Washington is a partisan and notoriously navel-gazing place. Diplomats, academics, and intellectuals often blame foreign policy failures on Presidents of the opposite party rather than on deliberate decisions by American adversaries. As hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled Turkish forces moving into Syria, and Trump’s domestic critics moved swiftly to blame him for the development, the President and some of his most vocal supporters blamed the Obama Administration’s naivety for laying the groundwork for the inevitable Turkish reaction. “Trump inherited from Obama a dysfunctional strategy for countering ISIS [the Islamic State],” Hudson Institute scholar Michael Doran wrote in the New York Post. “Trump is not betraying the YPG [the main Syrian Kurdish militia]. He is seeking to restore balance to American foreign policy.”
The problem with Turkey, however, is neither Trump nor Obama. Rather, it is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Love him or hate him, he is the most consequential Turkish leader since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and he has the second-longest tenure after Atatürk’s successor, İsmet İnönü. Erdoğan shook electoral politics in November 2002, when his party not only entered parliament but, through an electoral fluke, came to dominate it.
Over the ensuing 16 years, Erdoğan has used his position to remake Turkey fundamentally. As he consolidated power, he became more forthright about his goals. “We want to raise a religious generation,” he told parliament in February 2012. U.S. officials continue to comfort themselves in the belief that Turkey will revert to its previous character after Erdoğan dies or is defeated. This is a dangerous self-delusion. Consider education: More than 32 million Turks have received their education under Erdoğan’s leadership. During this period, the Turkish curriculum and broader education system have changed to promote Erdoğan’s religious and foreign policy agendas. In 2005, Erdoğan changed Turkey’s EU negotiating position to withdraw a commitment to secularism in education. He privileged graduates of Imam Hatip schools—Turkey’s system of madrasas—as they sought to enter the state bureaucracy. Within ordinary schools, he forced Sunni theological studies upon non-Sunnis.
Erdoğan has likewise transformed the Turkish military. Every Turkish officer from the rank of lieutenant colonel and below has served the entirety of their career under Erdoğan. Erdoğan used a series of coup conspiracies—Ergenekon in 2008, Balyoz in 2010, and the 2016 abortive coup—to purge top brass and those deemed too connected with NATO and the West. Whereas the Turkish army once stood as the constitutional guardian of secularism, today it is a driver for Islamism.
Erdoğan’s assault on the free press completed his strategy for national indoctrination. Punitive and politicized audits led most television and newspaper owners either to amplify Erdoğan’s positions or to sell their media outlets to him or his immediate family members. Those who did not take the hint found themselves bankrupt, imprisoned, exiled, or dead. Today, the only independent Turkish media is online—and published abroad. Turkey has become like Russia, where the constant bombardment of propaganda and conspiracies and the de-platforming of those espousing alternative views creates a bubble of belief in dissonance with reality, even among the educated classes.
With power consolidated in his person, purse, and immediate family, Erdoğan shed the pragmatism which he publicly embraced prior to his initial election and began undertaking a program to change fundamentally Turkish society and foreign policy. At home, he undertook a mosque-building campaign and then banned alcohol sales within 100 meters of mosques, forcing many bars and nightclubs to close. According to the Turkish government’s own statistics, the murder rate of women increased 1,400 percent in the first seven years of Erdoğan’s reign, largely because police now ignore honor crimes. Child marriage is also on the upswing. Furthermore, women in government have paid the price for Erdoğan’s efforts to infuse the bureaucracy with religious conservatives. Whereas Turkey was one of the first majority Muslim states to have a female leader, today the numbers of women in the top three levels of the national and provincial bureaucracies have plummeted to near zero. To Erdoğan, women’s priorities should be family rather than career. Indeed, he has chided women to have at least three children before pursuing professional careers.
Erdoğan’s foreign policy agenda has been as transformative as his domestic program. Turkish diplomats have emphasized continuity, for example, with regard to Turkey’s continued commitment to the European Union accession process. However, Turkey’s motivations, if not its general goals, changed. Erdoğan embraced the European Union, yes, but only in order to give diplomatic force to his efforts to extract the military from civilian politics. While the Turkish military had launched two coups and forced two other governments to resign over the course of Turkish history, it acted within its broad role as the guarantor of the constitution. What Erdoğan effectively did was to use the EU process to undo constitutional checks and balances in order to enable greater power consolidation and the promotion of Islamism. Once he achieved those goals, he turned his back on Brussels.
While Atatürk sought to use his dictatorial power to reorient Turkey toward the West, Erdoğan has done the opposite. He initially promoted neo-Ottomanism, but this failed to gain traction regionally as the peoples historically subjugated by Turks did not share the same fond remembrance of the Ottoman era. Turkey’s neighbors also resented Erdoğan’s Ottoman-inspired revanchism, with Turkish politicians and newspapers openly suggesting that Turkey annex territory along its borders. Erdoğan then turned more directly toward seeking leadership of the Islamic world. He bid unsuccessfully on the 2020 Olympics, arguing that the games should go to an Islamic country. He invested heavily in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, eventually succeeding in installing a Turk as president of the group.
