The Turkish coup attempt: The United States dodges a bullet

I happened to be on Twitter Friday afternoon when the news struck that something — and something big — was going on in Turkey. Information was at first fragmentary. But it soon became obvious that elements of the Turkish military of unknown size and composition were trying to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Twitter has many faults — chief among them a tendency for discussion to descend into rancor, often of the most rancid sort — but it is a medium remarkable in its ability to provide fast-breaking information in a fluid situation.)

I was stunned. But I was hardly alone. True, the Turkish military has had a long history of intervening in the country’s politics, either by coup or the threat of one. But the civilian government under Erdogan is far stronger than the usually feeble regimes that have been removed by the military in the past. During his tenure as prime minister and then president, Erdogan has shown a willingness to dispense with the niceties of democratic practice in order to consolidate power. Moreover, since assuming office in 2003, Erdogan has been acutely aware of the risks of a coup. Indeed, he has moved on several occasions to purge officers accused of attempting to organize a putsch. Not least, Erdogan remains a highly popular figure; his Islamist Justice and Development Party has been Turkey’s dominant political force for more than a decade.

The coup was launched by a disgruntled faction of the Turkish armed services. In a statement issued shortly after the attempt began, the plotters declared that protecting Turkish democracy was one of their goals. But it became quickly apparent that the putschists lacked broad-based support among the Turkish populace, opposition parties and even within the military establishment itself. Erdogan’s return to Istanbul from vacation marked a decisive moment in the short-lived, if violent, attempted coup. He called his supporters to the street. They answered his summons in multitudes. And the putsch collapsed.

The United States and the European Union, like almost all governments around the world, condemned the coup. Washington had little option. For all his autocratic tendencies, Erdogan is the democratically elected leader of a treaty ally of the United States. While he may be a difficult diplomatic partner and, at times, an erratic international actor, Turkey remains a key player in NATO, the refugee crisis in Europe and the civil war in Syria.

Had the putsch succeeded, the United States would have been placed in an excruciating position. In principle, we oppose military coups; in practice, we have a long history of making common cause with military autocrats if we believe it to be conducive to the advancement of our national interests. Our relationship with the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt is a recent case in point. When he rose to power after the military takeover in 2013, the Obama administration carefully avoided using the term “coup.” In the months that followed, Washington made a number of largely symbolic gestures of disapproval, and then, begrudgingly but inevitably, made peace with the Egyptian leader. Such an approach is defensible in terms of U.S. interests in the Middle East. But it surely undermines our rhetoric of support for democracy. Eventually coming to terms with a military government in Ankara would have made this contradiction between the rhetoric and reality of U.S. foreign policy even more painfully obvious. In other words, we dodged a bullet when the coup failed.

It is unclear as yet what impact, if any, the coup attempt will have on Turkey’s foreign policy. In recent weeks, Erdogan has attempted to repair Ankara’s ties with Israel and Russia, two countries with which Turkey’s relations have deteriorated under his watch. We shall see if Erdogan, focused on consolidating control at home, pursues these initiatives. For now, Erdogan remains a wild card in the Syrian civil war.  While formally part of the anti-ISIS coalition, he has appeared far more interested in toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and neutralizing Kurdish separatists than in defeating the Islamic State.

The coup attempt may lead to increased U.S.-Turkish tensions. Erdogan is already pressing for the return of Fethullah Gulen, a Moslem cleric and former political associate of the Turkish president. Gulen, who possesses a sizeable following, has been living in the United States since 1999. While Gulen condemned the coup attempt, Erdogan has been vociferous in accusing the cleric of being involved.

I will leave to others, more expert on Turkish internal developments than I am, to assess in detail the coup attempt’s likely impact on the country’s domestic politics. Erdogan has moved quickly to round up military personnel associated with the coup attempt. He is also purging opponents elsewhere in government. Many observers believe that Erdogan will seize the moment to further consolidate power in the presidency and in his person. Given his past record, this is plausible, even likely. Such an outcome creates an ultimate irony — and final condemnation — of the coup attempt. The same plotters in the military who claimed that they acted in defense of Turkish democracy may have hastened the day of democracy’s demise.

Joe Barnes is the Bonner Means Baker Fellow at the Baker Institute. From 1979 to 1993, he was a career diplomat with the U.S. State Department, serving in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.