W. Robert Pearson, wrote in the August 26th article, “Erdogan and Turkey's Tipping Point” for Middle East Institute about Erdogan’s ambition displacing Turkey’s “dream” of a united society and cites the example of Ataturk’s revolt against the allied powers after World War I. Pearson moves quickly into a small list of things that went wrong for Erdogan such as the failure of Greek Cyprus to agree to a UN sponsored settlement and then described the Turkish inability to mediate between Syria and Israel which ended with the Gaza War in 2008 where Pearson wrote:
Then the deepest cut came with Israel. After he visited Israel in 2005 and led Israeli-Turkish relations to new heights despite personal misgivings, his efforts to mediate between Israel and Syria were scuppered by the Israeli Gaza operations in 2008, which convinced him that the Israelis were duplicitous.
Deepest cut? Et tu Israel? This biased description misses some key elements. Erdogan’s interest in interceding between Israel and Syria was to show Turkey as a diplomatic power at the expense of US prestige and Israeli security. Syria was sponsoring with Iran proxy operations against Israel in the form of rocket launches against civilians and Israel’s response was limited to Hamas. A justifiable attack on Syria during negotiations might have been bad form and Israel showed self-restraint. If fingers need to be pointed, why didn’t Erdogan blame the Syrians for the attacks or at least demand the Syrians sponsor a Hamas ceasefire? It the Turkish government that cancelled Israel’s participation in the Anatolian Eagle military exercises with the US and Turkey. If Erdogan wanted to be effective by being fair, why didn’t have complain about the actual problem of violence against Israeli civilians? There was no reason to break of the security relationship with Israel beyond Erdogan’s doctrine of support of Sunni terrorism and his animus against Israel. Pearson described Erdogan as having misgiving about Israel but Erdogan is a classic anti-Semite, during a protest in which Erdogan was being called a murderer and thief, he followed Taner Kuruca into a store and punched him but he also called a local of Soma “Israeli Sperm” although Jews and Israel had nothing to do with this protest. This led, opposition deputy chairman at the time, Haluk Koc to say, "Erdoğan's hate speech knows no limits and hehas gone so far as to resort to violence against a citizen." The previous, Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan also tried to derail what had been at that point a very strong and friendly alliance with Turkey but he failed where Erdogan succeeded because the Kemalist Military, the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk military doctrine for whom W. Robert Pearson believes Araturk used to unite Turkey kept that relationship very strong throughout Erbakan’s short term and beyond until military leaders were tried and convicted on false charges of planning a coup. There had been many coupes in the past, so there were many reasons to attack the military which opposed Erdogan’s Islamism but when the smoke cleared, Erdogan had a free hand to demolish the Israeli-Turkish relationship. Something both Islamist governments wanted.
Pearson claims Erdogan misunderstood Obama and somehow it was this misunderstanding that led Erdogan misuse Obama’s “offer of friendship”
Erdogan’s response was to use the partnership to aggrandize his influence domestically and to try to use the U.S. tie as a personal endorsement of himself as a regional and global leader. He was even sharply critical of the United States when it served his own domestic purposes.
This is an excuse, Erdogan doesn’t appear to care that much for democracy which has become very clear to almost everyone as he abuses the constitutional restrictions on his current ceremonial office of President and he took advantage of President Obama but he also took advantage Abdullah Gul and then sidelined him, he took advantage of Fethullah Gulen and now wants to arrest him, he took advantage of the Kurdish HDP party to grain a majority and when the party gained votes at his expense he ended peace talks to fight Kurds. Even now he is allowing Americans to use the Incilik air base so Turkey can have some cover in fighting the Kurds. The pattern here is of a politician who takes advantage of anything in his reach. He misunderstands little, our President misunderstood Erdogan.
The world expects scholars to be accurate with recent history but the inherent anti-Semitic narrative against Israel has infected this analysis, Israel did not harm the Turkish-Israeli relationship in 2009. Erdogan as is his habit took on a conflict he did not have the credibility or temperment to negotiate and he did so to prove Turkey is a regional power worth paying attention to but he also has a clear distaste for Israelis and Jews and that has affected his foreign policy. Even now the contradictions are very stark, he supports Hamas but keeps the Kurdish Arafat, Abdullah Ocalan, in jail and wants to sideline a Turkish-Kurdish leader who is demanding the PKK disarm. Treating similar things as though they were different is the definition of prejudice and W. Robert Pearson would understand President Erdogan a lot better if he could recognize such attitudes and learned to question popular narratives about Israeli-Turkish relations.
Pearson further demonstrates he doesn’t understand Erdogan with the following:
Erdogan has always had the ability to take the path that will realize the Turkish dream—a true democracy at peace and in harmony with itself, its national and religious past, and the world beyond its borders. Not too many years ago, he represented that hope. Whether he will step forward to provide that principled guidance depends on him— and the voters of Turkey—in a rapidly approaching moment of decision.
Erdogan has no interest in having an inclusive society where conservative Muslims enjoy only the same freedoms as their secular counterparts as he only cares about those secularists that might vote for him and he only said things like that to avoid a coup when the AK party first took power. Other AKP leaders may have that “dream” but not Erdogan. He is a classic machine politician right down to the bribes and public works and infrastructure projects. Pearson thinks public pressure will make Erdogan change his mind and embrace the “Turkish dream” but Erdogan never had that dream. Nonetheless, Pearson writes, “The next phase of that dream—a truly democratic Turkey—is waiting to be made reality.” That dream does exist, Pearson is right about that but really the more conservative of the conservative Muslims want secularists to be more like them and secular people really don’t trust religious conservatives whom they see as backward and waiting to create a tyranny. People do have friends and families across the divide who trust each other and the question is what political system will allow mutual political trust. So I agree with Pearson there is “a dream” in Turkey of greater unity but it is alongside a fear of socially pressured indoctrination and tyranny on both sides. Turkey does need a Muslim but pro secularist party that wants to protect religious rights rather than impose religion and stand for Muslim values, a real Muslim-Democratic party but Erdogan’s attempt at a cult of personality with the AKP party is not the way. What Turkey needs is for the AKP to split and give people a real choice between freedom for religion in the context of secularism in politics and an Islamism that shows little pretense for secularism. Perhaps Bulent Arinc or Abdullah Gul could create a credible alternative to the AKP. If this happens, Turkey will be far better represented with a healthy political spectrum but problems will remain. In a country that is 90% Muslim, secularism is necessarily anti-clerical and Turkey has not yet found a way to strike a balance between religion and secularism. Erodgan is not the man to figure this out, nor is the he the man to create a situation where other leaders can figure out how to maximize religious freedom for everyone.
There’s a problem with academia when it can only see what it believes, Pearson buys into the Israel at fault canard for Turkish Israeli relations and he can’t see that the current President of Turkey has more in common with Richard J. Daley and Nursultan Nazarbayev then Martin Luther King.