In a sense, Turkey’s autocratic-minded generals share a similar fate. Once unchecked and barely accountable, many military officers are now being “caged” by Turkish courts, thanks to a recently empowered democracy. The charge: viciously plotting against the people, their elected leaders and government.
If the suspects were from the Swedish military or something, one might have given them the benefit of the doubt. However, recent history provides us with a lot of reasons to be suspicious, to say the least. After the 1960 coup, for instance, a military-orchestrated court sentenced Turkey’s classy, Kennedy-like Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two Cabinet members to death based on fabricated evidence for “treason.” Thousands of Turks (and Kurds alike) endured persecution and torture during the 1971 and 1980 military interventions. In 1997, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan stepped down due to pressure by generals, supported by like-minded civilians in the state and the society. A systematic witch-hunt followed in the name of the struggle against “irtica” (Islamic reactionaries).
It is conceivable that many officers have been craving to do similar things in the 2000s, after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) took over power via democratic elections. The AK Party is not so popular among military brass, mainly because its leadership comes from a pious background. Interestingly, during this decade of internal Cold War in Turkey, one of the anti-civilian operations was code-named the “Cage Action Plan,” according to credible evidence gathered by able Turkish police officers and prosecutors. The alleged military plan involved clandestine attacks on Turkey’s non-Muslim minority to undermine the international legitimacy of Erdoğan’s government. Fortunately, such sadistic plans were thwarted and the alleged masterminds are now undergoing a series of trials. The lesson: Don’t you dare cage your own people; you might be caged yourself one day.
The Turkish nation has reached a higher level of democratization not by rioting in squares like Tahrir, but by flocking to ballot boxes. Last September 58 percent said “yes” in a referendum for constitutional amendments, which -- among other things -- made it possible to prosecute the leaders of the 1980 coup. The pro-reform AK Party garnered an unprecedented 50 percent of the vote in the June elections. Their political campaign has included promises to go after anti-democratic elements.
In reaction to the ongoing trials, which involve a large number of high-ranking military officers, a few top generals resigned last week. It’s good they don’t resort to violence anymore when they disagree with the civilian government. However, like Mubarak, military suspects will likely continue to deny any wrongdoings until the last minute, as if they have a clean human rights record.
The Mubarakization of Turkish military officers is not only about the way it all ends. It’s also about the way it all started. Some domestic and international circles have practically elevated generals to a “Mubarak” status, which means “blessed” in Arabic. Just like the Mubarak regime, a staunchly secularist and pro-Western quasi-military regime in Turkey has been useful especially for the United States and Israel. For the sake of the Cold War and containing Islamic movements within Turkey, the anti-democratic sins of Turkish officers were usually overlooked. Spoilt by Americans’ fascination and lucrative defense contracts, some generals had their way until recently. Hence, it is no surprise that skepticism runs high in Washington vis-à-vis Ergenekon-type investigations and trials. Americans will not abandon their friends in the Turkish military until the vessel completely sinks. Just like they did with Mubarak.
Washington was surprised with the Arab Spring, which took a heavy toll on Egypt’s Mubarak regime. They had little idea about the transformative social forces that made the revolution possible. Developments in Turkey are met with similar confusion. The American foreign policy elite still cannot grasp the power of transformative currents in the country. How can all-powerful generals be successfully forced into staying away from politics? Can Turkish democracy really survive with a disgruntled military? The predominant role of the pious in Turkey’s process of civilianization only fuels concerns held by Washington’s establishment in the wake of 9/11-boosted Islamophobia and lingering orientalism. What if, like they fear will happen in Egypt, so called “Islamists” take over the state? If they are not checked and balanced by the military, who can stop them, given the shortcomings of the secularist opposition parties such as the Republican People’s Party (CHP)? Is Turkey’s democratization in the US’s interest when Washington’s traditional friends in the military, media, business sector, etc., are gradually losing power?
With such questions, concerns and challenges in mind, Washington has heartburns whenever Turkey comes up nowadays. Americans might have less and less leverage in the country, unless they establish good ties with major transformative elements, whose relatively more Islamic outlook and lifestyle are not so culturally appealing to Westerners. Plus, they don’t want to irritate their good old secularist friends too much. The Pentagon cares about its foreign interlocutors and the White House cares about the Pentagon. The civilian government led by Erdoğan is not necessarily a darling of the US government and vice versa. As a result, unlike Brussels, Washington refrains from openly and loudly saying that they support “civilian supremacy” over the military’ in Turkey.
Turkey’s civilianization is undergoing a process of reform, not a revolution. The US supports it reluctantly from the sidelines. Time will tell whether keeping such a low profile will pay off. It wasn’t easy for America to let Mubarak go. It will certainly not be easy to let the Turkish generals and their civilian comrades go. My advice: If you can’t beat the Turkish Spring or are unable to join it now, you better get prepared for the days when you will have to jump the old boat no matter what. Believe me; those days are getting closer and closer.