The AKP Will Remain a Western Ally

The political logic should be simple. The arrest of a shadowy group of generals for allegedly plotting a bloody coup should be a victory for justice. The end of military meddling in politics should be a victory for democracy. And greater democracy should make a country more liberal and more pro-European.

Except that in Turkey, political logic doesn't always follow simple patterns. Yes, last week's arrests of dozens of Army officers on charges of plotting bombings and murders are a win for civilian prosecutors over the once untouchable military. More important, the arrests also mark the quiet demise of the military as a decisive force in Turkish politics for the first time in centuries. That's a vital step in Turkey's road to becoming a mature democracy.

But the paradox is that a more democratic Turkey doesn't necessarily mean one that is more pro-European or more pro-American. And with the last major obstacle to the ruling AK Party's power gone, Turkey's conservative prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will be free to implement his vision of a more Islamic Turkey. More democracy, then, doesn't necessarily lead to more liberalism, either.

The first victim of the new order may be Europe. Ever since they came to power in 2002, AK Party leaders have used EU membership as a shield to defend their reform programs against attacks from ultrasecularists in the military and the judiciary. Notionally, the military was in favor of joining Europe, so the AK Party railroaded through most of its most radical changes under the EU's banner. Downscaling the powers of the military-dominated National Security Council, banning the death penalty, scrapping some restrictions on free speech, allowing Kurdish language rights—all were in the Copenhagen criteria set by the EU. But now that the AK Party's main rival, the military, has been shown to be a paper tiger, there's not much utility for Erdogan & Co. in pushing the European project any further.

That's terrible timing for Europe. Support within the EU for further expansion is fading fast. A looming crisis over Cyprus threatens to create further animosity on both sides as EU members Greece and Greek Cyprus threaten to block Ankara's accession bid. Add to that various tin-eared EU initiatives, like trying to get the conservative Turks to allow gay marriage, and you have a recipe for trouble. Turks are also angry because of the EU's many unfulfilled promises over opening Cyprus's ports to international trade. The AK Party's win over the Army could well prove to be the EU's serious loss.

It also raises a tough question for Washington: does the U.S. want Middle East allies who are less democratic but more friendly, or more democratic but more hostile to America? During the Cold War, when the military was in charge, Turkey fell into the first camp. Now it makes sense for Washington to choose democracy—even if the outcomes aren't, as George W. Bush found in Iraq, always pro-Western. Cutting the Army's dead hand from politics will allow Turkey to define secularism democratically and to deal openly with issues like the demands of the Kurdish minority for autonomy. That choice should be particularly easy now, as evidence presented by Turkish prosecutors suggest that the self-declared guardians of Turkey's secular order plotted heinous crimes in order to destabilize the AK Party, possibly including the bombing of the British Consulate in Istanbul in 2003.

If Turkey becomes more anti-Western, that's probably inevitable. A storm of popular anger is brewing over the EU's undeclared rejection of Turkish membership, even as the accession process continues, and over moves in the U.S. Congress to recognize the massacres of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. If the vote goes ahead, expect Turks to retaliate, perhaps by refusing to support U.S. sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council.

Turks have made it clear repeatedly at the ballot box that they endorse the AK Party's vision of a less-rigorously secular country. Ordinary Turks aren't huge fans of the U.S., either. But it's also clear that Turkey under the AK Party will remain a Western ally, and NATO will remain Ankara's most important strategic partner. How do we know? The AK Party says so, and it has no real options. There's no rival alliance, not with Iran, the Arab world, or Russia, which could possibly rival the clout Turkey has, with the second-largest Army in NATO. In the short term, Turkey will likely sour on the EU and have a loud row with the U.S. over Armenia. In the long term, the downfall of the Army will make Turkey a stronger democracy and a more stable and mature partner. So the world would be wise to side with the AK Party, not seek a return of the discredited generals.