The violent unrest upending Turkey raises a question: Is President Obama right in thinking that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a model leader? He calls Mr. Erdogan a close friend, and they speak regularly on the phone. With its brand of moderate Islam coexisting alongside secularism and its embrace of Western-style business, Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey is held up by this administration as a model for other Muslim countries.
Turkey certainly has been a reliable ally of the United States for many decades. Compared with Egypt and other countries in the Middle East, its democracy is stable and its economy is growing.
But celebrating Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey as a model seems not quite right. The violent crackdown on protesters in Taksim Square and elsewhere across Turkey is a wake-up call. It is peeling off the mask of the model theory.
Let’s take the idea of Turkey as a model “Muslim” democracy. The problem is not just its violent crackdown on protesters. For years, Mr. Erdogan’s government has been arresting people, including military leaders and journalists, on very shaky grounds — 275 on dubious allegations of plotting to overthrow the government. It has jailed more than 40 reporters and curtailed freedom of the press by pressuring owners of media outlets to stifle criticism of government policies.
The protesters who flooded Taksim Square may have different ideologies, but they have one thing in common: opposition to the president’s heavy-handed rule. The motley crew of gay-rights activists, environmentalists, secular liberals, Islamic women, and leftists opposed to Mr. Erdogan’s brand of capitalism are united against what they believe is an abuse of power. Yes, Mr. Erdogan was elected by a large margin and likely would prevail again in an election. But his suppression of civil rights raises serious questions about his commitment to the democratic rule of law.
For many years, Turkey was a model ally of the United States. As a NATO member, it was a staunch ally against the Soviet Union. In recent years, however, it has become at best a shaky one. It refused to give access to U.S. forces in the Iraq War and has crossed swords with the U.S. over Israel and Syria. The suspicion is that Mr. Erdogan wants to carve out a bigger role for Ankara in that region, re-creating a neo-Ottoman foreign policy that hovers somewhere between the Muslim and Western worlds.
If so, then Turkey’s drive for more independence from the West inevitably will make it a less-reliable U.S. ally.
So what about Turkey’s famed economic growth? Surely that is a model for others? After all, not too many Muslim economies are growing at all or have a pro-business leadership.
There can be no doubt that Turkey is doing well economically. Since Mr. Erdogan took office in 2003, economic growth has averaged more than 5 percent annually and per capita gross domestic product has tripled to more than $10,000. The president talks constantly of building a “Great Turkey” that one day would be among the world’s top 10 economies.
Nevertheless, not all is hunky-dory. Its score in the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom dropped several points below its 2011 showing. Property rights are generally enforced, but the courts are overburdened and judges not well-trained for commercial cases. Investors face excessive bureaucracy and frequent changes in the regulatory and legal environments. The judiciary is subject to government influence, and corruption remains far too widespread. Turkey has made progress in liberalization but still has a long way to go.
That leaves Mr. Erdogan’s supposedly moderate brand of Islam. It is certainly more moderate than the Muslim Brotherhood variety in Egypt. But Mr. Erdogan has embraced Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization; and his government’s recent move to restrict the sale of alcohol is another indication of a move away from secularism.
Setting up some countries as models for others is a tricky thing. Turkey most definitely does some things better than most other Muslim countries. But let’s be careful not to embrace everything Mr. Erdogan does as worthy of admiration.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.
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