Turkey’s Troubles

The United States’ rather muted, lackadaisical response to the constitutional conflagration set to engulf the future of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) should be of grave concern to those committed to the achievement of greater stabilization and liberal democratization within the Middle East. The pending decision of the Turkish Constitutional Court over whether or not to ban the democratically elected AKP, as well as the international response towards such proceedings, are setting important, potentially dangerous, precedents for both Iraq and Afghanistan’s already fledgling, nascent democracies.

The United States and its European allies, now more than ever, must reaffirm their support for the besieged AKP and the subsequent will of the Turkish electorate in order to reassure weary Afghanis and Iraqis that the arduous road towards liberalization is one that neither country will have to travel alone.

Turkey has long played a vital role in the promotion of Western, particularly American, geo-strategic and ideological interests in global affairs. A 56-year NATO ally, this former bulwark against communist expansion into the Mediterranean is now championed by many as a model (though not one without its flaws) of successful secular democratic governance in a region abound in antipathies over ethno-religious fragmentation.

Progress toward Peace

Bolstered by shared regional interests and a degree of cultural understanding, even homogeneity, with its Arab, Pashtun, and Persian neighbors, Turkish attempts, both direct and indirect, at promoting peace, stability, and democratic growth in the region have the potential to be far more efficacious at achieving desirable outcomes than what the West has been hitherto able to muster, both militarily and diplomatically.

One example from recent memory is the progress Turkey has made towards reinvigorating the peace dialogue between Israel and Syria. Although reconciliation between the two sides remains, at best, a distant possibility—due to such sensitive issues as the fate of the Golan Heights and Syrian positioning vis-à-vis Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza—Turkey’s behavior reflects the value of its own diplomatic leadership and influence within this highly volatile region.

Similar actions, such as a recently concluded energy deal over a natural gas pipeline with Iran (much to the chagrin of the West), help generate and perpetuate regional perceptions of Turkey as an “honest broker” in diplomatic affairs. This is incredibly valuable for Western diplomatic interests because the Turks, quite frankly, may be able to succeed where their seemingly more-prejudiced American and European counterparts cannot: in negotiations with such tricky players as Iran and Syria.

Not the First Time

Admittedly, this is not the first time the life of a political party has faced extinction in the Turkish Republic.

Since its creation in 1963, the Constitutional Court has closed down twenty-four political parties, and the specter of intentional deviation from the republic’s secularist principles has constituted a common refrain sung by the prosecution against the accused. In 1998, Turkey’s Welfare Party (RP) was closed down under suspicion of harboring a secret political agenda inimical to the secular traditions of the Turkish Republic. Fast forward a decade and the current case against the AKP may look eerily familiar. Well, look again.

The single greatest difference separating the closure of WP and the current indictments against the AKP is the support of the Turkish electorate. While the WP struggled to manage an effective coalition government formed in 1996, having garnered just a shade over 20% of the popular vote in the 1995 parliamentary election, the AKP firmly trounced its parliamentary opposition in the July 2007 general election with a whopping 46.6% of the vote. Claiming that the RP no longer respected and shared the same values as Turkish republic might have worked for the secularists back in 1998, but today the empirical grounds for such accusations just do not exist. In the face of such a strong mandate from the Turkish electorate, the current judicial proceedings will do nothing except aid in the erosion of Turkey’s democratic traditions.

And a weakened democracy at home hinders the Turkish Republic’s ability to project its beacon of democratic influence abroad. Not only has the recent constitutional crisis deprived Turkey of the valuable moral authority from which it can extract democratic commitments from its neighbors, the perpetuation of this judicial soap opera prevents the allocation of state resources and personnel into more pressing regional problems: Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a resurgent al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and recent displays of Israeli-Iranian brinksmanship, to name just a few. Unfortunately for those seeking a quick resolution to the closure case, recent developments concerning a plotted overthrow of the government by a coterie of ultra-nationalist elites, referred to as the Ergenekon group, have only succeeded in adding another ring to Turkey’s judicial circus.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

The lack of American and European support for the beleaguered government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reflects a fundamental under-appreciation of the role a democratic Turkey can play in both stabilizing and liberalizing the Middle East. While the West is powerless to intervene directly in Turkey’s judicial proceedings, it can certainly do more to make its disapprobation felt through diplomatic channels and international media.

There are many skeptics, both in Turkey and abroad, who remain incredibly hesitant to support a government of moderate Islamist leanings. However, the exclusion of moderate Islamists, particularly those that have already earned the confidence of the people, from the political process will only entice potential radicalists to achieve their political objectives through violent means. Furthermore, those who wish to see the AKP ousted from power are failing to support the promotion of democracy abroad—a cornerstone of American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War.

Compared to deadly and costly military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a show of solidarity for Turkey’s democratically elected AKP constitutes one of the simpler things the West can do to show its support and commitment to spreading democracy in the Middle East. With the future magnitude and scope of the American military commitment to the region as a major unknown given the context of the 2008 presidential election, the United States must now, more than ever, reassure its regional allies of its unwavering diplomatic and political devotion to the democratic cause. Turkey would be good a place to start.

Alex Jakubow, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is pursuing a doctorate in political science at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.