THE WIKILEAKS CABLES ON TURKEY: 20/20 TUNNEL VISION
BY OKAN ALTIPARMAK AND CLAIRE BERLINSKI
The Wikileaks cables on Turkey reveal a surprising paradox. U.S. diplomats present themselves as highly-informed, perspicacious observers of Turkey with more insight than one would expect into the Islamist complexes and prejudices of Turkey’s governing AKP, the role of the Gulen movement in Turkey, the political talent and personality of Prime Minister Erdogan, his increasing isolation from competent advisors, and the central problems that characterize AKP governance: lack of technocratic skill, corruption, and influence-peddling. Yet time and again, these diplomats fail to draw from these observations the obvious conclusion: This represents a risk to Turkey, the United States, and its regional interests.
The Wikileaks cables on Turkey have shown that American diplomats understood far more about Turkey under the AKP (Justice and Development Party) than was previously thought. Their reports are in places remarkably perspicacious, yet again and again, they contain obvious analytic missteps. In particular, the authors tend to make important observations and then fail either to ask the obvious next question or draw from it the obvious conclusion.
On January 20, 2004, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman penned a report[i] of nearly impeccable insight into Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. He correctly emphasizes the luck that ushered the party into power in November, 2002, notes the Islamist milieu from which Erdogan emerged, and aptly characterizes his political talent and pragmatism. Edelman’s description of the prime minister’s personality is almost painfully prescient: “Erdogan has traits which render him seriously vulnerable to miscalculating the political dynamic, especially in foreign affairs… [his] authoritarian loner streak… prevents growth of a circle of strong and skillful advisors, a broad flow of fresh information to him, or development of effective communications among the party headquarters, government, and parliamentary group.”
Edelman also observes central problems of AKP governance–lack of technocratic skill, corruption and influence-peddling–that are now well-known to foreign observers but were at the time little-remarked. Finally, he notes the “Islamist complexes and prejudices” of several key Erdogan appointees:
"Erdogan’s refusal to condemn these positions, the question of the level of influence of Islamic brotherhoods and groups (including the followers of Fethullah Gulen) on the government, and the presence of Turkish Hizbullah supporters in AK Party provincial structures in the Southeast have also raised deep concerns among many long-standing Embassy contacts who themselves are pious. …how well [Erdogan] can control the phenomenon remains a very open question."
As is now known, these questions have become the questions.
In subsequent cables,[ii] Edelman deepens these observations, noting that Erdogan has surrounded himself “with an iron ring of sycophantic (but contemptuous) advisors,” isolating himself from a flow of reliable information, “which partially explains his failure to understand the context–or real facts–of the U.S. operations in Tel Afar, Fallujah, and elsewhere and his susceptibility to Islamist theories.”
Ahmet Davutoglu, who is now Turkey’s celebrity foreign minister, was at the time largely unknown on the world stage. Edelman writes that he is viewed with grave suspicion by intimates such as Defense Minister Gonul–“exceptionally dangerous”–and notes as well that Erdogan has surrounded himself with foreign policy advisors viewed variously within the AKP itself as Islamists, out of touch, or corrupt.
The key insight of this and the preceding cables is that Erdogan and his advisors are not receiving high-quality intelligence and are instead relying upon “media disinformation.” Edelman notes the dominance of emotion and Sunni cronyism over analytic depth and vision in both the AKP’s domestic and foreign policy. He also notes that Erdogan has compounded his isolation through incessant travel and alienated many supporters in the AKP with his temper.
It is clear from the cables that by the end of 2004, American diplomats had a clear understanding of many critical points that the foreign press would not appreciate for several years to come. (Much of it still does not.)[iii]
"PM Erdogan is isolated. He has lost touch with his Cabinet and parliamentary group. We hear MPs and Ministers alike, xxxxx who is close to Erdogan, complain they no longer have comfortable access, or feel obliged to kowtow for fear of incurring Erdogan’s wrath. Business associations, strong advocates of AKP economic policies, tell us they feel they have lost the PM’s ear….
