Contrecoup in Turkey

by Michael Dorf

The failed coup d'etat in Turkey is not a metaphor, nor is it chiefly an object lesson for the rest of the world. It is chiefly a very serious threat to democracy and order in Turkey. In thinking about the consequences of the coup attempt and its aftermath, my first concern is for the safety and wellbeing of the people of Turkey.

There is also reason to worry about the implications for the rest of the world. The internecine struggle for control of the military comes at a time when Turkey faces extraordinary military and humanitarian crises due to the civil war in neighboring Syria and amidst renewed hostilities between the Turkish military and the PKK. The danger of spillover from this NATO ally is serious.

An under-appreciated aspect of the contercoup in Turkey is its potential impact on civil liberties. Long before the failed coup, the Erdogan government showed that while it was elected, it was hardly supportive of liberal democracy. There is thus a very serious risk that Erdogan will take the opportunity of the legitimate concern about the military challenge to civilian rule to crack down still further on the peaceful opposition--even if there is no evidence that many of the people who will now be rounded up supported the coup. From all appearances, the democratic opposition to Erdogan opposed the coup. But elected authoritarians are as likely as unelected authoritarians to settle scores and strengthen their hand when the opportunity presents itself.

Put differently, although the failed coup in Turkey is in some obvious sense the opposite of the successful 2013 coup in Egypt, going forward they may have similar consequences. In both cases, members of the military sought to displace an elected Islamist government. The Egyptian coup succeeded where the Turkish coup failed because the Morsi government was more unpopular than the Erdogan government and also because el-Sisi consolidated support of the military before acting, whereas the coup plotters in Turkey did not. Yet these opposite outcomes could lead to mirroring results. In both Egypt and Turkey, crackdowns on all dissent will be justified as necessary to maintain stability and order.

These facts are chiefly a matter of grave concern for the people of Turkey and Egypt, but they also pose foreign policy challenges for the United States. Both countries have been key to U.S. foreign policy. The instability in Turkey interrupted U.S. anti-ISIS airstrikes from Turkey, but there are deeper challenges. Egypt and especially Turkey have been more reliable allies than U.S. frenemy Pakistan, but in each case there is also friction due to their records on human rights.

The Erdogan government's request that the U.S. arrest and hand over Fethullah Gulen is the immediate face of the problem. While it may be possible for the U.S. to look the other way when our ostensible allies violate the values we hold in their own countries, it is quite another thing for the U.S. to extradite a person who has been living here legally. Erdogan put his request in language that will heighten the friction, sending what he called "a message for Pennsylvania." Perhaps Erdogan has credible evidence that Gulen organized the coup, but if not, we may find U.S.-Turkish relations strained sooner rather than later.

Even if the handling of Gulen goes smoothly, it should be evident that the relationship with Turkey requires very careful management. Which brings me, finally, to the eight-hundred pound orangutan in the room: the man who could be in charge of that and other U.S. foreign relationships come January.

In his rambling speech supposedly introducing Mike Pence as his running mate, Donald Trump said the following about the coup in Turkey: "It looks like they’re resolving the difficulty. I wish them well. There was a lot of anguish last night but hopefully it’ll all work out." On the plus side, nothing in those sentences is racist, otherwise offensive, or patently untrue. However, there is also nothing in any of those statements that suggests that Trump has the slightest idea of the actors or stakes in Turkey and the region. Indeed, I would be surprised if Trump could locate Turkey on a map.