Erdogan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Erdogan’s pyrrhic victory

By Dr. John C. Hulsman

The short term consequences of the weekend’s stunning failed coup attempt in Turkey seem clear enough. In typical Putin mini-me fashion, surviving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s position is strengthened, with him calling the coup ‘a gift from God,’ allowing him to energetically purge the disloyal army of both Gulenist and Kemalist factions.

In his defiant speech from Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Erdogan laid the blame for the coup squarely at the feet of ‘those in Pennsylvania,’ meaning exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former supporter of the President, now turned bitter enemy. A shadowy figure with followers permeating the military, courts, and police, for years Gulen proved to be a powerful ally of the Turkish President.

However, in 2013, these former political partners in staring down Turkey’s secular establishment dramatically parted ways. Mired in corruption scandals which tainted his image as a clean pair of hands, Erdogan blamed Gulenists for targeting his supporters, including his son Bilal. He responded to the charges by purging the judiciary and police of Gulenist supporters, shifting back toward a temporary alliance with the cowed secular army to see off the challenge.

With the failure of the plot, Erdogan can continue his housecleaning of Gulenists from the military itself. Erdogan and his minions have already arrested 2800 in the army, and fired 2700 judges who might not yet be under his thumb.
Going further, Erdogan–playing to the Turkish crowd and showing his disdain for the rule of law–demanded the US extradite Gulen immediately, proving itself a true ‘strategic ally’ of Turkey. Secretary of State John Kerry, so often gormless, bravely asked that some evidence of Gulen’s complicity be produced. US-Turkish relations are in for a stormy time.

As harmed as the Gulenist cause is by the failure of the revolt, the aborted coup signals nothing so much as the death knell of the formerly dominant secular ‘Deep State:’ the cadre of secular political, intelligence and military officials who have really run the country since Ataturk founded modern Turkey.

But though bloody–in that over 200 people died—the coup was put down with relative ease, over the course of a single evening. It signals the likely last hurrah of the army-dominated Deep State. Over time, Erdogan has been successful in dealing with the once over-mighty army, pensioning off secularists in the high command (and marginalising the remnant), all the while promoting more overtly Islamist officers.

It was this final mortal institutional threat to their shrinking power base that seems to have compelled the Kemalist faction within the army to act. Their failure signals their political doom: Erdogan has grimly noted that the failed coup amounts to ‘an opportunity’ to once and for all cleanse the armed forces of its formerly dominant Kemalist orientation.

But if in the short run Erdogan emerges from the ashes of the failed coup phoenix-like, with his power enhanced, and if his enemies in the Gulenist movement and the army lie in ruins, the longer term picture for Turkey exposed by the coup is far less clear.

The Turkish President’s form of majoritarian democracy–a system with few checks and balances beyond the ultimate power of the people to eject him from office—now looks brittle. By sweeping away competing power centres in the army, the judiciary, and the police force, Erdogan has superficially vanquished his foes, rather than co-opting them through the usual democratic norm of political compromise.

The problem with this method is that, while the ruling AKP Party tends to have slightly more than majority support across the country, it does leave a huge, embittered and massive minority of the country (well over forty percent) implacably opposed to Erdogan’s increasingly over-mighty behaviour.

The fact that he has no rivals in his own party means that he also has no obvious successor to carry on his mildly Islamist reforms in a heretofore secular Turkish society. In dominating everyone, Erdogan is a one-man band, in that he and he alone is all that is holding his immediate political ascendancy together. It is that political fragility that the failed coup has just exposed for all to see.

So while in the aftermath of the failed coup, the Turkish President bestrides the Bosporus like a political colossus, real cracks are showing in the grand edifice of his rule. Turkey is not the stable state it was taken for just a few days ago.

Published in City AM London, July 16, 2016

Erdogan’s Victory: More than meets the eye?

Erdogan’s victory: More than meets the eye?

