Powers is a doctrine at the heart of the founding of modern democratic governments. Of course, when conservatives mention this the left acts like they are speaking martian. The sole power to appoint judges without legislative consent is too much power for the executive. The sole power to dismiss judges is way too much power for the executive and fundamentally destroys the independent judiciary branch. The power to dissolve the legislature is a most dangerous power that destroys the reality of an independent legislature.
I did not see articles that had these specific things in the headlines or in the first paragraph. I tried reading a few articles and was sucked into endless narrations about Turkish politics. I don’t speak Turkish, I never lived there and there is a lot happening in the World. Finally, after the fact, somebody starts to talk about the specifics. Because of this, I personally feel no guilt. Rather I am frustrated that when I bring this kind of idea up I am either ignored, talked down to by legal experts who assume this is only a legal question, or it is assumed that the only perspective is libertarian. I believe in a full philosophical meta-ethical point of view for a reason. These issues exist outside of anything given in any particular Constitution. They are beyond economics. They are ethical first principles and there is hell to pay for ignoring them.
Right now we are talking a great deal about the administrative state in this country. The administrative state is a bureaucratic way to circumvent these very fundamental, Separation of Powers, issues. Through the administrative state, you have a de facto tyranny while maintaining the face of de jure separate powers. Let’s not get into the EU in this discussion but I think there is a major problem there too.
All is not lost. Pressure can be brought to bear on Erdogan. However, once we undermine our own democracy it is difficult to make the point convincingly to others. It will take time and effort. If we give up then it will be the next country and the next and the next…
I had the same reaction. I kept asking, in Johnny Depp voice, who’s “we” Kimosabe?
I would suggest replacing “The West” or “we” with “Barack 0bama” and the author might be on to something.
‘Democratic’ and ‘Islamist’ are quite clearly oxymorons. 0bama was either a useful idiot or a willing accomplice. I gravitate toward the latter.
I was waiting for this and I am glad I did. I was going to write something on the same theme and I will. It will be…not inconsistent with what is here, but mainly because it will be orthogonal to what is here: my experiences in Turkey seem to have been no one else’s. Right now I’ll say the number of English-speaking Turks I ever met could be counted on my fingers if not my elbows. The rather larger number of Turks in Turkey who told me they’d worked in Europe seemed to have had little curiosity about the place. Internationally savvy, sensitive Turks are alien to me, so I had no idea there were any to disappoint.
Turkey is first and foremost a Muslim country. I have yet to be convinced that Islam and democracy are compatible.
Me too. The latter.
In fairness, an individual can’t honestly take pride in the actions of others via a sense of community without also accepting shame from that community. If you can be proud of your country when leadership is good, you can be ashamed of your country when leadership is bad. “We” do a lot of stupid things.
But absolutely distinguishing ourselves from Democrats and other hippies is a pleasant thought.
Clearly though if there was a unifying Obama Doctrine with regards to Middle East foreign policy this was it, whether looking at Turkey, Egypt, Iran etc. it was an indifference and even welcome of working with and empowering Islamists. An Islamist must not be opposed but respected and somehow it will all work out.
The notion that the previous administration would take any action to halt Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism was dead the moment he was elected.
It looks to me as though Obama’s plan was to set up Turkey (replacing the KSA) and Iran as Sunni and Shia regional hegemons who despite their would cooperate at least against the Kurds and Israel.
A nuclear Iran, a Sunni nuclear program, the US backing Turkey, Russia backing Iran, and Israel would be put in its place. No more problems caused by the US being an unopposed superpower, and an Iranian or Nork HEMP over the US would take care of global warming. Obama would have earned his Nobel, and have saved the world!
I loved the bit about commitment to the exotic dictionary blinding people to more mundane concepts like kleptocracy.
In the past has the US not worked with and empowered Islamists as a matter of convenience (in Saudi) or strategy (Afghanistan and now with parts of the FSA in Syria)?
It’s also opposed Islamists, as a matter of convenience or strategy – but clearly their being Islamists or not being Islamists has not been the deciding factor.
Wrt Turkey – some profound US interests would benefit from it becoming more democratic (and eventually more politically stable) – but there are a lot of short to middle term objectives which are easier to achieve when dealing with a country that’s run by the Army or a dictator.
I am quite curious to know your thinking on what US objectives are currently being advanced by Erdoğan’s one-man rule in Turkey.
The other thing to remember is that Turks in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Belgium voted overwhelmingly in favor of Erdogan’s changes.
Assimilation? Not happening. Will never happen. And yet the lunatics (e.g., Claire, the Economist, all the bon-pensant idiots) want more immigration from Anatolia.
All you’ve ever had to do to understand Turkey and Turks is watch Midnight Express, listen to their genocide denial and understand how Ataturk won the 1921-1922 civil war: call for Anatolian Muslims – Turks and Kurds – to unite. It’s still the same country.
Its easier, though less stable, to buy one man than it is to convince a Parliament.
Right now he isn’t bought – but he could be.
Well, move over Russia! America has what it takes to compete for meddlesome foreign power.
I hate to break it to you but it’s not all up to the USA. The Turks have something to say about it.
I can walk and chew gum at the same time :-)
I am still unclear why it is the men’s fault.
On rereading the article, a few things struck me:
• Was this a colossal failure of the U.S. intelligence community? If accurate assessments were made, they didn’t seem to influence policy, though since recent policy was made by Obama, Kerry, Clinton & Co. the delusional nature of US policy towards Turkey isn’t surprising.
• “Yet still the Western party line remained unchanged over many years” heads a litany of newspaper articles. All appear to date after the Gaza flotilla, which for some was an eye opener about where Turkey had been heading. Yet for the NY Times, the Washington Post, Haaretz, or the other publications that gushed over Turkey, they could say what they did after the Mavi Marmara incident.
Anyway, surely one of the bitter lessons of the last couple of decades has been that while these publications often employ journalists who write well, that isn’t much of a virtue since while they can still do very good reporting when they put their minds to it, if a topic has to do with politics most of their writers seem to be following the editorial policy by acting as leftist propagandists with bylines
• That said, this problem went way beyond newspapers and affected a lot of Western governments
Nowadays, I tend to regard with deep suspicion virtually everything these news organizations publish. My thanks to @claire for drawing our attention to writers who are exceptions to this rule.
When it comes to intelligence, information tends to break down into capabilities and intent. Capabilities are relatively easy to figure out (how many, how fast, when). Intent is extraordinarily difficult, and that is with people who are as tied into the situation as is practical.
I suppose it’s often hard to tell your enemies’ and potential enemies’ open declarations of enmity and intent from propaganda.