- - Thursday, August 22, 2013

Last summer, when the so-called “Arab Spring” was in full bloom, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey was riding high.

Within the Washington Beltway, policy studies extolled the virtues of the “Turkish model” of Islamic democracy as a guidepost for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey’s grandiose foreign minister, Ahmet Davotoglu, was given high-profile international venues at which to champion the idea of Turkey as a natural regional leader. Mr. Erdogan himself was judged to be the most popular leader in the Middle East in a poll conducted by the prestigious Pew Research Center. It was a heady time for Mr. Erdogan and company, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has aspired to geopolitical greatness since its ascent to power roughly a decade ago.

What a difference a year can make. Fast-forward just 12 months, and Turkey’s rulers find themselves under siege, facing persistent protests at home and growing disapproval abroad.

The proximate cause of Turkey’s current troubles was a small, nondescript park in Istanbul’s commercial neighborhood of Taksim, which became a flash point between the government and its opponents. The park, known as Gezi, was not the real cause for the unrest, of course. As my colleague Claire Berlinski has convincingly detailed, the disorder really stems from popular outrage over Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly unaccountable, authoritarian policies in recent years, which have included a veritable witch hunt against the country’s powerful military and systematic efforts to further trim the independence of the already subservient national media.


Mr. Erdogan’s response to the protests has made matters much, much worse. Heavy-handed tactics, from the gassing of protesters to the harassment of journalists with enough temerity to cover the unrest, drew massive popular outrage in Turkey and prompted still more protests. Steps adopted since by Mr. Erdogan’s government — such as the installation of “informant boxes” allowing Turkish citizens to inform on their neighbors to police — have only served to shed new light on the country’s continuing authoritarian drift. More significant still, these moves have soured international observers on the idea of Turkey as a paragon of Islamic democracy, or as a mature example for the “Arab Spring” states to follow.

Prominent among them has been the Obama administration. Not all that long ago, President Obama was waxing enthusiastic about Turkey’s AKP and its leader, Mr. Erdogan, whom he termed a “trusted friend.” Not so now. Since the Gezi protests, the White House has remained studiously silent about all matters Turkish. Given Washington’s current efforts on issues near and dear to Ankara — from renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians to involvement in the Syrian civil war — that silence speaks volumes.

In the Middle East, too, Turkey’s political clout is plummeting. Previously hailed as a “rock star” by regional audiences, Mr. Erdogan has become a controversial and divisive figure, while the appeal of Turkey as a whole has taken a distinct hit.

All of this casts a pall over Ankara’s economic plans. The country has enjoyed considerable economic success of late, especially as compared with its sluggish European neighbors. Growing gross domestic product ($786 billion in 2012), a relatively modest budget deficit (2 percent), and comparatively low unemployment and public debt (9.4 percent and 37 percent, respectively) have already made Turkey the sixth-largest economy in Europe, and the 16th-largest in the world. Turkish officials have even bigger plans; by 2050, they hope, their country will rank as the third-largest economy in Europe, and 10th in the world overall, thanks to confidence in the AKP and investment from the international community.

That, however, was before Gezi, and before the popular turn-away from Ankara that is now taking place in both the Arab world and in the West. As a result, Turkey’s economic future is suddenly exceedingly cloudy. So, too, are its once-promising chances for regional political leadership. Instead, more and more countries are beginning at long last to see Turkey as it truly is, rather than as they have wished it would be.

For that, we have Mr. Erdogan to thank.

Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.