Erdogan's Opportunity After the Coup

Standing by their man.

Photographer: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It’s hard to feel great sympathy for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president who just survived a coup attempt. A decade ago, Erdogan seemed to have found the magic formula to combine Western liberal democracy with Islamic faith. But in recent years, he has grown increasingly authoritarian: jailing enemies, muzzling the media, renewing war against Kurdish nationalists, and vying to alter the constitution to stay in office indefinitely.

Nevertheless, a military coup is no way to put a country back on the path to political and personal freedom. And Turkey, a NATO member, has already had its share -- four coups, of the hard and soft varieties, since 1960.

Now that he has survived the coup and demonstrated his authority, Erdogan has an opportunity to reconsider his authoritarian path. He would do well to resist any impulse to seek vengeance against his political and military enemies. The coup attempt, after all, is only the most recent sign that many people in Turkey dislike Erdogan's undemocratic ways. His approval rating among Turks has been falling, voters have rejected his attempts to broaden the president’s powers, and, in elections last June, his AK Party failed to keep its outright majority in parliament. (In a snap election months later, the party restored its monopoly, after Erdogan raised the specter of Kurdish terrorism.)

Unfortunately, the president’s first reaction to the coup has been to arrest hundreds of officers, purge thousands from the military and remove from office thousands of judges, all while blaming the attempt on his former political ally Fethullah Gulen, a cleric now living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

Gulen denies it, the Turkish government has offered no evidence to support the claim, and Erdogan’s threats to end Turkey's alliance with the U.S. unless the cleric is extradited should be ignored in Washington.

President Barack Obama instead needs to make clear that, while the officers involved in the failed revolution should be punished, a widespread purge of the military and Erdogan's political enemies would be the greater threat to Turkey's ties with the U.S.

For the longer term, Erdogan should recall to mind what made him the most dominant figure in Turkish politics since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nation’s founder. Erdogan's successful efforts to end the chaos of the 1990s -- marked by the previous government's vicious war on Kurdish militants and renegade services taking the law into their own hands -- brought about the country’s economic miracle of the early 2000s.

As the economy has recently cooled, Erdogan’s worst instincts have come into play. He has restarted the conflict with the Kurdish minority, even bombing Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq that are allied with the U.S. He has imprisoned more journalists than any of the world's dictators, cracked down on Turks’ use of social media, and taken over media outlets that he considers hostile to his aims, including those connected to Gulen. He's also engaged in erratic behavior toward Israel and Russia.

To recognize the error of his recent ways, Erdogan need only consider how, on Friday and Saturday, the same social media outlets he has pilloried were vital to rallying the Turkish people in defense of their democracy. And he should appreciate how, in the hours after the coup began, his most senior generals maintained their loyalty to the government, and his Western allies swiftly denounced the rebellion.

Most important, he should realize that the greatest threat to his rule and his nation’s future is not Kurdish unrest or modernity, but Islamic extremism -- exemplified by Islamic State forces on his southern flank. Turkey's hosting of U.S. airpower at Incirlik air base has been vital to the fight against Islamic State. But it's essential that Erdogan's military stop attacking the very Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish militias that the U.S. is arming and training. These forces have proved themselves adept in fighting both Islamic State and the army of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The public support that helped Erdogan survive the coup attempt should restore his confidence in Turkish democracy. He would be smart to seize this chance to re-establish himself as a champion of political reform in the developing world, and focus on restoring his economy and mending his frayed ties with longtime allies. If Erdogan lets his impulse to punish all perceived enemies get in the way of his better nature, the opportunity will be wasted.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.