Middle Israel: Erdogan bids Ataturk farewell

Fascinated by European technology, education and government, Ataturk saw the Middle East as socially reactionary, economically stagnant and culturally ignorant.

June 14, 2019 21:30
TURKISH PRESIDENT Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk last y

TURKISH PRESIDENT Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk last year. (photo credit: REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS)


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A century after its brave beginning, Turkey’s pivot to the West is in its death throes.

With his country invaded from west and east by Greece and Armenia, while already occupied by Britain, Italy and France, Maj.-Gen. Mustafa Kemal regrouped the demoralized Ottoman army, fought victoriously on three fronts, assembled a parliament, undid the sultanate and launched the secular republic of the Turks.

Subsequent reforms – including the separation of religion and state, introduction of universal education, emancipation of women, creation of an independent judiciary, and shedding the Arabic script for the Latin alphabet – were underpinned by a deep revulsion with the East and a resolve to join the West.

Ultimately known as Ataturk, Kemal’s legacy had shaped Turkey for 80 years when the Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister and began hammering at the revered reformer’s secularist estate: first by purging the secular military, then by re-legitimizing women’s headwear, then by banning advertisement of alcohol, and finally by multiplying Islamist seminaries’ funding.

The religious counterrevolution was compounded by a return to the Mideast that Ataturk had chosen to shun.

Fascinated by European technology, education and government, Ataturk saw the Middle East as socially reactionary, economically stagnant and culturally ignorant.

Erdogan, however, saw the European Union effectively reject Ankara’s long-standing membership bid, and therefore defined the Ottoman Empire’s former realms as his new diplomatic frontier. Dominated by the Arab world, these realms were to form Turkey’s new commercial horizons and global prestige.

Erdogan’s U-turn curiously resembled Israel’s “New Middle East” policy the previous decade. Sadly, his quest’s aftermath also resembled Israel’s, as its major addressees – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – rejected with both hands his free-trade vision, having suspected an imperialist trauma’s return.

Even so, Ataturk’s will had been violated.

ERDOGAN did not get to rearrange the Middle East, but he did invade Syria, in a thinly veiled effort to hand its government to Sunni fundamentalists, thus committing Turkish blood and money to a cause his predecessors would never have taken up.

It was now clear that Erdogan is at best indifferent, at worst hostile, to the legacy of Turkey’s founding father, and will keep ruining it as his Islamist guts demand, and circumstances will allow.

This is the backdrop against which Erdogan’s counterrevolution seems set to climb next month from the religious realm and the regional sphere to the geopolitical plateau.

Ataturk died 10 months before the outbreak of World War II, aged 57, and thus left his successors with the task of defining Turkey’s place in the postwar international system, but their eventual choice – to join the newly established NATO – was fully in sync with his will.

Ankara joined NATO in 1952 both because it saw in its Soviet neighbor a strategic threat, and because its leaders shared Ataturk’s quest to lead Turkey to the West.

Turkey indeed figured prominently in NATO, sporting its second-largest army and having the US arm its units, train its commanders and hold joint exercises with its ground brigades, navy and air force.

Now Erdogan is tinkering with this legacy, too, by buying in Moscow $2.5 billion worth of Russia’s S-400 missile defense systems, scheduled to be delivered next month.

For Washington, the deal is so infuriating that it first threatened to refuse Turkish plans to buy 116 advanced F-35 fighter jets, and now warns that it will review Ankara’s NATO membership, if it does not cancel the deal.

ON THE face of it, Erdogan’s gambit has viable precedents.

Buying simultaneously American and Russian arms has been done by postwar Finland in its pursuit of neutrality, and also by Tito’s Yugoslavia, whose defiance of Stalin made Truman and Eisenhower sell it jets and tanks, including at one point a single shipment of 121 Canadian-made Sabre fighter jets.

The difference is that Finland and Yugoslavia acted from within the no-man’s-land between the superpowers. Turkey is acting from within one superpower’s fold.

Moreover, unlike those precedents, the hardware Erdogan decided to buy from Moscow is a strategic problem for Washington, because it will mean that Turkey will possess simultaneously the advanced F-35, and the Russian weapon whose engineers want to overpower that very vessel.

That is why the Turkish move can also not be compared with Saudi Arabia’s recent purchase of Russian antiaircraft missiles. The difference in this case is not only that what the Russians sold the Saudis is less advanced than what Turkey is buying, and also not that Saudi Arabia is not in NATO. The difference is that the Saudis don’t have the F-35.

Turkey has the F-35, and is therefore consciously provoking Uncle Sam. There was a time when Washington trusted blindly Turkish generals’ loyalty and discretion. Those times are gone. Now the US military is suspicious of Turkey’s army; hence Washington’s ultimatum to Erdogan.

FOR HIS part, Erdogan apparently thinks he can benefit from his maneuvering between Moscow and Washington the way Tito did in the 1950s.

Tito emerged from his Cold War strategy as creator and leader of the nonaligned bloc that tried to offer a third way between East and West.

This quest of Erdogan’s, though never formally stated, is as transparent as any other of this brash leader’s cumbersome moves.

What he doesn’t understand is that today’s rivalry between Russia and America is not what it was during the Cold War. Yes, they still compete in selling arms and still care for their weapons’ superiority, but in terms of geopolitics they are on the same side; the side from which they stare together with the rest of mankind at the Islamists who threaten with equal zeal East and West as well as North and South.

Ataturk’s position vis-à-vis this war, had he been with us, would be obvious: he would stand on this side of the chasm – and Erdogan on that.


The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.

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