Military Coups, Turkey, NATO and Donald Trump
- The Surprising Popularity of Military Coups - John Feffer (Foreign Policy in Focus)
- Turkey Distances Itself From the U.S. and NATO - But to what extent? - Rob Prince (Foreign Policy in Focus)
News of the military coup in Turkey was dribbling in on Saturday afternoon when I was having lunch with a group of six friends in West Virginia. Suddenly, one person looked up from her salad and said, “If Trump gets elected, I’d support a military coup in this country.” At least one other person at the table seconded her opinion.
I was astonished. Since when had the “military option” become a viable political strategy in the United States? Maybe it was the ghost of John Brown or something in the drinking water out there near Harpers Ferry. Or perhaps the peculiar conjunction of Turkey and Trump had elicited what must surely be an unpopular sentiment in America.
Then I did some research. It turns out that the views around the table matched those of average Americans. According to a September 2015 poll by YouGov, nearly one-third of respondents (29 percent) “could imagine a situation in which they would support the military seizing control of the federal government.” That number went up to 43 percent in a hypothetical situation in which the government was beginning to violate the U.S. constitution.
Back in September, Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to back the coup scenario. It would be interesting to redo the poll today, as voters begin to contemplate a Trump presidency. Consider, for instance, journalist and Bernie Sanders supporter Shaun King, who recently created a firestorm on the right when he tweeted, “If Donald Trumpbecomes President, you are fooling yourself if you think we’re far from having a coup our own selves. I’m dead serious.”
Trump’s rhetorical flouting of international and national laws has prompted many an unexpected speculation. In an interview with Bill Maher back in February, ex-CIA head Michael Hayden talked about Trump’s pledge to kill the family members of terrorists. Hayden said:
“If he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act.”
“That’s quite a statement, sir,” Maher said.
“You are required not to follow an unlawful order,” Hayden added. “That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict.”
“You’ve given us a great reason not to support Trump. There would be a coup in this country,” Maher joked.
Hayden said he didn’t mean to imply that the military would provoke “a coup.”
Indeed, many members of the military brass would likely resign rather than openly defy their commander in chief. As for the rank and file, they support Trump over Clinton two to one. But that doesn’t mean they’re particularly enthusiastic about the choice. According to a Military Times poll, “More than 61 percent indicated they are ‘dissatisfied’ or ‘very dissatisfied’ with Trump as the Republican nominee, including 28 percent of those who intend to vote for him.” It’s hard to predict from these statistics how the military would respond if a Trump administration began to shred the constitution.
But it’s not hard to predict how Americans feel about the military overall. Americans have long trusted the military more than any other institution in society. In 2016, according to Gallup, Congress achieved a 9 percent trust rating, the Supreme Court and the presidency 36 percent, organized religion 41 percent, the police 56 percent, and at the top of the list, the military at 73 percent. Only small business has ever approached the same level of trust as the military, according to the averages Gallup has collected over 43 years.
So, it’s no real surprise that, when given a choice, Americans would lean toward the military to safeguard their laws and their liberty. But before you start weighing the relative merits of accepting either Trump or the U.S. military going rogue – the former upending the constitution and the latter sticking up for it – let’s take a closer look at what just transpired in Turkey.
Keystone Kops Craft Kemalist Coup
When it comes to coups, the Turkish military should be the experts. After all, they’ve successfully executed 3.5 of them over the last half-century: in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997 (the last being a half-coup since the military, rather than intervening directly, pressured the government to resign).
It’s been nearly 20 years since this last half-coup, and obviously the Turkish military has gotten rusty after deviating from its once-a-decade routine. Last weekend, the coup leaders looked more like rank amateurs than seasoned pros. They failed to take out or otherwise neutralize President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was vacationing on the Mediterranean coast at the time. They seized control of the least important state TV channel. They didn’t secure important government buildings. They told their supporters to go home and then fired on the civilians who did come out onto the streets. They seemed to have forgotten about the existence of social media. They weren’t even able to forge a pro-coup consensus within the military itself.