More broadly, Erdoğan diverted tremendous resources—some Turkish in origin and some acquired from his partnership with the gas-rich emirate Qatar—to promote not only Islam generally, but also a Muslim Brotherhood worldview. It was this theological approach that has continued to sow divisions within Turkey. Censuses are notoriously inaccurate across the Middle East, and doubly so in Turkey, given the country’s ethnic and sectarian diversity. At least 20 percent of Turks are Alevi, however, an offshoot of Shi‘i Islam to which Erdoğan and his followers have long been hostile. Previous Turkish administrations embraced, integrated, and promoted Turkey’s Alevi community; Erdoğan has discriminated against it, forcing Sunni religious education upon Alevi students in public schools and tearing down Alevi prayer halls. This is consistent with Muslim Brotherhood intolerance, which sees only its own strict version of Sunni Islam as legitimate, treating all other forms as deviant.
Such attitudes also explain, in part, the hostility Erdoğan harbors toward one-time ally Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish theologian in self-imposed Pennsylvania exile. The two worked closely together in the first decade of Erdoğan’s rule, when secularism was a common adversary. But as Erdoğan triumphed over his Kemalist opponents, he turned his sites on Gülen, whose followers adhere more to a moderate, Anatolian Sufism than a strict Muslim Brotherhood line.
Erdoğan’s desire to lead the Islamic world has also motivated his rivalry with Saudi Arabia. While the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was reprehensible, Erdoğan’s championing of the case is deeply cynical. Reporters Without Borders has, for seven years, labeled Turkey as “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” and Erdoğan cares little for the journalists he and his supporters have fired, imprisoned, or killed. Rather, Erdoğan seeks to use the case to delegitimize the Saudi regime. The Saudi monarchy’s legitimacy rests upon its role as custodian of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. If Ankara can paint Riyadh as an unworthy custodian—much as Tehran tries to do—then the next step is to demand the internationalization of Mecca, Medina, and the Haj via a body such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Erdoğan’s efforts to promote Islamism and, with it, anti-Western sentiment go further. In recent years, he has shifted Turkey’s foreign policy focus to Africa. Turkish writing and diplomatic statements about Africa often contrast the image of a generous, benevolent Turkey with the damage wrought by centuries of exploitive Western policies and colonialism. Turkish Airlines grew in the matter of just a few years to be one of the continent’s top carriers. Erdoğan consolidated schools and properties seized from Gülen into the Maarif Foundation, an organization founded by his political party to promote a more radical interpretation of Islam. He also created a network of Yunus Emre Institutes to enable African students to study in Turkish religious schools. While Turkey promotes its base in Somalia as a sign of its commitment to fight extremism, SADAT, a private, Islamist paramilitary founded by Erdoğan’s chief military adviser, trains African recruits in Mogadishu with considerably less transparency.
Turkish officials often say Turkey is an ally in the war against terrorism. Standing alongside President Trump during his most recent visit to the White House, Erdoğan said, “We’re just fighting terrorists, period. . . . Terrorists don’t have an ethnicity, they don’t have a nationality, they don’t have a flag. If they’re terrorists, that is a terrorist.” But much depends on Erdoğan’s definition of terrorism. In 2012, as al-Qaeda rampaged across northern Mali, Ahmet Kavaş, an Erdoğan appointee, defended the group against French intervention. “Al-Qaeda is very different from terror,” he said, adding, “The word ‘terror’ is a French invention. Not the work of Muslims.” Two years later, a tape recording surfaced of a phone call between a Turkish Airlines representative and Erdoğan’s office suggesting that Turkish intelligence had used the state carrier to smuggle weaponry to Boko Haram.
Turkey has used the same wordplay to justify its overt support for Hamas and to gloss over questions about its more covert assistance for both al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq as well as the Islamic State, the vast majority of whose foreign fighters traversed Turkish territory to enter Syria. Indeed, Erdoğan’s rhetoric in Turkish often stands in sharp contrast to his more conciliatory language in English. When Turkish proxy forces poured across the border last month to attack the largely secular Kurdish-controlled administration in northeastern Syria, Erdoğan blessed “the Army of Muhammad.” That the Turkish-backed force included several dozen veterans of the Islamic State underscored the fact that Erdoğan’s definition of terrorism is in complete dissonance with the West’s.
Erdoğan’s antagonism toward the West runs deeper than just religion. While American diplomats like Trump’s Syria Special Envoy James Jeffery and some foreign policy thinkers—most notably the Hudson Institute’s Michael Doran—argue that Turkey is too important for the United States to turn away from, the real wedge between the United States and Turkey comes out of Ankara. According to the Pew Global Attitudes surveys, Turkey is among the most anti-American countries on earth. This is not a coincidence, but rather the result of more than a decade of anti-American incitement in Turkey’s state-controlled media.
