I admit I bring up Turkey a lot, in part because it’s one of the few foreign countries I’ve been to in this century. But also because it’s a country that from the 1920s onward made extraordinary efforts to yank itself onto the path of modernity, which at the time was assumed to be nationalism and ethnic homogeneity. In these postmodern times, we tend to assume that that was all a mistake and that the future will look a lot like the good old days of the highly diverse Ottoman Empire.
Whatever Happened to the ‘Turkish Model’?
ISTANBUL — About five years ago, everyone was talking about the “Turkish model.” People in the West and in the Muslim world held up Turkey as a shining example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister and is now president, was praised as a reformist who was making his country freer, wealthier and more peaceful.
These days, I think back on those times with nostalgia and regret. The rhetoric of liberal opening has given way to authoritarianism, the peace process with the Kurdish nationalists has fallen apart, press freedoms are diminishing and terrorist attacks are on the rise.
When Mr. Erdogan made Turkey too powerful and independent, nefarious cabals in the West and their treacherous “agents” at home started a campaign to tarnish Turkey’s democracy. Little do they realize, of course, that this conspiracy-obsessed propaganda, the self-righteousness it reflects and the hatred it fuels are part of the problem.
… Turkey’s secularists see an Islamist conspiracy behind this: The A.K.P had hidden its “true colors” until the right time. But I think that the party’s changes involved less planning — and fewer principles. The A.K.P. adopted a liberal discourse out of mere necessity, without giving it much thought or going through a real ideological transformation. Once the party grabbed power, its members were tempted, intoxicated and corrupted by it. The cadres and classes that now rally behind Mr. Erdogan have found wealth, prestige and glory for the first time in their lives. They seem determined not to lose them — regardless of what that means for Turkish democracy.
Erdogan is an example of the usefulness of term limits. The one investment guide I’ve read in the last decade made the point that when looking at countries, be wary of places where the boss is heading into his second decade in power. Leaders who are initially successful enough to win themselves multiple terms in power typically are guys whose skills are the right ones at the time they came to power; but, eventually, their predilections become the new set of problems that somebody else must overcome.
One theory that seems plausible is that Turkey was dragged down by the Arab Spring next door in Syria. As a Turk, Erdogan would have been better off lying low, but he got puffed up by the prospect of making himself Moral Leader of the Muslim World and denounced the Assad regime, when he would have been better off avoiding the Middle Eastern tarpit altogether.