China Is Not Ten Feet Tall
How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the most baffling politician to emerge in the 96-year history of Turkey. He is polarizing and popular, autocratic and fatherly, calculating and listless. Erdogan’s ideology shifts every few years, and he appears to make up his road map as he goes along. He is short-tempered: he grabs cigarette packs from citizens to try to force them into quitting, scolds reporters who ask tough questions, and once walked off the stage after an angry exchange with the Israeli president at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But he can also be extremely patient. It has taken him 16 years to forge what he calls “the new Turkey,” an economically self-reliant country with a marginalized opposition and a subservient press.
This mix of anger and calm has made Erdogan increasingly successful at the ballot box. He became prime minister in 2003 after his party won 34 percent of the vote, and by 2011, its share had risen to just shy of 50 percent. In 2014, when he ran for president in order to centralize his authority, more than half of Turks who cast a ballot voted for him. They did so again in 2018, by which time they had also voted to do away with the post of prime minister altogether.
Erdogan has converted his popular mandate into power and used that power to remake Turkey’s relations with the rest of the world. He has expanded Turkish influence in Syria and northern Iraq and tilted Turkey—a NATO member—toward China, Iran, and Russia. His use of power has also generated dissent among feminists, leftists, and the secular middle class. Under Erdogan’s watch, Turkey has become the world’s largest prison for journalists. Filmmakers, novelists, photographers, and scholars are also among the imprisoned. Turkey has banned gay and transgender pride marches since 2015; Wikipedia has been blocked since 2017.
In the wake of a financial crisis earlier this year, candidates who were aligned with Erdogan lost support in local elections. But even as his party’s allure diminishes, Erdogan may win a third presidential term in 2023. If that happens, and Erdogan leaves office in 2028, he will go down in history as Turkey’s second-longest-serving president, a year shy of Kemal Ataturk’s rule.
Ironically, the politician Erdogan first sought to distance himself from is the one he has come to resemble the most.
Ataturk, “father of the Turks,” was an Ottoman general who abolished the caliphate in 1924 and modernized Turkey by force over the 1930s. Under his single-party regime, Ataturk forged a modern nation-state from the ashes of a collapsed empire, built a modern bureaucracy, supported the creation of a Turkish bourgeoisie, and convinced a Muslim nation to allow Western modernity into their lives. Erdogan initially criticized Ataturk’s centralized remaking of Turkey, blaming him for his highhanded style of rule. But since 2008, when Erdogan started having to balance various factions of the bureaucracy, and even more so after 2013, when Turks took to the public squares to protest his policies, Erdogan has adopted strikingly similar methods. Ironically, the politician he first sought to distance himself from is the one he has come to resemble the most.
Erdogan was born in 1954, 16 years after Ataturk’s death, in Kasimpasa, a rough Istanbul neighborhood of open sewers and muddy streets, famed for its firefighters, pickpockets, and Romani musicians. The son of a ferry captain, Erdogan made pocket money by selling Turkish bagels when he wasn’t studying at a religious school. On his way home, as dusk fell in Istanbul, he would use the deck of a cargo ship anchored in the Golden Horn to practice reciting the Koran, earning plaudits for his oratory. But Erdogan also played soccer, dreamed of a career in sports, and rebelled against patriarchy: his fellow Islamists did not approve of his athletic shorts, and his father asked him to land a proper job.
Erdogan was 15 years old when, in 1969, the leading Islamist politician in Turkish history, Necmettin Erbakan, published the manifesto Millî Görüş (National Vision). Erbakan called on Turkey to sever ties with the European Economic Community (the precursor of the EU) and align with pan-Islamist leaders in Bangladesh and Pakistan and across the rest of the Muslim world. From the moment a teenage Erdogan joined the youth branch of Erbakan’s National Salvation Party, his political instincts were shaped by this mindset. Erbakan’s movement supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviets and Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran. At political rallies, party leaders condemned what they termed “the West’s crusader mentality” and described the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development as its modern incarnations. Erdogan and his ilk opposed the absence of Islamic references in the public domain: in their view, the secular government did not deserve respect as long as it did not respect Islam.