By Dr. John C. Hulsman

The short term consequences resulting from this weekend’s stunning failed coup attempt in Turkey seem clear enough. Surviving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s position is strengthened, allowing him to energetically purge the disloyal army of both Gulenist and Kemalist factions who wish him ill.

In his defiant speech from Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Erdogan laid the blame for the coup squarely at the feet of ‘those in Pennsylvania,’ meaning exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former supporter of the president, now turned bitter enemy. A shadowy figure with followers permeating the military, court system, and police, for years Gulen proved to be a powerful, important, ally of the Turkish President.

However, in 2013, these former political partners in staring down Turkey’s secular establishment dramatically parted ways. Mired in corruption scandals which tainted his image as a clean pair of hands, Erdogan blamed Gulenists for targeting his supporters, including his son Bilal. He responded to the charges by purging the judiciary and police of Gulenist supporters, shifting back toward a temporary alliance with the cowed secular army as a base of power to see off the Gulenist challenge.

In this purge he was successful, as ultra-loyal police forces just played a major role in putting down the attempted coup. With the failure of the plot, Erdogan can continue his housecleaning of Gulenists from the military itself.

As harmed as the Gulenist cause is by the failure of the revolt, the aborted coup signals nothing so much as the death knell of the formerly dominant secular ‘Deep State:’ the cadre of secular political, intelligence and military officials who have really run Turkey for much of the time since Ataturk founded the modern Turkish state.

In their statement announcing the coup, the military faction accused Erdogan of undermining the country’s secular tradition, with his advocacy of a relatively moderate form of Islamism. Given the armed forces unofficial but deeply held belief that it is the guardian of country’s founding Kemalist secular culture, this was reason enough for Erdogan’s overthrow.

But the coup–if bloody in that over 200 people died–was put down with relative ease, over the course of a single evening. It signals the likely last hurrah of the army-dominated Deep State. Over time, Erdogan has been highly successful in dealing with the once over-mighty army, pensioning off secularists in the high command (and marginalising the remnant), all the while promoting more overtly Islamist officers.

It was this mortal final institutional threat to their shrinking power base that seems to have compelled the Kemalist faction within the army to act. Their failure signals their political doom, as Erdogan has grimly noted that the failed coup amounts to ‘an opportunity’ to once and for all cleanse the armed forces of its formerly dominant Kemalist orientation.

A sign of weakness, not strength

But if in the short run Erdogan emerges from the ashes of the failed coup phoenix-like, with his power enhanced, and if his enemies in the Gulenist movement and the army lie in ruins, the longer term picture for Turkey that the coup exposed is far less clear.

The standard western narrative about the present state of the Middle East holds that while the Arab world is in chaos following the failure of the Arab Spring, the more coherent, non-Arab states at the periphery of the Middle East—Iran, Israel, and Turkey—are the dominant players. The failed Turkish coup calls this common belief into fundamental question, as suddenly Erdogan’s reign seems far less secure than it did, even days ago.

The Turkish President’s form of majoritarian democracy–a system with few checks and balances beyond the ultimate power of the people to eject him from office—now looks politically brittle. By sweeping away competing power centres in the army, the judiciary, and the police force, Erdogan has superficially vanquished his foes, rather than co-opting them through the usual democratic norm of political compromise.

The problem with this method is that while the ruling AKP Party tends to have slightly more than majority support across the country, it does leave a huge, embittered and massive minority of the country (well over forty percent) implacably opposed to Erdogan’s increasingly over-mighty behaviour.

The fact that he has no rivals in his own party means that he also has no obvious successor to carry on his mildly Islamist reforms in a heretofore secular Turkish society. In dominating everyone, Erdogan is a one-man band.

The problem with this is that it exposes the fragility of his political project, in that he and he alone is all that is holding his immediate political ascendancy together. It is that political fragility that the failed coup has just exposed for all to see.

So while in the aftermath of the failed coup, the Turkish President bestrides the Bosporus like a political colossus, real cracks are showing in the grand edifice of his rule. Turkey is not the stable state it was taken for just a few days ago.