Cables from January 2004 to March 2005 return repeatedly to the themes of the cronyism, incompetence, and corruption in the AKP:[iv]
"AKP swept to power by promising to root out corruption. However, in increasing numbers AKPers from ministers on down, and people close to the party, are telling us of conflicts of interest or serious corruption in the party at the national, provincial and local level and among close family members of ministers. We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the U.S. purely altruistically are lame.[v]
"Among the many figures mentioned to us as prominently involved in corruption are Minister of Interior Aksu, Minister of Foreign Trade Tuzmen, and AKP Istanbul provincial chairman Muezzinoglu. As we understand it from a contact in the intel directorate of Turkish National Police, a continuing investigation into Muezzinoglu’s extortion racket and other activities has already produced evidence incriminating Erdogan. In our contacts across Anatolia we have detected no willingness yet at the grassroots level to look closely at Erdogan or the party in this regard, but the trend is a time bomb."
As anyone who lives in Turkey knows, this cable suggests that Edelman was, indeed, living in Turkey. Corruption is the time bomb—a massively important point no one living here could readily miss. Whether or not these specific accusations are correct, anyone who lives here will hear similar stories from every observer, daily–from shopkeepers struggling with local corruption to companies bidding for tenders worth billions of dollars. Foreign observers tend to miss both the observation and its significance with great regularity, however; and if having this insight has had any effect on U.S. diplomatic posture toward Turkey, it is not clear how. Of what use is such a shrewd observer on the ground if one pays his warnings no mind?
Edelman writes in 2004, that the Fethullah Gulen movement has made inroads into the AKP, numbering among their ranks “Minister of Justice Cicek, Minister of Culture and Tourism Mumcu; perhaps 60-80 of 368 MPs; some appointments to the bureaucracy.” However, he notes, “insiders” of the Gulen movement tell the embassy that the movement is “ambivalent” about the AKP.[vi] This may well be true, but it is notable that the only insider he cites by name is Abdurrahman Celik, a publicist. Missing from the cable are the obvious words, “But he would say that, wouldn’t he.” This seems a moment at which the embassy should have been asking more questions, sooner.
As this cable suggests, Edelman sees clearly that Islam in Turkey is an easily exploited force. It is, he writes, “stultified, riddled with hypocrisy, ignorant and intolerant of other religions’ presence in Turkey, and unable to eject those who would politicize it in a radical, anti-Western way… The problem is compounded by the willingness of politicians such as Gul to play elusively with politicized Islam.”
Equally important, however, is Edelman’s next observation, one that might easily be lost in a focus on the problem of political Islamism:
"A second question is the relation of Turkey and its citizens to history—the history of this land and citizens’ individual history. Subject to rigid taboos, denial, fears, and mandatory gross distortions, the study of history and practice of historiography in the Republic of Turkey remind one of an old Soviet academic joke: the faculty party chief assembles his party cadres and, warning against various ideological threats, proclaims, “The future is certain. It’s only that damned past that keeps changing.”
That is a good question, and the only logical answer is, “It can’t.” Subsequent cables suggest, however, that American diplomats were just as willing to blind themselves to logic as the AKP.
"He has a compassionate heart and inspires tremendous loyalty, xxxxx stated. Last Ramadan, when Erdogan got locked inside his armored car after collapsing from low blood sugar, his bodyguard Halit grabbed a sledgehammer from a nearby construction site and smashed the windshield to break Erdogan out (Mercedes was apparently upset that it only took him six minutes). Despite the fiasco, made much of in the press, Halit kept his job; the PM viewed his action as one of true devotion and love for the Prime Minister."
Wilson’s remarks on the closure case against the AKP are basically apt. He notes that a reasonable case may be made both for and against the effort to ban the party on Turkish constitutional and legal grounds, but more importantly, and correctly, notes that the case represents a political failure:[viii]
One clear thing is that PM Erdogan has stumbled badly. One blunder was failing to make political bans more difficult when relevant legislation was amended several years ago…. Erdogan failed to reassure the 53 percent who voted against his government last July that it would respect their interests too. He failed to use his re-election mandate to continue EU-related reforms that were the most formidable tools for calming fears of Islamization and untrammeled majority rule.