In 1985, Erdogan had a chance to prove his organizational skills to Islamist elders when he arranged a boxing match occasioned by the visit of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of a CIA-backed mujahideen group, who was in Turkey to celebrate Erbakan’s return to politics five years after being banished from political life. Erdogan also aligned himself with the Naqshbandi Sufi order in Istanbul, an influential movement that provided the religious connections that would aid his rise to power. In those years, Istanbul’s city government had hired Erdogan as a player on its soccer team, but the team’s ban on Islamic beards forced him to resign. After completing his mandatory year of military service, Erdogan worked as an administrator at a sausage factory; soon, Islamists invited him to work full time for Erbakan’s party—now rebranded as the Welfare Party after previous incarnations were banned—and there he raised funds from members to pay his wages. As the party’s provincial head in Istanbul, Erdogan delivered speeches against “the evil new world order,” protested the Gulf War, and defended the cause of Islamic rebel groups in the Algerian civil war.
Erdogan distinguished himself from other Islamists through his calculated pragmatism, ushering in a tectonic shift in Turkish politics over the 1990s. “We don’t need bearded men who are good Koran reciters; we need people who do their job properly,” Erdogan would later say. As part of this drive, Erdogan established a network of volunteers who could put tens of thousands of party posters on walls in a few hours and distribute handouts to voters during morning commutes. These were his “nerve ends,” he said, capable of sending signals from the Welfare Party’s administration to voters. Erdogan also used another analogy to describe his organization: a “brick wall,” carefully laid and difficult to break.
These grass-roots efforts paid off in 1994, when Erdogan was elected Istanbul’s mayor. He made public transportation free of charge during Islamic holidays, banned alcohol in municipal facilities, and lifted employment restrictions on women who wore headscarves. When a reporter asked him to explain his success, he replied, “I am Istanbul’s imam.” Erdogan’s bravado alarmed secularists and generals, and his rising career was soon endangered: in 1998, Turkey’s highest court shut down the Welfare Party, and after a fiery speech at a rally, Erdogan was charged with inciting hatred and sentenced to ten months in prison. The legal stain, which the judiciary planned as a way to terminate his career, maximized Erdogan’s popularity, since pious Turks now viewed him as their voice, which the state wanted to silence. By the time he left prison, Erdogan was ready to take the path to power.
It was then that Erdogan moved from local to national politics, defying the ban on his political activities and leading a breakaway group from Erbakan’s party. (He explained the rift with his mentor by repeating a maxim attributed to Aristotle, “Plato is my friend, but truth is a better friend.”) The vehicle for Erdogan’s ambitions was the Justice and Development Party—known by its Turkish abbreviation, AKP—which he formed in 2001. At a press conference announcing the new party, Erdogan listed democratization and pluralism as its ideological cornerstones. His movement, he claimed, was based on power sharing: “A cadre will run the party, and decisions won’t be taken under the shadow of one leader.” He described his own role as an “orchestra chief,” proclaiming that the “age of me-centered politics is over.” Erdogan founded the AKP with two other veterans of the Welfare Party, Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arinc, and the troika had charisma, support from Turkey’s Anatolian heartland, and a novel idea: that European integration and the protections of religious freedom offered by the EU were good for the pious and that democratization was in the interest of conservative Turks. “We used to see the Turkish state as a leviathan that oppressed the religious and the poor,” Arinc recalled. “Now, the EU negotiation process convinced us the Turkish state can be democratized.” Erdogan also noted that because of the undemocratic nature of the Turkish establishment, his “conservative democratic” party could be considered “antiestablishment” without calling itself an Islamist party, reaping the benefits of outsider status while maintaining wide appeal. It would become a winning formula for years to come.
By the time he left prison, Erdogan was ready to take the path to power.
