What Would the U.S. Do If the Turkish Military's Coup Attempt Had Succeeded?

Image Had Turkey’s military succeeded in toppling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last Friday, by seizing and consolidating power, and the public acquiesced, how would the U.S. have reacted? Counterfactuals are, of course, impossible to game out. But that thought experiment shows the difficulty the U.S. might have faced trying to reconcile its interest in a stable Turkey with its commitment to a democratic one. The problem of reconciling U.S. values and interests isn’t limited to Turkey, though those issues might be at the fore this week; this pertains to several partners in the Middle East.
Turkey isn’t Egypt, where millions of citizens supported the military’s removal of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013–a situation about which the Obama administration managed to finesse the military’s action and outmaneuver congressional restrictions on U.S. aid to countries affected by military takeovers.

Mr. Erdogan’s success shutting down the attempted coup spared Washington from having to accept a military takeover. But as Turkey’s importance has grown on the global stage in recent years, it has been a problematic ally. Mr. Erdogan, prime minister from 2003 to 2014 before being elected president, has made no secret of arresting journalists, cracking down on media outlets and academics, and removing judges. He has sidelined critics and sought to amend Turkey’s constitution to consolidate power in the presidency. Still, whatever U.S. officials might think of Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarianism, had Turkey’s military seized power the Obama administration and the one that follows it–whether Republican or Democratic–probably would have accommodated the putsch. The reasons include our lack of democratic allies in the region and lack of U.S. willingness or capacity to effect change. Consider:

With the exceptions of Israel and, recently, Tunisia, the U.S. has been dealing with military or authoritarian governments in the Middle East since well before the Arab Spring. Authoritarianism, not democracy, is the most common form of governance in the region. For most of the past half-century, Washington dealt with adversarial authoritarians–Hafez and now Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Qadhafi–or acquiescent ones: Hosni Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Salah, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Yasser Arafat. In the Gulf today, the U.S. depends on Arabian kings and emirs or the mullahs in Iran as partners.

U.S. administrations, prizing stability, have concluded that a badly governed state is better than no state at all. That’s the logic Washington has applied to dealings with Mr. Erdogan. That’s why the Obama administration ultimately allowed the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a serial abuser of human rights, to come in from the cold; it’s why various U.S. administrations have made exceptions for the Saudi government’s export of Wahabbist ideology over the years; and it’s how U.S. officials rationalize dealing with an Iranian government that might be abiding by the letter of the nuclear agreement but has continued to stoke conflict in the region and that abuses its own citizens. When it comes to Iran, the U.S. and others have imposed sanctions in response to some behavior. But the U.S. also compartmentalizes relations–cooperating sometimes, imposing penalties other times, and often acquiescing or ignoring actions it can’t control.

The character of the Middle East has long been clear–and cannot be determined or changed by some external force or idealized “freedom agenda” or speeches about the virtues of democracy. It is quintessentially American thinking to assume that either through persuasion or pressure the United States can fundamentally shape or influence how other governments treat their citizens. Human rights is not the central issue determining U.S. policy toward any friend or adversary in the region. The Obama administration seems to realize the U.S. doesn’t have the will or skill to carry out social and political engineering in countries led by authoritarians and strongmen for whom the stakes are existential–and who are prepared to push back much harder than Washington is willing to push.

U.S. partners in the region are imperfect. Even the Israelis–close allies who share many common values–have fundamentally different views of what to do about key issues such as the Palestinians. And whether we’re talking about Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, if the U.S. pushes to align its values and interests in some scripted formula based on how Americans see the world, Washington would soon have no partners to deal with. Had Turkey’s military succeeded in seizing power and the public supported it, there might have been a lot of noise. But ultimately the Obama administration would have effectively said: The king is dead; long live the king. That Mr. Erdogan is an elected autocrat would have made that transition even easier.
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07