The attempt was so botched that it generated numerous conspiracy theories – that Erdogan had engineered the whole thing, that the president had heard rumblings and deliberately ignored them, that the Americans were somehow behind it all.
The truth is much more mundane. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have been weakening the military for more than a decade, systematically working to remove the military’s influence on government. They’ve used earlier coup rumors to go after military officers – as well as journalists and officials – supposedly involved in a “deep state” controlling Turkish politics behind the scenes. As a result, the Turkish military is a far cry from the all-powerful institution of the 1970s and 1980s.
I was convinced, after visiting Istanbul in 2013, that the military had become a spent force. At the time I wrote:
The AKP has effectively contained the Turkish military through judicial and constitutional means. The threat of a coup, so prevalent in modern Turkish history, has largely disappeared. Not only have constitutional changes and court cases reduced the power of the army, the Erdogan government has also come close to resolving the decades-long civil war with the Kurdish PKK. The end of this conflict would go a long way toward removing the military from public affairs.
But then the Erdogan government decided to initiate two wars: against the Gulen movement and against the Kurds. The Gulen movement, named for its leader Fethullah Gulen who currently lives in the United States, preaches a liberal variety of Islam and runs a number of schools worldwide. It was also a major supporter of Erdogan and the AKP. But Erdogan began to worry about the spreading influence of Gulen supporters in the police, the judiciary, and the government itself. They began to resemble the “deep state” that Erdogan wanted to extirpate. In late 2013, he turned against the Gulen movement. The Erdogan government subsequently accused Gulen of orchestrating the coup and has demanded that the United States extradite him.
Meanwhile, Erdogan was concerned that domestically the Kurdish minority stood in the way of greater centralized power in Ankara and that Kurds in Syria stood in the way of greater Turkish influence over the outcome of the war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But taking on the Kurds meant ushering the military back into public life in Turkey. As Erdogan pushed for a new constitution to grant the presidency more powers and cracked down on any segments of society that might stymie his ambitions, he had to ensure that at least part of the military was on his side.
Some in the military were not happy with the bargain, whether because they disapproved of Erdogan’s power grab, the campaign against Gulen or the renewed conflict with the Kurds, or the AKP’s challenge to the Kemalist tradition, which respects a strict division between religion and state. According to the statement they released to the press, the coupsters offered to restore precisely what many in Turkey believe Erdogan has taken away from them: “Turkish Armed Forces have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and the general security that was damaged.”
If they couldn’t count on the military closing ranks behind them, the coup leaders at least needed the support of the Turkish population. This wasn’t going to be easy, given that Erdogan’s party won around 50 percent of the vote in the last election. Even Turks who vehemently oppose Erdogan and would agree with the content of the coup statement did not believe that the military was the agent of their salvation. “The worst democracy is better than the best coup,” one Turkish liberal told The New York Times.
Having quashed the coup, Erdogan is moving quickly to consolidate his advantage by purging the military and the courts. The Turkish government has detained more than 7,500 people, including 2,800 officers and soldiers and more than 100 generals and admirals, and dismissed 2,700 judges and 9,000 civil servants. Most recently, the government suspended more than 15,000 educators and asked 1,500 university deans to resign. Call it a counter-coup, but it’s just an industrial-strength version of what Erdogan has been up to now for several years. In fact, for the government to act so quickly, it must have had lists of its targets drawn up well in advance.
That doesn’t mean that Erdogan planned the coup. It just means that sometimes your adversaries help clear your path to power.
Which brings us back to the Donald.
A Man, A Plan, A Coup
According to the aforementioned YouGov poll, 43 percent of Republicans could imagine the necessity of a military coup in the United States, rising to 55 percent in the event of constitutional violations. Those numbers look a lot like the kind of support Donald Trumpenjoyed during the Republican primaries when a plurality, but not a majority, voted for him. Only when the primary season was coming to an end did his numbers rise above 50 percentamong Republican voters.
It’s tempting to conclude that the same folks who approve of a military intervention into politics support Donald Trump’s intervention into politics. Trump is, in a way, a one-man coup. He is an outsider. He has contempt for the normal workings of democracy. As he has amply demonstrated in his dealings in the business world, he rules by fiat and by twisting arms.