The AKP won Turkey’s 2002 elections with 34 percent of the vote; the runner-up received 19 percent. Earlier conservative parties had also won landslides—the Democrat Party in 1950, Justice in 1965, and Motherland in 1983—but the leaders of those movements fared poorly once in power. Turkish generals hanged one on the gallows, ousted another in a coup, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to keep the third away from power. Erdogan was determined to avoid a similar fate. In 2004, he pledged to curtail the military’s long-standing dominance of politics and demote the chief of the Turkish general staff, once a demigod, to a public servant. These promises won him support from liberals. But Turkey’s military tutelage wasn’t replaced by democracy; rather, as the scholars Simon Waldman and Emre Caliskan have written, it gave way over the 2010s to “AKP patrimony.” “Instead of consensus politics and pluralism,” they point out, “the Erdogan years . . . have often been highly divisive and autocratic in style.” Around this time, Erdogan parted ways with liberals and started making moves toward establishing a presidential system, which would present fewer obstacles to his exercise of power.
Erdogan, who is six feet tall, walks with a confident stride: his right shoulder faces forward, while the left shoulder waits in the back. The walk, known as “the Kasimpasali march,” after his boyhood neighborhood, sums up the man. Following his imprisonment, Erdogan resisted pleas to become a Turkish Nelson Mandela and instead cultivated the image of a külhanbeyi, a roughneck who prowled the streets of Istanbul during the Ottoman period. By evoking that figure, he was able to emphasize his humble beginnings and consolidate his pious base, the disenfranchised Islamists who supported him not for his perceived reformism but for the conservative values he had defended early in his career.
“In the heart of every Turkish citizen lies the desire to become president,” Suleyman Demirel, a poor shepherd boy who fulfilled that desire in 1993, once said. Erdogan’s rise, like Demirel’s, is an inspiring example of upward mobility. Yet as with most good coming-of-age stories, the hero in Erdogan’s bildungsroman has another character trait: vulnerability. In the tradition of wronged conservative politicians before him, Erdogan has presented himself as a precarious leader who needs to be defended. In 2006, when he fainted inside his car after his blood pressure fell, panicked advisers rushed out for help before the armored Mercedes automatically locked its doors. Guards had to break the windshield with hammers to rescue him. The episode only added to the myth of a wronged man, betrayed by those closest to him.
Yet Erdogan has also changed his self-presentation over time, from anti-Western Islamist to conservative democrat. As the Turkish journalist Rusen Cakir has written, Erdogan, when he moved from local to national politics in the late 1990s, “wasn’t comfortable with the ‘liberal’ moniker, which he considered a swearword,” but because he had been marginalized by the old guard, liberals thought of him as a bridge between the establishment and “the organizational power and dynamic voting-base of Islamists.” To realize its vision of an Islamist movement compatible with the global order, the AKP joined the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, a Europe-wide political party aimed at reforming, rather than rejecting, the EU. Back home, the AKP developed a strategy of forming alliances to control the Turkish state. In exercising his power, Erdogan worked with both competent bureaucrats and Islamists with political aspirations but little technical know-how. “Other parties have voters,” his teacher Erbakan famously said. “We have believers.” The challenge for Erdogan was to retain the believers even as he pushed for market reforms and accession to the EU.
But therein lay a problem. Erdogan had no cadres to fill the state bureaucracy. Competent functionaries mostly belonged to other political camps. Although the Islamist bureaucrats tended to be skilled at providing public health and transportation services, they showed little interest in education, policing, or intelligence work. And so Erdogan resurrected the Ottoman tradition of indirect rule. He outsourced different components of the state—the judiciary, the police force, and the military—to different power players. Between 2003 and 2013, the old-school bureaucrats who opposed the AKP’s globalist agenda were replaced in the Foreign Ministry and the judiciary by ambitious new cadres. Most had backgrounds in the network of religious schools run by Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, after being accused of seeking to undermine Turkey’s secular order. Gulenists also infiltrated the police and the military.
Erdogan resurrected the Ottoman tradition of indirect rule.
