Editor’s note: The following column originally appeared in the New York Post. It is reprinted with permission.
The failed coup d’état by elements of Turkey’s military signals more repression and chaos in the Middle East.
We still lack important information on what motivated the attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, its timing and how and why it collapsed so quickly. Nonetheless, we confidently predict Turkey will suffer several major domestic consequences, in turn causing significant international ripples.
Most importantly, Erdogan’s relentless pursuit of an increasingly radical Islamicization of Turkey will proceed largely unfettered. And no significant institutional or political opposition inside Turkey now stands athwart his penchant for authoritarianism.
The triumph of Erdogan’s government means he has swept the board clear of any real impediments to implementing his radical policies. Both as prime minister and now as president, Erdogan has focused single-mindedly on an Islamicist attack on Turkey’s secular constitution, and the very foundations of a modern Turkey, rising from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, envisioned by Mustafa Kemal.
Turkey’s military, following the pattern laid down by Kemal (known widely as “Ataturk,” meaning “father of the Turks”), was intended to be the guardian of the new, Europe-oriented nation-state he strove to create.
Although it may sound odd to Western ears that the military was to safeguard civil rights, especially freedom of religion, in this new Turkey, Kemal well understood that modern thinking needed time to take root and replace the Byzantine medievalism that had characterized Ottoman rule for centuries.
Sadly, Erdogan’s religious zeal has proven Kemal right. For years, Erdogan has replaced high-ranking, secular military officers with loyal Islamicists in a blatant effort to bend the military away from its secular vocation, toward endorsing or at least accepting a re-established state Islam, harking back to the deceased Ottoman caliphate.
Erdogan’s success at stuffing the military’s top officer corps with Islamicists and political loyalists likely explains why Turkey’s military wasn’t fully behind the coup attempt. Indeed, as seemed clear even in the revolt’s early hours, it appeared more an act of desperation, a last gasp by the military’s pro-secular elements, rather than a concerted effort by a united military establishment.
Erdogan’s increasingly dictatorial approach to governance has in recent years become ever clearer internationally, epitomized by his arrests and harassment of both foreign and domestic journalists he deemed critical of his regime. In earlier days, serving as mayor of Istanbul, he said publicly: “Democracy is like a street car. You ride it to the stop you want, and then you get off.” Friday’s coup attempt may well be precisely the stop Erdogan was waiting for.
When he says the coup plotters “will pay a heavy price,” he isn’t kidding. And he will not stop with the coup’s central figures.
Obviously, any military coup in a theoretically democratic state is illegal (at least until it succeeds), but we can expect Erdogan’s crackdown to be relentless and thorough.
Conveniently, Erdogan has been hard at work for years packing the Turkish judiciary with Islamicists and political supporters. As with his “cleansing” of the military’s officer corps, Erdogan’s placement and promotion of loyalists within the judiciary will now pay important benefits as hundreds, maybe even thousands of “coup plotters,” accomplices and mere political opponents of Erdogan face the consequences of failure.
Erdogan will also have a free hand in dealing with Kurdish political and military opposition efforts, particularly those pursuing an independent Kurdistan.
Internationally, Erdogan will obviously be strengthened significantly, at least once Turkey settles back down. It comes as no surprise that Iran was among the first governments to congratulate Erdogan on retaining power. His victory is a significant blow to the West and to the NATO alliance, with every indication that Turkey will turn increasingly rapidly away from Western values and America in particular, Obama’s personal friendship with Erdogan notwithstanding. And despite Erdogan’s recent reconciliation with Israel, there should be no celebrations in Jerusalem.
The lamps have been going out all over the Middle East for years. Many more went out this weekend in Turkey. Whether we will see them relit in our lifetime remains unknown.
John Bolton was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 through 2006. He is currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Fox News contributor