The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Turkey faces a fateful choice

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, laughs during a news conference on Oct. 4 with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a meeting in Tehran. (Kayhan Ozer/Presidency Press Service, Pool Photo via Associated Press)

Frida Ghitis is a columnist for World Politics Review and a regular opinion contributor.

The affronts keep coming, one after the other. With every passing day, Turkey, which professes to be a U.S. ally, is acting more like an enemy than a friend. Washington-Ankara relations are in a deep crisis. And the NATO alliance, of which Turkey is a vital member, is starting to feel the pain as well.

It’s not only the United States that’s on the receiving end of attacks from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The increasingly authoritarian leader is steadily turning his country against other members of the Western alliance, even as he draws closer to its foes and dismantles democracy at home.

It’s hard to know just how far Erdogan wants to take this exercise, which ultimately aims to tighten his grip on power. But what is certain is that he is putting into question whether Turkey is, in fact, a U.S. ally — and whether it belongs in NATO at all.

American citizens and a U.S. consular employee are under arrest in Turkey, railroaded in a politically inspired witch hunt, along with tens of thousands of Turkish citizens.

Just a few years ago, the leaders of Europe and NATO were happy to boast of incorporating a secular, democratic, majority-Muslim state into the community. But as Erdogan has escalated his efforts to monopolize power, he has shattered the dreams of democracy-minded Turks along with U.S. and European hopes that his country might serve as a model for the rest of the Islamic world.

Erdogan’s consolidation of power accelerated after a failed July 2016 coup attempt, which gave him the pretext to fire up nationalist passions, remove some 150,000 people from their jobs, change the laws and rewrite the constitution. It was a perfect play-by-play for autocracy.

Only hours after the coup attempt, an Erdogan loyalist accused Washington of orchestrating the plot. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry presciently warned the Turkish president against using the coup attempt to clamp down, and of the potential implications if he did.

To stoke support for his nationalist, religious agenda, Erdogan has brazenly fueled anti-Western sentiment. A recent Pew poll showed almost three of every four Turks view the United States as a major threat to their country. That was the highest number for the 30 countries surveyed, and a sharp rise from just four years ago, when the view was in a minority. The survey showed a worsening U.S. image in almost every country, but Turkey stood out as one of the worst for the dramatic reversal.

Ideologically, Erdogan is taking leaps away from the ideals stated in NATO’s treaty preamble, which extol democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. All three are fading away in Turkey. The free press is disappearing. Rule of law is vanishing as Erdogan gains ever greater control of the judiciary. And the government is also ripping apart the republic’s vaunted secularism. Erdogan is raising a “devout generation,” with schoolchildren shifting to a religious curriculum in which they learn the Koran instead of evolution.

NATO could perhaps tolerate Ankara’s ideological drift as long as the two sides remained strategically aligned, but that, too, is changing. Back when Turkey joined NATO in 1952, its principal concern was Soviet expansionism, a worry it shared with its North Atlantic allies.

Today, NATO’s principal worries include Russia, Iran and Islamist extremists. Erdogan views all three of these potential opponents differently from the rest of the alliance.

While NATO’s 28 other members ponder what to do about a wayward ally, Erdogan is playing footsie with NATO’s foes. He traveled to Iran last week to find ways to expand cooperation, and he is negotiating a highly controversial military purchase from Russia, the country that worries NATO most. Last month, he announced Turkey is buying a Russian S-400 missile system. That would make some of Turkey’s military arsenal incompatible with NATO’s — and increase its military dependence on Russia.

Turkey is a supporter of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and has backed Islamist militias in Syria. And while the West sides with Kurds in Iraq and Syria, Turkey views them as the enemy.

Still, the United States is working with Turkey in its campaign against the Islamic State. NATO, to be sure, greatly values Ankara. Military-to-military relations are strong. Turkey’s location at the intersection of Europe and Asia, at the doorstep of the Middle East, makes it strategically valuable, and its troop strength of more than 700,000, second in the alliance only to the United States, means Turkey’s NATO membership is not just symbolic.

But concerns are growing. NATO’s Article 5 requires that all members respond if one member is attacked. If Turkey’s actions in defiance of NATO rules put it in jeopardy, would the alliance come to its defense? The mere question suggests that Ankara is weakening the Article 5 commitment, and thus weakening NATO.

For now, NATO wants to leave the choice to Erdogan. NATO doesn’t want Turkey to leave the alliance, but Erdogan arguably needs the West more than vice versa, if nothing else to maintain the prosperity that propelled his political rise.

So the Turkish president needs to decide whether he’s going to continue taunting his allies. If he wants Turkey to have its home in the West, he’ll have to stop. Otherwise, the drift will continue, and the relationship will ultimately be severed.