But the mechanism by which Trump seizes power will not be a coup. For the moment at least, the ballot box still rules. If he manages to attain the White House in November, it will not because of the brilliant organizing of the Republican Party, which is divided, feckless, and craven. It will be because his adversaries hand him the opportunity on a platter.
I know Recep Tayyip Erdogan – well, not really – and Donald Trump is no Erdogan. But the Donald’s will to power is comparable. It’s up to Trump’s adversaries to prevent him from crowning himself president – or else there will be many more conversations next fall about the plusses and minuses of military coups.
The aftershocks of the failed military coup in Turkey are resonating. Nearly 2,500 upper level military personnel, including more than 100 generals sacked and many arrested. 6,000 members of the judiciary, who sometimes challenged Tayyip Erdogan’s policies, fired along with 8,000 Turkish policemen. Several hundred people were killed, thousands wounded.
While considerable confusion remains concerning the origins of the recent Turkish coup attempt, the geopolitical outlines of where “post-coup” Turkey is headed are coming into focus. A little background on the flurry of Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives that preceded the recent “coup attempt” are in order. As they were intense suggesting that a shift in Turkey’s political posture was in order. Besides initiating an extensive purge of the Turkish military and judiciary, Turkish President Erdogan appears to be setting Turkish regional political posture on a new direction.
Erdogan is pursuing an ethnically narrow, Turkish chauvinist domestic and foreign policy. The repression at home is closely connected to his regional foreign policy initiatives that are taking shape. His domestic moves come in the aftermath of the crackdown of some regional allies, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Ennahda party of Tunisia. In the face of growing opposition because of chronic mismanagement, Ennahda, essentially the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, was forced to retrench and cede some of its power. In part, Erdogan’s current violent crackdown on dissent can be seen as a kind of pre-emptive move, an effort to deny the military an opportunity at some later date to seize power a la Egypt. At first glance it appears that the repression has succeeded, at least in the short run.
From all appearances, domestically Turkey under Erdogan, never that openly democratic a place, has become that much more authoritarian over the past two years. Freedom of press has been severely repressed with journalists arrested. After what looked like a political settlement with the country’s Kurds was in the making, Erdogan backed away and has treated the country’s largest minority with increasing repression that has included several massacres of Kurdish villages in the southeast.
More recently Erdogan pushed through legislation in the Turkish parliament that eliminates immunity for parliament members from persecution, opening the door to crack down on the country’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, which brings together different strands of Turkey’s democratic movement. It is as if Erdogan was preparing for something even bigger, a “something” that became more obvious in the aftermath of the attempted coup when a wholesale wave of repression (see below) was unleashed.
Erdogan has pursued a domestic heavy hand in order to eliminate opposition to his regional policy whose outlines include denying the Kurds of Syria any opportunity to become an independent state, refocusing Turkey’s regional policy somewhat away from Europe and NATO. The shift entails making overtures, strengthening relations with a number of regional powers, especially Iran, Russia and Israel.
By all appearances, Turkey is starting to distance itself from Washington and NATO — the question is to what extent. To what degree will this affect the presence of one of Washington’s main military bases, Incirlik, in the southeastern corner of Turkey? It is easy for too many to forget that the United States has hydrogen and atomic bombs at Incirlik and that when there is turmoil the shadow of nuclear war is not far away. It is estimated that as many as 80 nuclear weapons, both hydrogen and atomic bombs are housed there in striking distance of most of the Middle East and southern Russia.
Keep in mind that in the recent decade the United States has had a difficult time “reigning in” its regional allies. Supposed allies in the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States were behind the scenes at each other’s throats as the Pakistani intelligence agency gave support to the Taliban (and still does) that U.S.-led armies were trying to defeat.
The Obama Administration’s relations with two other strategic allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are extremely strained, most recently over the Obama Administration’s support for the Iran nuclear deal which basically short-circuited any pipedreams that Washington was preparing military intervention against Teheran which both the Saudis and Israelis supported. The personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu, and Obama and the royal family have never been worse. Perhaps that means less than meets the eye with the US Congress voting record-breaking military aid to Israel and the administration selling enormous amounts of arms to the Saudis.
