American Vice President Joe Biden flew to Istanbul recently to try to stop the bleeding. In the weeks since Turkey was rocked by a failed military coup, the deterioration of American-Turkish relations has become a geopolitical mess for the United States: Turks are turning sour on America due to a perceived lack of support from Washington after the coup. Resentment is largely concentrated on the desired extradition of alleged coup mastermind and Pennsylvania resident Fethullah Gülen.
American and Turkish media alike have suggested that the “strategic partnership” between the two countries might be broken, possibly beyond repair. Hyperbole aside, the U.S. cannot abide the dissolution of its alliance with Turkey, what with the country maintaining such a critical geopolitical niche in the ongoing ideological battle against ISIS and fundamentalist Islamic terror, not to mention the European refugee crisis. So it makes sense that Biden went halfway across the world to make amends, and the VP indeed hit all the right notes in terms of what Turkey wanted to hear. But the real winner was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and only him — not Turkey or America. Erdogan has come away with the only legitimate prize: yet another symbolic triumph he can use to foster public support and consolidate political power.
I stood among the pro-democracy Yenikapi demonstration crowds on August 7, shocked by the goodwill activists expressed toward authorities — compared to their extreme hostility for police just two years ago. This is a result of Erdogan using and manipulating symbolic rhetoric. In 2013, the Taksim Gezi Park protests left 11 dead, thousands injured and Turks decrying the police for use of excessive force. But the police, crucial in suppressing July’s coup, have become centerpieces in Erdogan’s self-promotional post-coup rhetoric. Two years, one foiled coup and a concerted, manipulative effort from Erdogan later, and public discourse concerning law enforcement has reversed: Young men and women, draped in their nation’s colors, fist-bumped police in riot gear, and crowds cheered for rooftop-perched snipers.
Now consider Erdogan’s main issue with the United States — the extradition of cleric Gülen — and the beef suddenly loses potency. Gülen is the alleged mastermind of the July 15 coup attempt, an insurgency that was resoundingly quashed by the following day. Tens of thousands of alleged Gülenists have been arrested since, and thousands more have been fired. Even though Erdogan insisted in his joint press conference with Biden that Gülen “continues to manage a terrorist organization from where he is,” it is hard to believe. Turkey is full of legitimate security threats — from the PKK (the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party) to ISIS — yet Erdogan is fixated enough to be playing game-theory chicken with the U.S. over a geriatric, Poconos-dwelling Imam. Why? Because, while the PKK and ISIS may be pricey, Gülen’s symbolic value is priceless. With his geographic and ideological distance from contemporary Turkey, Gülen is the perfect meal for Erdogan to serve a frustrated populace looking to appease their postcoup anger with a common enemy.
Just as Erdogan has turned the tide on public sentiment over law enforcement, he’s now focusing Turkish post-coup frustration on Gülen and, by proxy, anti-American sentiment. He has conjured a big bad wolf for an embittered public — fed up with economic woes and political discord — to boost nationalistic fervor focused on one man: Gülen. Biden expressing empathy about “the intense feeling” over Gülen in Turkey and hinting at American cooperation in his extradition only adds fuel to the fire and another politically symbolic victory to Erdogan’s tally. Gülen’s extradition, if it ever comes, will be Erdogan’s crowning glory.
Sure, Turks will share the president’s sense of victory. “If the extradition process of this terrorist leader could accelerate … the Turkish people will quickly recover from their sadness and disappointment,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has said. But whatever an extradition might do for Turkey’s spirit, it will do little to restore the economy.
I don’t believe Ankara is ever really going to stray from its partnership with the U.S., because Turkey simply cannot afford it. The coup — failed though it was — has left the formerly expanding Turkish economy gasping. Credit-rating agencies have lowered the nation’s stock, and the purging of coup conspirators, both real and imagined, has left tens of thousands of crucial private- and public-sector positions empty. Economic growth, meanwhile, is expected to dip. So, as Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based partner of the independent think tank Global Source Partners, suggests, it is not feasible for Turkey to sever ties with the United States, “because over the years it has developed an umbilical cord to Western capital and goods markets.”
Simply walking around Istanbul, this economic stagnation is quite conspicuous: Tourists are sparse, nightclubs are thinned out and restaurant owners tool around empty tables. The buildings may be draped in the proud red Turkish flags, but foundation-threatening cracks lurk beneath. So Erdogan and his cronies entertaining negotiations with Russia and Iran while hinting that they might cut that umbilical cord to the West was just a bluff — a tactical ruse meant to distract.
A few weeks back, a Turkish friend and I hit a late-night eatery in Istanbul. With no other customers to take her time, the owner, a twentysomething woman with bright eyes and a headscarf, sat down to chat. At one point, her tone deepened and she asked me how Gülen was being treated in America. Before answering, I looked around: This dynamite establishment in the vibrant Cihangir neighborhood was empty, wallpaper was peeling next to a freshly pressed Turkish flag, and only half the tables even had chairs. If she mentioned how difficult paying her bills had been since the coup, it was a brief quip. What she really wanted to know was how Gülen was doing.
*Student at Cornell University and spent part of his summer observing Turkish fervor.
Published on OZY, 5 September 2016, Monday