Barbara Tuchman has in ”The March of Folly” dealt with the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. She defines self-interest as whatever is conducive to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed and folly as a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.
She also factors in wooden-headedness as a source of self-deception which plays a remarkably large role in government. This is defined as assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. On the basis of these criteria both Brexit and Turkey’s fourth operation in Syria, Spring Shield, would qualify to be included in an update of Ms. Tuchman’s study.
As far as Turkey is concerned, it all began so well. At the EU summit in Helsinki in 1999, Turkey was declared a candidate country for membership, which provided the impetus for a series of reform packages begun under Bülent Ecevit’s coalition government and completed by its successor the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002 under the leadership of former Istanbul mayor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ecevit’s economy minister Kemal Dervis was the architect of the IMF plan that saved Turkey’s economy from collapse and his successor Ali Babacan was responsible for paying off the last instalment of IMF debt in 2013. With the start of EU accession talks in 2005 the general mood was euphoric. However, Enlargement
Commissioner Olli Rehn warned that the pace of changes had slowed and the implementation of reforms remained uneven. Also that pluralism and free speech were basic values which could not be compromised. Nine years later Dutch liberal MEP Marietje Schaake bewailed, our dream of a European Turkey has turned into a nightmare.
In 1998 the closure of Turkey’s Welfare Party, led by Erdogan’s mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, meant there was no room for political Islam in the public space. Instead, the Justice and Development Party, which was launched in 200l, set out as reformist, bent on liberating Turkey’s religious majority from the straitjacket of Kemalist orthodoxy. Another disappointed European liberal, British MEP Andrew Duff, later concluded the AKP had replaced Kemalism with Islamism.
A natural ally in support of the AKP’s plans, was the Gülen movement under the leadership of a reclusive Turkish imam, Fethullah Gülen, who since 1999 had been self-exiled in Pennsylania. The hallmark of his movement, which had begun in the 1960s, was education, and it had well over 500 schools, including private universities, all over Turkey, and by the end of the 1990s schools and business interests in approximately 80 countries. It shared similar religious and socially conservative values with the AKP and provided the cadres needed in the civil service, the police and judiciary as well as in business for the gradual Islamisation of Turkey. In 2008 it was behind a number of show trials, with fabricated evidence, designed to break military and secular opposition to the AKP.
In February 2012 cracks started to show when the head of MIT (National Intelligence Organization), Hakan Fidan, was called in to testify about secret talks with the PKK in Oslo. Open war broke out in December 2013, when investigations began of corruption in the Turkish government, which Erdogan called “a judicial coup,” and culminated with the attempted coup in July 2016, which was blamed on the Gülen movement.
The prospect of EU membership was a fata morgana, a device to secure economic benefits and foreign investment, but in 2010 Turkish foreign policy was marked by a reorientation and strategic partnerships, for example, with China, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and a policy of “economic interdependence” with Iran. Turkey also put its eggs in Hamas’ basket and flirted with membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. When civil war broke out in Syria, Turkey piggybacked on US policy in the hope of replacing Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime with an Ikhwan alternative.
A driving force behind the AKP’s change of axis has undoubtedly been former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “neo-Ottomanism,” a call for a new world order where Turkey plays a central role. At the same time, Erdogan has invoked the National Pact passed by the last Ottoman parliament in 1920 in an irredentist claim to former provinces such as Kirkuk, Thessasaloniki, Aleppo and Mosul rather than the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which determined Turkey’s present borders.
With Russian support, Turkey also invoked the 1998 Adana Agreement to justify its occupation of Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria in October’s Operation Peace Spring. Like two earlier offensives, Euphrates Shield in August 2016 and Olive Branch in January 2018 (the occupation of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin), this was intended to bolster popular support for a waning AKP government. And now we have Spring Shield. As Barbara Tuchman points out, this may strengthen a regime temporarily but qualifies as folly when it is a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counter-productive.
Criticism of Turkey’s new intervention in Syria has been preempted with a social media blackout and a ban on anti-war demonstrations in Istanbul until March 10.
Turkish losses have been justified with a claim that 3,136 Syrian regime elements have been “neutralized” with a heavy loss of materiel. By opening the floodgates to Europe for Turkey’s refugees, President Erdogan has scared the bejesus out of the EU. Now Erdogan has brokered a ceasefire with Russia’s President Putin but the question is how long this will hold.
The writer is a member of the Advisory Board at Vocal Europe in Brussels.