Wilson reiterates that the opposition in Turkey is weak (a theme rightly stressed and re-stressed throughout these cables), and notes that none of these problems can be solved without broad constitutional reform: “Without broad constitutional reform to replace the current top-down state and better protect individual liberties, and without more consensus on the extent and limits of secularism in modern Turkey, this struggle is likely to continue.”
Passages from the same cable about the economy suggest that the dimensions of this problem were never grasped at all: “For many, especially the large swath of previously neglected voters who make up Turkey’s emerging middle class and whom Erdogan’s populism galvanized, the message is that Turkish democracy is too poorly developed to protect their interests against the traditional elite.”
Obviously, this suggests a question that should have been asked: Which is it? Is there a growing middle class or a vulnerable economy marked by a sense of crisis? If it is both, this requires more explanation; the two are not usually found together.
There is a particularly odd tone in this cable of seeing-but-not-seeing. These “‘zero conflicts’ initiatives,” he writes, “which have moved Turkey forward on more of the key bilateral spats—Cyprus, Greece, Kurds, Northern Iraq, Armenia—than we have seen with any other Turkish government, also support U.S. interests.” He then writes a sentence that should raise a question that is not raised: “Turkey has repeatedly run into trouble actually consummating these various openings.” Why exactly, then, do they support U.S. interests, or for that matter Turkey’s?
Jeffrey does see what is going on: “Given, again, the questioning of Western policy and motives by much of the Turkish public and the AKP, such an approach provides a relatively low cost and popular tool to demonstrate influence, power, and the ‘we’re back’ slogan.”
A great deal of attention, in cables dating back to 1996, is focused—for obvious reasons—on Islamist movements and brotherhoods in Turkey. This raises concerns, particularly on the grounds that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. In 1996, for example—shortly before the warning issued to the Erbakan government and the coalition’s subsequent resignation—Mark Grossman sent detailed notes on the perspective of Erbakan’s Refah party. Someone reading this cable might conclude that there are only two tarikats (Islamic networks) in Turkey, Nakshibendis and Nurcus, and that these are the only voices of Islam in the country.[x]
In other words, he observes that Gulen and his followers have contacts with and have received support from the two leaders who have dominated Turkish politics since the 1960s, yet accepts without skepticism the claim that they have become secretive, owing to state harassment. The propositions are contradictory, but the contradiction is not noted, no less explained.
“In addition,” he continues, “we have experience that more militant Islamists have moved into some of the Gulen structures in Turkey. Yet based on extensive and continuing contacts with Gulenists, we conclude that Gulen’s approach is so gradualist, and his chief lieutenants are so wary of being tarred as militants, that the movement does not pose a clear and present danger to the State.”
Yet in 2008, Ambassador Wilson reports cheerfully on the views of the administrators of Gulen schools:[xiii]
'Asked why suspicion of the Gulenist community exists in Turkey, Mehmet replied that those who accuse Gulen of surreptitious activities are projecting their own fears and intentions on him. “I am as I look and I will be the same,” he said, quoting the Mevlana. There is no evidence of Gulen or his supporters trying to direct politics, he stressed; this is not a political movement, but a way of life. “It is only a political problem for certain people.” Mehmet did not shrink away from describing the Gulenist movement as an “Islamic movement,” but noted that its philosophy stands in contrast to radicalism or fundamentalism.”'
Nowhere in this cable does he suggest the concerns previously raised by the U.S. Consulate and the U.S. Embassy itself. “Given… Gulenist schools’ concrete, positive achievements, it is difficult to see how the schools, or the Gulenist movement of which they are the vanguard, constitute any threat to Turkey’s secular democratic order. But suspicions run deep among Turks outside the movement, even among those without a strong secular pre-disposition.”
It is unclear why Wilson feels confident that this movement constitutes no threat to a secular, democratic Turkey, given that previous cables refer to it as a “uniformly evasive” Islamic movement described by members as “a way of life,” whose goals are “difficult to read,” and about which a significant portion of Turkey is panicked. The inability of a number of U.S. ambassadors to see how this could be a problem is baffling.
