Turkish PM Erdoğan’s rhetoric and reality

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt

Date posted: December 13, 2013


One of the main problems that Turkish and foreign interlocutors of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan complain of is that he employs fiery rhetoric, with a special emphasis on drama, to score points with his home base of political Islamists, a narrow minority within his popular ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

The Islamists perhaps represent 5 percent of the electorate, at most, in Turkey.

The pattern of Erdoğan’s harsh rhetoric and bashing others often raises the question of whether the bitter words he uses in fact translate into policy decisions and as such represent a significant shift in Turkish government policy on any given issue. If the gaffe that accompanies Erdoğan’s rhetoric involves a foreign policy matter, we see Turkish diplomats scrambling to soothe tension in a bid to assure Turkey’s partners that there has been no change in the actual thinking of the Turkish government. This damage-control policy always follows a familiar pattern: Erdoğan was simply playing to the gallery, and the blunder is attributed to a heated debate in national politics, or a simple and inadvertent digression from official talking points.

Erdoğan’s apologists also trot out another often-invoked argument: He was simply trying to distract Turks’ attention from a prevailing discussion on the national agenda that might harm him politically. In other words, he escalates rhetoric and abuses foreign policy issues to help him weather political crises back home. At face value, these lines of defense from Turkish diplomats seem convincing. When you really dig into the rhetoric, however, one might be surprised to find that there is actually clear thinking going on in Erdoğan’s mind and those of the people around him. That thinking makes its own imprint on foreign policy issues. Sometimes Erdoğan’s Islamist judgment and value system leave fingerprints in nuances of his rhetoric, and other times are crystal clear in the policy framework, depending on the issue.

To put it more concretely, perhaps Erdoğan really believes in the values espoused by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) more than those advocated by the European Union. But the fact is that there is no comparison with what the EU offers Turkey in terms of trade, investment and business, and he will not push for the Shanghai alternative anytime soon. But he will entertain the idea, as he recently did during a press briefing with Russian President Vladimir Putin where he raised the prospect of Turkish membership without anybody asking a question on the subject. We therefore will see nuances of his thinking taking a toll on Turkey’s choices — but not in a significant way, as long as the EU remains the single largest market for Turkish exports.

On the issues of Israel, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, we see Erdoğan’s rhetoric has in fact translated into policy decisions, reversing the traditional approach of avoiding deep involvement in the minefield of Middle Eastern politics. Erdoğan’s strong anti-Israel remarks eventually resulted in Turkey cutting ties off with the Jewish state. On Egypt, what seemed to be a reasonable decision to soften rhetoric and ease criticisms after Mohammed Morsi’s ouster by military coup was thwarted as Erdoğan repeatedly bashed on Egypt’s rulers. It seems very difficult for Erdoğan to revisit his policy on Syria after almost three years of conflict with no end in sight and in fact with significant threats to national security emerging, including extremist groups and Kurdish terrorists roaming freely along our borders in the South. On Palestine, Erdoğan’s cozying up with Hamas at the expense of Fatah and the Palestine Authority has deepened divisions within Palestine, making international reconciliation more difficult.

Perhaps Iran, surprisingly, is one of the few countries to avoid a drubbing from Erdoğan. Nobody knows exactly why Iran occupies a special place in the heart of the Turkish prime minister, and some speculate that he might feel sympathy for Iran because of his history with the National View, a political Islamist ideology that feels close affinity with the Iranian revolution of 1979. Considering that Iran has been fighting a dirty proxy war against Turkish interests in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa all along, one should naturally expect Erdoğan to come down very forcefully on the Iranian leadership. What we have seen so far from Erdoğan is only veiled criticism of Iranian policies, mostly in the context of Syria, while he has been going overboard in targeting the US, the EU, Russia, China and all the other major global powers in his remarks.

The rhetoric he employs on the domestic front is no exception to Erdoğan’s style. In a way, it is even more troubling because of the lack of real checks and balances in the Turkish political system. This problem is further aggravated by the absence of a strong challenge from the opposition parties. When he drops bombshells in national debates, like restoring capital punishment, banning abortion or punishing college kids who live in co-ed housing, is he trying to create a distraction from potentially harmful debate on issues that might dent his government’s popularity? Perhaps that is one of Erdoğan’s motivations. It’s certainly a good talking point for Erdoğan’s political consultants to raise when asked to justify the prime minister’s behavior.