But outsourcing power came with the price of losing control. Like Ottoman sultans, omnipotent in their palaces but ruling at the mercy of local feudal lords, Erdogan saw his decentralized authority become open to usurpation. In the military, secular, nationalist generals resigned in protest of the Gulenist takeover of the civil administration. Those who didn’t quit were purged in massive court cases in 2008 and 2010; some received life sentences. In the judiciary, newly appointed prosecutors and judges who supported the purge were promoted around 2010 and 2012. The press approved: one liberal paper, since bankrupted, compared the prosecutions to the Nuremberg trials. But nationalist Turks were angry, and the AKP lost their votes in Anatolia. To regain control, Erdogan broke with the Gulenists, cutting his support for their educational institutions and purging its members from the bureaucracy.
In foreign policy, another field in which his cadres lacked expertise, Erdogan handed the reins to Ahmet Davutoglu, a scholar of international relations often described as “the Turkish Henry Kissinger,” and named him foreign minister in 2009. The AKP foreign ministers who preceded Davutoglu had preserved Turkey’s Western-focused foreign policy doctrine. As a member of NATO, a U.S. ally, and a candidate for EU membership since 1999, Turkey had kept its distance from China, Iran, and Russia. Now, the bespectacled, soft-spoken professor proposed a different route. Turkey was the inheritor of the Ottoman caliphate, Davutoglu wrote, and it needed to move from a “wing state” of the West to a “pivot state.” Taking advantage of its location at the intersection of the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Europe, it was poised to lead Islamic nations.
Erdogan relished these grandiose ambitions, and as the Arab Spring unfolded, Turkey set its sights on Syria, where it hoped for a regime change instigated by the Free Syrian Army, and on Egypt, where it placed all its chips on the Muslim Brotherhood. The Davutoglu doctrine allowed Erdogan to reinvent himself as a global Islamic leader, someone who could improve the lot of Muslims not only in Turkey but elsewhere, too. “Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul,” he said after winning a third term as prime minister in 2011. “Beirut won as much as Izmir. Damascus won as much as Ankara. Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.”
Two events shattered those dreams. The first was the unraveling of Erdogan’s foreign policy in the Middle East. In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi and other leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood refused Erdogan’s call to look to secular Turkey as a “model democracy,” and after Morsi was toppled in a coup, Erdogan’s hopes for a secular version of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region began to look fantastic. In Syria, the Kurds formed a breakaway region in the country’s north, leading Kurds in Turkey, who had long been seeking a separate state, to pull out of the ongoing peace process with the central government. The second event was a domestic uprising. In 2013, millions of leftists and environmentalists marched in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and in city squares across Turkey. It was then that Erdogan, having lost support from the Gulenists, the Kurds, and the liberals, turned to Turkish nationalists to remain in power. He now spoke admiringly of Ataturk and his politics, described his own critics as “rabble-rousers,” and claimed that Turkey was under siege by the West.
The Gezi protests and Ankara’s isolation in the Middle East unsettled the leader who, as the scholar Soner Cagaptay writes in Erdogan’s Empire, “had been a master of reading the global zeitgeist and responding to it with a public relations executive’s craftiness.” In 2014, Davutoglu became prime minister, but soon, his warm relations with the leaders of other European states angered Erdogan, who now considered him a challenger to his authority. In May 2016, Erdogan forced him to resign and replaced him with a low-profile placeholder. Even as the presidential palace moved to the center of Turkish politics, however, Erdogan struggled for control. Less than two months after Davutoglu’s ouster, disgruntled Gulenist cadres in the military staged a failed coup, in which 250 people were killed. As fighter jets bombed the parliament, Erdogan appeared on CNN Turk via FaceTime and asked Turks to defend democracy by fighting off soldiers in public squares.
The failed putsch gave Erdogan a further excuse to centralize power. Announcing a state of emergency, Erdogan suspended the European Convention on Human Rights, detained tens of thousands of civil servants, closed more than 100 media outlets, and canceled the passports of 50,000 Turks suspected of having links to Gulenists to prevent them from leaving the country. It was in this atmosphere of chaos and fear that Turks voted in a 2017 referendum to adopt a presidential system of government. Only Erdogan could will Turkey back into order during this “new war of independence,” he argued; some opposition parties, he claimed, were allied with the enemy. Such polarizing rhetoric seemed anachronistic a century after World War I, but as a political strategy, it worked, allowing Erdogan’s vote to reach 53 percent in the 2018 presidential election. Again, however, Erdogan was at the mercy of another political movement, this time not the Gulenists but the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, with which he formed a coalition government. In doing so, Erdogan worried fellow Islamists by handing key positions in the bureaucracy to their main right-wing rival.