Turkey’s recent turn toward Russia is a reflection of Erdoğan’s animosity toward America. To suggest Erdoğan pragmatically seeks to get the best deal for his country by forcing Washington and Moscow to bid for Turkey’s affection misses the point. First, the idea of NATO is collective defense in times of crisis, not an opportunity for members to launch bidding wars for cash, concessions, or contracts. Second, to apologize for Erdoğan’s tilt toward Russia ignores his embrace or promotion of pro-Russian aides and allies like military counselor Adnan Tanrıverdi or politician and activist Doğu Perinçek, a paramount influence among Turkey’s top brass, an unabashed critic of NATO, and a supporter of both Russia and a Eurasian alliance.
After Israel intercepted the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-owned ship seeking to run Israel’s blockade and support Hamas, killing nine Turks in the process, Erdoğan threatened to use every international forum to undercut Israel. Erdoğan now uses the same tactics against the United States and NATO: Rather than simply withdraw from an alliance that he appears to despise, Erdoğan seeks to cripple it from within. NATO is a consensus driven organization, so Turkey and its Russian backer gain more leverage from filibustering its processes than by simply leaving the alliance. That there is no mechanism within NATO to expel a member only strengthens Turkey’s leverage.
Turkey may remain a member of NATO, but its strategic pivot toward Russia shifts the balance toward Moscow across the entire Black Sea region, allowing Russia to further solidify its strategic encroachment on Georgia and Ukraine.
Historians will debate how and when the West lost Turkey for many years to come, but one factor that contributed to its loss is plain enough to us now: wishful thinking. There is an unfortunate but pervasive tendency among top American officials to calibrate policy to how they wish countries were rather than how they are. For decades, such a tendency led Americans to turn a blind eye toward China’s challenge to the United States. So it is with Turkey: Not only Trump, but also Presidents Obama and George W. Bush before him refused to recognize Erdoğan’s transformation of Turkey from a reliable Western partner to a regional if not global adversary.
There is increasingly little foreign policy consensus in Washington, DC, but both Democrats and Republicans largely agree that the threats facing the United States are grave and growing. China increasingly shreds international norms. Iran has used proxy militias to undermine not only Iraq and Lebanon, but Syria and Yemen as well. Socialist, anti-American forces continue to find fertile ground in Latin America, North Korea threatens to attack the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons, and Russia challenges the United States and its NATO allies in both Europe and the Middle East. As Democrats choose their candidate to challenge Trump in 2020, it is crucial that Turkey be a component of the foreign policy debate.
Trump may consider Turkey an ally against threats facing the United States, but national security requires us to recognize that Turkey is more part of the problem than part of the solution. Erdoğan increasingly positions Turkey to be to the 21st century what Saudi Arabia was to the 20th—an engine of religious radicalism with global reach. It is easy to self-flagellate and accept as legitimate Turkish grievances about American policy, but indulging Turkey—whether on the Kurds, Cyprus, Syria, or any other issue—only encourages Erdoğan to demand more.
It may be impossible to expel Turkey from NATO, but that is no reason not to quarantine it within the organization, excluding it from meetings whenever possible and adjusting document classification to prevent Turkish officers from accessing its paper flows.
Nor should the Pentagon allow the U.S. military presence at Incirlik to excuse Turkish actions. Not only should the United States remove its nuclear weapons from Turkish soil, it should also consider evacuating Incirlik altogether, especially as it now has alternative base access in Romania and Jordan, as well as a more frequent carrier presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Democrats should also commit to continue recent moves to encourage further trilateral U.S., Greek, and Cypriot military cooperation. The United States should stand firmly on Cyprus’s side to end Turkey’s 45-year military occupation, and should provide Cyprus with the means to prevent Turkish theft of its maritime resources. There is no longer any reason why deference to Turkey should lead the United States to whitewash history with regard to the Armenian genocide.
In hyperpolarized Washington, Turkey might also be a topic that brings Democrats and Republicans together in the service of common American interests. At a minimum, Congress should hold Turkey to account for its actions. Sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act should be applied, and Congress should use the power of the purse to compel the White House to conform to the law if necessary. The State Department might also invoke its powers under the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction those individuals within Turkey who have participated in or financially benefited from assaults on media freedom. Against the backdrop of Turkey’s ethnic cleansing of Syrian Kurds, Congress might also invite Kurdish leaders to address top committees or even a joint session.
Trump and Turkey’s supporters are correct to point to Turkey’s legacy as a Cold War ally. Americans should always appreciate Turkey’s sacrifices. But the generation that stood with America is now gone, imprisoned, or retired. Demography changes countries, incitement transforms them, and dictatorial abuses matter. Diplomats might have diagnosed Turkey’s cancer at the beginning of Erdoğan’s term, but they deluded themselves into thinking that bilateral relations were entering a temporary down phase. Today, the truth is all too clear: Any possibility of a Western-leaning Turkey is gone. It is long past time that not only Trump but also his would-be Democratic successors accept and address Turkey’s new strategic reality.