But many in Turkey suspect that Erdoğan’s rhetoric goes beyond a simple diversionary tactic. Erdoğan gives a strong impression that he is personally inclined to believe in these issues and to deliberately raise them in national debates to see if there is fertile ground to push on further. Knowing that he constantly orders polls on pretty much on every single issue, he brings up these issues for discussion to widen his margin of support, even though none of the issues are listed in his party’s manifesto or mentioned in campaign pledges. Of course, sometimes he overlooks the facts that polls can change quickly and opinions are easily swayed. That happened on the Arab street, where Erdoğan’s popularity is taking a dive. That also was the case when he attempted to shut down the private prep schools. Opinion polls shifted significantly, turning against the government ban in a mere three weeks after a sustained campaign by prep school owners raised awareness in Turkish society on the harmful impacts of such a drastic ban.

If Erdoğan thinks that this pattern of harsh rhetoric is cost-free and that he can get away with it as long as he maintains his popularity on the Turkish street, he is probably making a strategic mistake that may not be easy to recover from. The prevailing rhetoric from Erdoğan will predispose Turkey’s allies and partners to not cooperate effectively with Turkey. They are facing domestic pressures of their own, whether from the media or special interest and advocacy groups. Erdoğan’s Kosovo remarks are a prime example of how rhetoric came very close to blowing Turkey’s chances to promote its Balkan policy in partnership with Serbia, a key country in Balkans. Once again, Erdoğan’s Zionism blunder in his Vienna speech almost sabotaged secret negotiations Barack Obama had been pursuing with the Israelis to help secure an apology from Benjamin Netanyahu over the 2010 flotilla raid that killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American.

Therefore, marching only to the drum of his Islamist electorate — some 5 percent — put Erdoğan’s government on the wrong track. It will also do a great disservice to this nation, as Turkey’s long-term strategic investments are put at risk by the government’s rhetoric. On the domestic front, Erdoğan’s destructive rhetoric is marginalizing and stigmatizing vulnerable groups, be it liberals, Alevis or moderate conservative groups, deepening social problems in Turkey. The resulting polarization exposes the weak spots of the country’s national security to provocation and agitation by Turkey’s enemies.

On that note, I think, Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen has spoken time and again of the dangers of words, constantly urging Turkey’s leaders to be extra vigilant on how they communicate their messages to the audience. For instance, without making an explicit reference to the Turkish prime minister, Gülen criticized Erdoğan for using the expression “marauders” to describe protesters during the May-June Gezi Park demonstrations. He urged people not to use that derogatory term, which was brought onto the agenda when Erdoğan tried to delegitimize the rallies by saying that “three or five marauders” (“çapulcu” in Turkish) were behind the Gezi protests. Yet Erdoğan continued to use the term in his public speeches.

In a June interview with Rudaw, an online newspaper in northern Iraq’s Arbil, Gülen formulated his vision on how rhetoric can be very harmful: “… We must make sure that our words and acts do not offend anyone and we must act with patience and in a way that embraces everyone. Everyone must act with caution and prudence and be on alert against provocations. Problems cannot be solved with slogans or ravings. Issues should be handled with reason, perspicacity and clemency, not with rage or violent attacks.” That perhaps gives Turkey observers yet another perspective on the problem Erdoğan’s government has with the Hizmet (Gülen) movement.

All in all, rhetoric is never without cost. It has external and domestic ramifications. Sometime the blame can be put on Erdoğan’s speechwriters, some of whom are Islamists and have a different worldview than Turkish society at large. Yet other times, Erdoğan’s emotional tendency to speak off the cuff is the cause. In any case, the buck stops with the prime minister himself, as he has the responsibility as the head of government. It is unfortunate, however, that the bill for Erdoğan’s rhetoric problem must be paid by everybody in Turkey.

Source: Today's Zaman , December 13, 2013

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