Eighteen months later, the problem does seem to occur to Ambassador Jeffrey:[xiv] "Gulenist newspapers such as “Zaman” relentlessly question the validity of the Ataturk legacy and argue that as an EU aspirant country, Turkey must ensure the diminished voice of the Turkish military in political issues. These papers champion the Ergenekon investigation and continually stress that the traditional dominance of the Turkish military has been a negative factor in Turkey’s history. Not surprisingly, contacts close to the Turkish General Staff openly loathe Gulen, and contend that he and his legions of supporters are embarked on a ruthless quest not only to undermine the Turkish military but to transform Turkey into an Islamic republic similar to Iran.
"Even among some Islamist organizations… Gulen’s lack of transparency creates doubt about his motives and leads to suspicions about what lies ahead–even within the communities where Gulen is most active. Gulen’s purported main goal is to bolster interfaith dialogue and tolerance, but the notion is widespread among many circles in Turkey that his agenda is deeper and more insidious."
The next paragraph is neck-twisting. Ambassador Jeffrey suggests that naturally, “any Islamist movement in Turkey would choose to be circumspect about its intentions. Unfortunately, this simply feeds the reflexive tendency in Turkish society for conspiracy theories, and magnifies suspicions about the Gulen movement itself.”
Logically there must be one of two assumptions behind this sentence. Either the Gulenists have no Islamist agenda, or they do, but if they would only be sensible and bring their Islamist agenda out into the open, everyone would calm down. One can only hope he is right about the former, but the latter would not result in the calm he is envisioning.
In quite a number of places, the Embassy’s reporting on Turkish Islam lacks rigor. For example, a 2003 cable purporting to explain the role of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet)[xv] notes that to its detractors, “including Islamists, centrist conservatives, and liberals alike,” the Diyanet is “the generator of a ‘Kemalist Islam’ that all too often has little to do with the variegated strains of the faith practiced throughout Anatolia and in other, less elite, corners of Istanbul and Republican Ankara.”
The report offers no definition of “Kemalist Islam,” but goes on to note that “Turkey’s sizable Alevi [minority] has long been concerned that the Diyanet promotes the dominance of Turkey’s Sunni majority community.”
The nature of “Kemalist Islam” remains a theological mystery, but the following passage suggests it to be an elastic doctrine:
'Islamic activists have noted to us a steady warming of relations between AK and its followers and those of Fethullah Gulen, who leads a large and wealthy offshoot of the mystical Nurcu movement. This new and unprecedented cooperation between two movements traditionally at odds dovetails at the Diyanet and other elements of the bureaucracy, where AK’s influence over the appointment process and Gulen’s centrist contacts and knowledge of the system provide the basis for mutually beneficial ties…. Gulen and his group have long been a pillar of centrist politics, and have long benefited from close ties to certain elements of the bureaucracy—which makes Gulen useful to AK…. While Gulen Nurcus share with the Diyanet Kemalists a desire to supersede the traditional tarikats and “modernize” Islam, they seek to afford more official respect to Islamic values–anathema to the Establishment but a cardinal principle of the center-right since Turkey began to liberalize political activity in 1946.
Now, as is already known—because the Alevis have pointed it out—“Kemalist Islam” and the views of the Diyanet promote Sunni majoritarian views. So why exactly is the conclusion here that the Diyanet is above all an effort to maintain “elite” dominance over the State and society? If that sounds incoherent, it should, particularly because the Alevis have traditionally voted for the Kemalist CHP (People’s Republican Party).
It seems American diplomats have fallen victim to a common confusion: They appreciate that there is a struggle against “elitism” in Turkey, and have hopefully—but illogically—assumed the alternative must be “less elitism,” as opposed to “a different elite.” Of course, if the word “elite” has any meaning, it would include members of a “large and wealthy offshoot” of a secretive movement with close ties to “certain elements of the bureaucracy.” Why American observers fail to notice this—even as they are reporting it—is unclear.
A detailed portrait emerges from these cables of a Turkish society under the growing influence of an opaque movement colored by Islamism and a Turkish foreign policy that is incompetent at best and overtly hostile to the United States and its interests at worst. The problem is the authors’ inability to see the larger implications of their own observations and the failure of U.S. policy to reflect the conclusions to which these observations inexorably lead.