The strategic alliances remain in place, but not without historically unprecedented strains as Israel, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey embrace, each in their own manner, their own narrow, jingoistic regional nationalist goals which bode ill for the people of Yemen, the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and more generally, regional peace. These are three countries with strong militaries; all have expansionist regional goals that sooner or later are bound to collide against one another.
They all understand that today, the United States – despite its military might – is politically weaker and cannot dictate policy as it did in the past. These same countries also understand that U.S. Syria policy is in shambles and it is about to backfire on their national territories, either in terms of increased terrorist activities, unmanageable refugee problems or some combination thereof.
Turkey and Syria
As one columnist aptly put it “Post-Coup Turkey will be distinctly Eurasian.” Having been repeatedly rebuffed in its efforts to join the European Community – which in the end is the result of little more than European racism against a Muslim country – Turkey is “turning east.” At the same time tensions between Ankara and Washington over Syrian policy have essentially boiled over, over the Kurdish question.
All this is playing out in both Syria and Iraq at the present moment where the alliance of forces involved is shifting, if not coming apart. Turkey has been a key link in the Syrian crisis, providing an open gateway to Syrian Islamic rebels entering Syria from the north, that included military, political support. Turkey fears the consequences of an independent Kurdish state on its southern border that Washington is trying to put together.
Whatever is happening domestically within Turkey, regionally, Turkey is cooling to its role of being one of Washington’s main, if not the main, whipping boys in Syria. The Turks are coming to the understanding, as did the Russians and Iranians – and perhaps even the Israelis – that the dismemberment of Syria will destabilize the entire region that much more and affect their national security. Of course the Turks have come to this realization late in the game, only after it became more evident that Assad would not fall the way that Khadaffi and Saddam Hussein did.
Turkey “Makes Nice” with Russia, Israel and Iran
There are unquestionable signs of the Turkish shift. The shifts suggest a fluid system of regional alliances and adversaries, made complex by the presence of both regional and global players. These shifts are admittedly difficult – but not impossible to follow. Sooner or later, in this case the Turkish coup crisis, the main themes previously refined behind closed doors have burst forth in the open.
As relations with Washington and NATO become more strained, those with regional powers, Russia, Israel (yes, Israel) and Iran are warming as Ankara has been on a “let’s make nice” campaign with all three – suggesting that when the political will is there, countries that appear at odds with one another can find common ground and do so rather quickly. The United States is annoyed and embarrassed that the Erdogan government has alleged “an American hand” in the present coup attempt (as if Washington never engaged in such!). What is more, as an Indian commentator has pointed out, “The Turkish allegation has no precedent in NATO’s 67-year old history – of one member plotting regime change in another member’s country through violent means.”
Can it be a mere seven months ago that Turkey shot down a Russian jet fighter that had wandered somewhere near the Turkish-Syrian border? At the time, edged on by NATO, it looked as if relations between Ankara and Moscow, neighbors with a long history and important trading partners, were headed for the dumpster. Angry words were exchanged, Russia cut off trade relations and tourism. But lately, a few weeks prior to the attempted coup – or whatever it was – the two “made nice” to one another. As MK Badrakumar points out,
Russian President Vladimir Putin did on Sunday what no major western leader from the NATO member countries cared to do when he telephoned his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan to convey his sympathy, goodwill and best wishes for the latter’s success in restoring constitutional order and stability as soon as possible after the attempted coup Friday night.
Having been repulsed by the economic integration that it sought with the European Union, Turkey is more and more gravitating towards putting its economic eggs within a Eurasian basket. Turkey is once again warming to what is referred to as the Balkan Stream Megaproject, a Russian-based project to link central Europe and western Eurasia in an energy pipeline nexus from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Mediterranean in the South.
