Opinion: Why Turkey's Recip Erdogan is the man


LONDON —  Here's a proposition: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the outstanding democratically elected national leader in the world today.

You beg to differ?

Really? Who tops him?

President Obama? You must be joking. Elected on hope, with majorities in both houses of congress, and by the end of his first year what has he got to show for it? A health bill? Guantanamo still got non-paying guests? Goldman Sachs still unregulated and unmonitored? No, I can't see it.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown? He'll be gone in 90 days.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy? We're still waiting for all his global initiatives on financial regulation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is doing a serious job, but let's face it, she only has domestic responsibilities. Germany has been excused by the rest of us from taking part in international affairs for the next thousand years — although Greece wishes that included EU central bank affairs as well.

Brazil's President Lula da Silva is close — but you can't win my award when your most famous city, Rio, has vast areas outside the rule of law. (Something the International Olympic committee overlooked in awarding the 2016 games to Rio — they will live to regret it when the bill for armed security services comes in.)

No. The man who is without doubt the cleverest, roughest, toughest, most humane political leader in the world today is Erdogan. The ongoing confrontation with some senior figures in the Turkish military over an alleged coup plot is only the latest proof of the man's mastery.

Here's the back story, in case you missed it:

Back in 2003, when Erdogan's Islamic AK Party (AK stands for Justice and Development) was fresh in office, a group of senior officers reportedly plotted a coup, code named "Ergenekon." The details that have emerged are out of cheap spy fiction: provoking a war with Turkey's old enemy Greece and then declaring a state of emergency and removing Erdogan.

The plot details were crazy but the idea that the military would intervene in politics was not. Since the founding of the modern Turkish state in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk the military has been the guarantor of a secular Turkey. Four times in the last half century the army has staged coups d'etat to remove governments that were weak or veering too far to the left.

In recent weeks 200 people have been detained and questioned about their roles in "Ergenekon." These included not just senior army officers but establishment figures at leading newspapers and the judiciary.

Right about now you should be asking yourself, why did it take so long? After all, the coup was allegedly plotted more than seven years ago.

That is the right question and it is the reason Erdogan wins my award. The prime minister waited. First he had to consolidate power. He did this by respecting public opinion from the beginning of his time in government. Back in early 2003, the U.S. leaned heavily on Turkey to be allowed to launch part of its attack on Iraq through Turkey. But Turkish public opinion was very much against the war. So, much to president George W. Bush's chagrin, Erdogan's government allowed a free vote in Turkey's parliament on America's request knowing it would be denied. Standing up to U.S. pressure was a smart political move.

Then Erdogan delivered economic growth, an even smarter move. He cooled fears that he had a secret Islamist agenda for Turkey. In order to make Turkish membership of the EU a possibility he persuaded parliament to pass laws that curbed the military's power to intervene.

He has done more for Turkey's Kurdish minority than any leader in the nation's history and has reached out to Armenia in an effort to begin reconciliation for the dark stain of the murder of a million and a half ethnic Armenians in the old Ottoman Empire back in 1915. In doing all of this, Erdogan made Turkey a respected player on the world stage. The Turkish people, as nationalist as the American people, like being respected.

So now, with his power consolidated, Erdogan has moved against his enemies. The result: not a peep from public opinion so far, except the most excitable ultra-nationalist voices in the right-wing press.

Of course, rather than celebrating these achievements, and endorsing a conservative Muslim politician who is democratic to his eyeballs and should be a counterweight to the madmen running around the Islamic world saying democracy is a Jewish-Crusader trap for Muslims, most of Washington's establishment looks on Erdogan with suspicion. If the Turkish prime minister was a Christian Democrat, the big thinkers and opinion formers inside the beltway would endorse his moves. But he's a Muslim, so from the right-wing think tanks position papers pour forth about the danger of Erdogan.

Then Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted a non-binding resolution to categorize the murder of the Armenians back in 1915 as "genocide." This has less to do with a profound interest in building up legal definitions for international human rights law than the fact that the committee's chairman, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), has a sizable number of Armenian voters.

In response, Erdogan recalled Turkey's ambassador from Washington for "consultations." Commentators in Istanbul point out this will force Erdogan to put his attempts at normalizing relations with Armenia on the back burner in the near future. That's too bad for geopolitical reasons. Turkey and Armenia border Iran. The U.S. needs all the allies it can get in the region. But how important is that in comparison to Howard Berman being re-elected? Nice one, Howard.

Anyway, none of this really makes much difference to Erdogan. Andrew Finkel, a long time resident of Istanbul and columnist for the Turkish newspaper Zaman, says, "Erdogan is of the most talented politicians of his generation and he has managed to outmaneuver the military taking the fight into their own camp." Finkel adds that Erdogan has one potential area of political vulnerability and it's the same one every other democratically elected politician faces today, "The economic performance of Turkey and the prospect that the electorate (particularly the unemployed) will not feel the benefits of a return to modest growth."

The coup story is important in Turkey, but keeping one's head economically above water is more important for most folks.

So, for being a far-sighted, clever leader of a country whose citizens' concerns are similar to those of Americans, i.e. economic security, international respect, my winner for the Oscar for Best Democratically Elected National Leader in the World goes to Recep Tayyip Erdogan.