The Mideast's Next Dilemma

Tolga Bozoglu / EPA-Landov

On one issue the Republican contenders and the president they wish to replace are in agreement: the United States should reduce its military presence in the Greater Middle East. The preferred arguments are that America cannot afford to be engaged in combat operations in far-flung countries and that such operations are futile anyway.

The question no one wants to answer is what will come after the United States departs. The "happily ever after" scenario is that one country after another will embrace Western democracy. The nightmare scenario is either civil war or Islamist revolution. But a third possible outcome is a revived Ottoman Empire.

An Anatolian dynasty established on the ruins of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans were the standard-bearers of Islam after their conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453. Their empire extended deep into Central Europe, including Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary.

Having established Ottoman rule from Baghdad to Basra, from the Caucasus to the mouth of the Red Sea, and right along the Barbary Coast, Suleiman the Magnificent could claim: "I am the Sultan of Sultans, the Sovereign of Sovereigns … the shadow of God upon Earth." The 17th century saw further Ottoman expansion into Crete and even western Ukraine.

Over the next two centuries, however, the empire became "the sick man of Europe," losing most of its Balkan and North African possessions. World War I proved fatal; only the old Anatolian heartland was reconstituted as the Turkish republic. The rest was carved up between Britain and France.

And that seemed to be the end of the Ottoman era. Until very recently, the question people asked about Turkey was whether (or even when) it could join the European Union. Staunchly pro-American in the Cold War, the Turks seemed to have their gaze fixed unwaveringly on the West, just as the republic's founder, Kemal Atatürk, had intended.

But since 2003, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected prime minister, that has changed. The founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan is a seductive figure. To many, he is the personification of a moderate Islamism. He has presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth. He has sought to reduce the power of the military. It was no accident that one of President Obama's first overseas trips was to Istanbul. It was no surprise when the AKP won a third consecutive general election earlier this month.

And yet we need to look more closely at Erdogan. For there is good reason to suspect he dreams of transforming Turkey in ways Suleiman the Magnificent would have admired.

In his early career as mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan was imprisoned for publicly reciting these lines by an early-20th-century Pan-Turkish poet: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers." His ambition, it seems clear, is to return to the pre-Atatürk era, when Turkey was not only militantly Muslim but also a regional superpower.

This explains his sustained campaign to alter the Turkish Constitution in ways that would likely increase his own power at the expense of the judiciary and the press as well as the military, all bastions of secularism. It explains his increasingly strident criticism of Israel's "state terrorism" in Gaza, where pro-Palestinian activists sent a headline-grabbing flotilla last year. Above all, it explains his adroit maneuvers to exploit the opportunities presented by the Arab Spring, chastising Syria, seeking to check Iran, and offering himself as a role model.

"Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul," declared Erdogan in his victory speech. "Beirut won as much as Izmir; Damascus won as much as Ankara; Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir."

The Turkish leader once compared democracy to a streetcar: "When you come to your stop, you get off." We are in for a surprise if the destination under his leadership turns out to be a new Muslim empire in the Middle East.