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On Point

Turkey's Military Resigns


by Austin Bay
August 2, 2011

In a democracy, when senior military officers can no longer support the policies of the elected civilian government they serve, they are supposed to resign their posts and retire -- not launch a coup.

This is one way to initially frame the complex circumstances surrounding last week's mass resignation by the most senior armed forces commanders in Turkey, the culturally Islamic nation bridging Europe and Asia and possessing NATO's second-largest military establishment.

It is a frame, however, with both encouragingly optimistic and oppressively pessimistic interpretations.

Let's start with the optimism. The Turkish military sees itself as the defender of Turkey's secular democracy. Ironically, in the process of defending democracy, on four occasions since 1960 the Turkish military has toppled an elected government, or threatened the government and precipitated its collapse. Coup leaders claimed they were protecting Turkey's political secularism and thereby ultimately defending democracy from the threat posed by Muslim recidivists and political extremists of the far left and right.

In the historical lens, the military insists it is forwarding the political and social modernization process begun by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Ataturk was a visionary, a dedicated secularist modernizer who pursued a socially transformational agenda. For example, between 1922 and his death in 1938, he emancipated Turkish women and liberalized and expanded public education.

As a war-winning general, Ataturk used the military as the primary (though not sole) instrument in his modernization process. The army had prestige, organization and educated officers -- all valuable assets in a land devastated by its loss World War I and the subsequent carnage of its victory in the ugly little conflict known as the Greco-Turkish War. When Ataturk died, however, he left Turkey with a democratic structure, not a democracy.

The optimists now argue that the modernization process Ataturk initiated has succeeded. Twenty-first century Turkey now possesses a robust and resilient democracy supported by a free press, eclectic civil society and a middle class interested in expanding economic opportunities. It no longer needs military intervention in domestic politics.

Moreover, the 1980 coup tarnished Turkey's armed forces when it imposed a constitution that circumscribed democratic rights and enshrined military privileges -- a praetorian constitution is a phrase used by its many critics. Protection of democracy decayed to coups by a praetorian guard cadre intent on determining political outcomes. Democratic Turks don't want that.

The pessimists, however, see recidivist Islamists launching a systematic, stealthy coup to end democracy and create a religious tyranny. In the pessimists' interpretation, the late July military resignations signal that current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) have succeeded in sidelining, arresting or retiring military secularists. Once Erdogan and his cronies have removed the military secularists, they will rapidly replace other secular institutions with Islamic organizations and "re-Islamize" Turkey.

Erdogan's opponents argue that the very curious Ergenekon investigation is one of several noxious examples of Erdogan's plan to slowly strangle secular institutions. Erdogan's government alleges Ergenekon is a plot by secularists to destabilize Turkey and set the stage for another military coup. The government has accused hundreds of people of being involved in the murky conspiracy, including senior military officers.

The pessimists say Ergenekon and the so-called Sledgehammer coup conspiracy are poppycock and paranoia that serve Erdogan's dark motives. In pursuing the investigations, they argue that Erdogan has used state powers to intimidate, smear and imprison his secular opponents. His electoral triumph this June, which gave the AKP a large parliamentary majority, have convinced him he cannot be stopped. The mass resignations are all that a weakened general staff can manage -- they no longer have the power to act to stop the Islamist threat Erdogan represents.

Erdogan's harshest critics, however, recognize his commitment to economic development. Arguably, he has tied his own political future to sustaining economic growth. The economic disaster in neighboring Islamic Iran serves as a reminder of the wages of dogma: ossification, corruption, poverty and violent repression.

Economic growth requires adaptation, creativity and agility -- traits the Ataturk-inspired Turkish democracy possesses. Mr. Erdogan, take note. 

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