Published in Al Arabiya, July 16, 2016.

The South China Sea is a powder keg with disturbing echoes of 1914

The South China Sea is a powder keg with disturbing echoes of 1914

By Dr. John C. Hulsman

With all the Brexit drama, it is easy to forget that on the other side of the world a contest for primacy is brewing that will probably do more to tell the tale of what our multipolar world evolves into than anything presently happening in Europe. If the US and China manage their emerging geostrategic rivalry in Asia, all will be broadly well. If they do not, an updated version of World War I is entirely plausible.

I pick my historical analogy advisedly because, in a number of disconcerting ways, the rivalry playing itself out in the South China and East China Seas resembles nothing so much as 1913 Europe, sitting precariously on the edge of a powder keg. There are almost no significant multilateral security organisations in the region to cushion normal geostrategic blows, making Asia resemble pre-World War I Europe, rather than the continent’s post-World War II vintage.

Asia today, like Europe then, is about nationalistic states with armies and navies, determined to throw their weight around. In Prime Ministers Abe of Japan and Modi of India, and in Chinese President Xi Jinping, the leaders of the three major regional powers are all strong nationalists, unchallenged masters of their domestic political realms, who would be unable to easily back down if a crisis occurs.

This lack of multilateral shock absorbers is mainly down to the fact that the Japanese elite have never managed to face up to their World War II atrocities (their proclivity to pray at the Yasakuni shrine, which commemorates a number of war criminals, could be laughed off as bizarre if it didn’t terrify both the South Koreans and the Chinese; imagine how the French would feel if the Germans prayed at the Goebbels shrine).

South Korea, in particular, which on geopolitical merits alone ought to be Japan’s best regional ally (both working together balancing against a resurgent China) has unnecessarily fraught relations with Tokyo, stemming from Japan’s historical amnesia.

So instead the still-dominant Americans are forced to shuttle bilaterally between their various Asian allies, scuttling about like a headless chicken trying to keep the geostrategic show on the road. For there is an utterly unresolvable strategic tension lying at the heart of the increasing controversies in the waters surrounding China: the US is the dominant power in East Asia, and China wishes to be the dominant power in East Asia. Nothing can wish this basic strategic reality away.

And the doleful 1914 analogy works at another analytical level. The US resembles 1913 Britain, still the dominant power in the world, even if it is in relative decline as others gain on it. China approximates the Kaiser’s bumptious Germany, determined to gain its place in the sun, and the global rising power most making the rest of the world nervous. Japan is Third Republic France, in decline and painfully aware of it, even as its hated rival—for the French Germany and for the Japanese the Chinese—gains in power almost by the day. India is even an alright stand-in for Tsarist Russia, powerful, slightly geographically removed from the situation, yet capable of playing a pivotal role. The aptness of the analogy leaves little room for strategic comfort.

Like pre-1914 Wilhelmine Germany, China is on the strategic march, especially throwing its weight around the South China Sea, where more than $5 trillion in trade passes through its waters each year. Beijing ridiculously claims the lion’s share of the waterway for itself, through the use of the nine-dash line that it says validates these excessive claims. The problem is that Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also have competing claims and increasingly chafe at China’s high-handed treatment there, where Beijing is constructing military bases. At last bearing it no longer, the Philippines took Beijing to international court, with The Hague set to rule on the conflicting welter of claims in the next few days.

Almost certainly The Hague will rule in the Philippines’ favour, and equally certainly China, to the horror of its neighbours, will simply ignore the court’s decision. Then the mask will have well and truly slipped, revealing China’s naked power grab in this most dangerous region in the world.

In the wise words of my grandmother, British foreign policy-makers must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time, focusing on the terms of their divorce with Europe, even as they keep their eyes squarely on Asia, where most of the world’s growth and much of its geostrategic risk resides.

Published in City AM London, July 11, 2016