Akif Beki, a tall, sleekly dressed political operative with movie-star looks, was Erdogan’s chief adviser and spokesperson from 2005 to 2009. Today, he speaks critically about his former boss and his team. “The feedback mechanisms of AKP’s first years no longer work,” Beki told me earlier this year. “The party’s old sensitivities disappeared. Instead of conducting dialogue with voters, the AKP insists on a one-way propaganda monologue. Instead of facing problems, it conceals them.”
Disgruntled former allies such as Beki are pebbles in Erdogan’s shoe. Erdogan can afford to ignore communists and environmentalists, who garner little support at the ballot box, but disillusioned Islamists, who have talked about forming a new party, pose a challenge to the AKP’s reign. Recently, two of the three founding members of the AKP raised their voices against Erdogan’s strongman politics: Arinc strongly denounced the polarizing tone of the party, and Gul came close to running as the opposition candidate in the 2018 election. Davutoglu, for his part, published a manifesto opposing the presidential system on Facebook.
The alarming state of Turkey’s economy is a more threatening problem. Last year, the Turkish lira lost 28 percent of its value, and this year, food prices have increased by 30 percent. From July 2018 to July 2019, the unemployment rate rose by four percent, swelling the ranks of unemployed Turks from 3.2 million to 4.5 million. Further aggravating Turks has been the rise in the number of Syrian refugees making their home in Turkey (more than 3.6 million of them, as of June 2019). It was thus little surprise that in local elections held in March and June, the AKP saw its share of the vote fall dramatically in numerous cities, including the capital, Ankara.
In spite of these cracks, the “brick wall” Erdogan has patiently built remains intact. The AKP has around 11 million party members, ten times as many as the Republican People’s Party, the party Ataturk founded in 1923. Aligning with the AKP today opens up career opportunities for Turks from different social classes, much as aligning with Ataturk’s party did in the 1930s.
But it is his years in the presidency that, in Erdogan’s view, deserve the privileged title of “mastership.”
Recently, as if to assist future biographers, Erdogan periodized his reign. In a television interview, he named his Islamist years, in the Welfare Party and as mayor of Istanbul, as an “apprenticeship.” His time as a reformist prime minister was his “journeymanship.” But it is his years in the presidency that, in Erdogan’s view, deserve the privileged title of “mastership.” Now 65, Erdogan rules with little separation of powers; that was inevitable, he believes, after the very public betrayal of former allies. In the presidential palace, plasma screens track which news stories are most widely read in the country, requiring specialists to rapidly address the snowballing problems that people care about, but a few dozen officers are hardly sufficient for a nation of 82 million. For almost a century, elected ministers tackled the concerns of their constituents; today, appointed members of boards specializing in education, culture, and technology have been made responsible for developing policy. A corporatist economy and a culture of favoritism in politics, the media, and the public sector are on the rise. Majoritarianism increasingly defines domestic politics. In the AKP’s view, these tactics of control are necessary to keep a multiethnic and polarized country in order. But they in fact deepen the systemic failings of Turkish democracy: the weakness of institutions, the lack of press scrutiny, and the ruthless pace of cultural shifts over the past century. Instead of solving these problems, the AKP has chosen to be victimized by them.
Despite such challenges, Turkey’s civil society remains strong. Turkey has 52 million active social media users. In recent years, initiatives focusing on the security of ballot counting, fact checking in the media, LGBTQ rights, and violence against women have gained traction. As the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has noted, “Once a country gets too rich and complex, the leader may think himself to be too powerful, but individuals also feel powerful.” Erdogan’s great challenge over the next decade, as individualism grows in Turkey and Islamophobic populism rises in Europe, will be to convince voters that his mixture of anger and patience is still a model to follow, that his formation story can continue to inspire, and that only his unassailable ability can steer Turkey to safety. Erdogan will no doubt do everything in his power to succeed at this daunting task.