At the same time Turkish-Russian relations rebounded, tensions between Turkey and Israel lessened as well. Washington’s two key strategic allies had gotten into a diplomatic tiff (it was never more than that) after Israeli commandos attacked the MV Mavi Marmara attempting to bring humanitarian aid and to break the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. Ten died and several dozen participants on the ship were wounded or injured. But less than a month ago, on June 27, 2016, a new deal was announced in Ankara by Israeli Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. My reading of the deal is that Israel, anxious to break out of its regional isolation has agreed to most of the Turkey’s terms, including Turkish access to Gaza to build a hospital there.
Since the Iranian nuclear deal was reached last summer (July, 2015), Turkey and Iran have been quietly improving economic relations. Turkey is wooing Iran as a potentially lucrative market of trade and investment. Despite the fact that the two countries are on opposite sides of Syrian conflict, there are reports that the two countries have plans to increase trade over the next two years by $30 billion. That Iran hopes to maintain its good relations with Turkey can be seen in Teheran’s support of Erdogan’s crushing “the coup.” Iranian foreign minister (and University of Denver Korbel School of International Studies graduate) Mohammad Javad Zarif voiced support for Turkey’s “brave defense of democracy.”
Pepe Escobar’s Article in Asia Times
In an article entitled “Hell Hath No Fury Like A Teflon Sultan” Pepe Escobar, writing for The Asian Times (and republished elsewhere) talks in detail about the unfolding of the Turkish coup. A little about Escobar before proceeding. Pepe Escobar is a Brazilian journalist whose specialty is global political developments, otherwise known as geo-politics. He writes what might be called “Gonzo political economy” (a la Hunter Thompson). Funny and irreverent, I have found that like British journalist and long time Middle East commentator, Robert Fisk, and former Indian diplomat, Bhadrakumar Melkulangara, he is always worth reading. Escobar seems to have pretty good sources “with the powers that be” (like Seymour Hersh) and that if he is not on the mark, he is close.
According to Escobar, although the origins of the coup attempt – or is it “coup attempt” – remain murky, what is emerging from the chaos is that Erdogan is engineering a geo-political shift in Turkey’s politics that could have far-reaching consequences. The problem here is NOT that the U.S. engages in conspiracies. A good part of U.S. foreign policy – the dark side, that is – is filled with them. The problem is teasing out the genuine conspiracies from the bogus ones.
At this point there are two contradictory explanations (probably more actually) to what happened. One line of reasoning is that this whole episode is little more than what is called “a false flag” operation initiated by Erdogan himself to purge his internal enemies so that he can pursue his shift in regional policy without internal opposition. The other explanation is that the coup is the work of the C.I.A. (and thus the Obama Administration) working through well-financed Turkish Muslim in political exile in the United States Fethullah Gulem, who engineered the coup because Erdogan is drifting away from playing the role the United States wants him to play (i.e., shifting position on Syria, disagreements over the Kurds, the Eurasian drift.)
It is still too early to tell which of these scenarios, in whole or in part, are valid, i.e., what did happen in Turkey these past days and why. But what is less debatable is the geopolitical shift that Erdogan is attempting to engineer, although the extent of the shift and what it means to Turkey’s relations with the United States and NATO are still up in the air.
The essence of Escobar article are the following points:
- That the preliminary evidence suggests that the coup was something of a staged operation in which Erdogan had a hand – Escobar gives many examples of his suspicions. He is careful though NOT to openly call it an Erdogan-engineered conspiracy, although the evidence presented in the article certainly suggests as much. Melkulangara’s first post-coup analyses seem to point in the same direction.
- Escobar downplays the role of Fetullah Gulen, the Obama Administration and the C.I.A. in orchestrating the coup, although he does not rule it out. If the Obama Administration was involved, he thinks, it is because of the split in the ruling class between the Obama Administration itself and “the Beltway/Neo-Con/CIA axis” – in which the differing elements of the U.S. global power structure are actually working against one another.
An interesting and from where I am sitting, not incredible, hypothesis.
All this suggests that the origins of the coup continue to remain murky although, regardless, its consequences are becoming clearer – a geopolitical shift in Turkey’s regional political role that is bound to cause tensions with Washington and NATO – and has already forced Turkey to mend fences with Russia, Israel and Iran. The question remains to be seen – a minor shift or something actually pulling Turkey into new geopolitical waters.