Turkey Coup: Erdogan Rounds Up the Usual Suspects

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Two of eight Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece in a helicopter and requested political asylum after a failed military coup against the government are brought to a prosecutor by two policemen in the northern Greek city of Alexandroupolis, Greece, July 17. Michael Rubin writes that Erdogan has blamed every plot and malfeasance upon Gülen. Increasingly, it seems the Obama administration might take the Turkish president seriously. Vasilis Ververidis/Eurokinissi/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

For the past three years, if a bird shat on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he would blame Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based cleric and former ally.

What next transpired would be the only predictable thing about Turkish politics:

  • State-run TRT would broadcast newscasts talking about the plot.

  • Sabah, a paper confiscated by Erdogan and transferred to his son-in-law, would run editorials condemning Gülen and infiltration of flocks of birds.

  • Hürriyet would question the plot, and so righteous Turks would vandalize its headquarters and beat up its editor.

  • Egemin Bagis, the president’s confidant and peon, would insult Europeans, cite Islamic honor, while smugly mocking the Koran when he felt no one was listening. What he said really would have no relevance to the issue at hand, so both Turks and Western diplomats would shrug their shoulders and ask each other what Erdogan sees in him? Was it Bagis’s big hands?

  • Many Turkish journalists would repeat the conspiracy, hoping that they would mysteriously find enough money in their bank account to buy a posh house on the Bosporus.

  • Yeni Safak, meanwhile, might provide some comic relief by noting that the bird was sent from Israel and guided over the president’s head by telekinesis.

  • Erdogan, of course, would demand the judiciary prosecute those behind the “kus pisligi darbe.”

The whole matter might sound ridiculous to anyone outside of Turkey, but Erdogan’s supporters follow him blindly.

Enter the current coup plot. Erdogan literally has blamed every obstacle, fanciful plot, and malfeasance upon the elderly cleric. He fingered him in last Friday’s attempted coup even before the smoke settled. Increasingly, it seems the Obama administration might actually take the Turkish president seriously.

We’ve been down this path before. After the Islamic Revolution, Jimmy Carter was desperate to repair U.S.-Iran ties. Ayatollah Khomeini repeatedly brushed him off. Perhaps emissaries might offer some hope behind the scenes, but then in rhetoric and state media, Khomeini’s regime would fan anti-Americanism and try to humiliate the hapless president.

When Carter’s outreach failed to sway Tehran, he offered more. Rather than defend the ailing shah who had stood by America during the Cold War, Carter sought not only to hasten the cancer-stricken Shah’s departure for Panama, but he also may have hinted to the Panamanians that the United States would not object should they return him to Iran.

The gesture did not assuage Iran’s religious dictator, however. As Peter Rodman, a former aide to Henry Kissinger, noted, “The eagerness to prove goodwill to an intransigent opponent paradoxically makes a settlement less likely.”

It wasn’t just the matter of justice or one man, however.  A willingness to reverse course under pressure and betray allies may have convinced Soviet leaders who already saw Carter as weak that American reaction to an invasion of Afghanistan would be slight.

What’s going on isn’t about Gülen. It’s a power play. When someone is delusional—even if that person happens to be the leader of a NATO ally—the worst thing that someone can do is pander to the delusion.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy, Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.