Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A decade ago, for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Middle East was his oyster. As Turkey’s Prime Minister, Erdogan was presiding over an economy growing steadily in excess of 7%, inbound foreign direct investment was the envy of the neighborhood, and Turkey’s brand of “soft-Islamism” appeared to be the regional wave of the future as individual nations were charting their political futures in the wake of the “Arab spring.”
I hosted the then-prime minister for a small meeting of business leaders in Washington during this period; Erdogan displayed the charisma and commanding presence that appeared to justify his international reputation.
But then, in the words of a heart-rending song from the musical Les Miserables, “there was a time, then it all went wrong!”
Although there were already worrying signs that democratic norms in Turkey were beginning to erode, the attempted military coup in July 2016 (for which Erdogan continues to assign some blame to the U.S.) was an inflection point.
Our State Department has highlighted the business risks that have persisted in the wake of the coup: reduced judicial independence, press freedoms curtailed, over 1100 private firms confiscated by the government, and a stunning 130,000 civil servants removed, many on trumped-up “terrorism” charges.
A year later, Erdogan and his party orchestrated a constitutional change to strengthen significantly the office of the presidency; Erdogan had occupied that office since 2014, and he has taken full advantage of his new, greatly enhanced executive powers.
Now he is not just trying to ban an opposition party (the Kurdish HDP Party), but he is also advocating yet another change to Turkey’s constitution - one that would complicate the democratic removal of any incumbent!
Adding to his authoritarian credentials, Erdogan ten days ago dismissed his respected central bank governor; predictably, the Turkish lira collapsed.
For NATO and the U.S., the real security shock was Erdogan’s decision to purchase the sophisticated Russian S-400 air defense system instead of the U.S. Patriot.
And yet? Realizing his international isolation, and with no President Trump to offer a warm shoulder, Erdogan over the last several weeks has begun waving diplomatic olive branches.
These include, most significantly, the first outreach in eight years to Egypt (“an absolutely incredible turn-around for Erdogan,” as one analyst wrote); a video-chat with French President Emmanuel Macron (whom Erdogan last fall said “needed a mental health check-up”); an overture to the UAE and the Saudis; and the floating of an option for defusing the dispute with the U.S. and NATO over the S-400.
This likely won’t be enough to satisfy a new U.S. president committed to a foreign policy based on democratic norms and human rights. But even here, Erdogan over the last weeks has waved yet another olive-branch by pledging a “human rights action plan,” to improve freedom of expression.
And it’s always useful as well to remind of Turkey’s strategic importance: this land has been the center of geostrategic struggles for millennia; indeed, countering Soviet and Russian dreams of control over the critical Bosporus and Dardanelles was a principal justification for Turkey’s admission to NATO in 1952.
Turkey has also been a long-term contributor to the NATO effort in Afghanistan; and late in 2020, Erdogan submitted a motion to the Turkish legislature to extend the country’s troop commitment.
National elections in Turkey are now scheduled for 2023, perhaps sooner if a snap election is called. With a stable of respected politicians lurking in political opposition and polls turning against Erdogan and his AK Party, one senses that senior national security leaders in both the EU and U.S. are beginning to conclude that ‘Erdogan is not forever.”
As one professor in a Turkish university recently stated, “We are witnessing the slow death of the Erdogan regime.”
President Biden has by now placed calls to nearly all major world leaders. But he has yet to dial Erdogan’s number in Ankara. Don’t expect that call - or anything approaching a U.S.-Turkey “reset” - any time soon.
In the end, however, given the great power game in which the U.S. is now embroiled, one hopes that Biden’s national security team recognizes that Turkey is far too important strategically to be “canceled.”
A member of the House International Affairs Committee cautioned last month that in our cold-shouldering of Erdogan, we must be careful not to drive Turkey more deeply into Russia’s embrace. That shouldn’t be a difficult diplomatic course for President Biden and his veteran team to navigate.
And Erdogan’s political future? Don’t count him out. Whether through olive branches or compromised democracy, his political road is not likely to end in 2023!
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ABOUT LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN
LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.
He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.
Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.