Turkey Ponders New Directions After July Coup, Should The U.S. Be Concerned?

The military coup and the attempt to seize power in Turkey
The military coup and the attempt to seize power in Turkey

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Given campaign rhetoric about NATO's being obsolete and the inability of Muslims to govern free of religious dogma, the significance of last month's failed coup in Turkey is being overlooked at a time when it ought to be front and center, particularly as Americans contemplate their own role in an increasingly unstable Middle East.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan argue the United States had a hand in this bungled coup. Others claim the founder of the Gülen movement, a self-exiled Turkish cleric named Fethullah Gülen -- who ironically resides in Pennsylvania -- was behind it all. To confound matters, Gülen is (some claim) involved with a string of charter schools, including in Houston and Waco, Texas that encourage the teaching of science and math rather than religious ideology. The conflicting claims and charges about all this have left security analysts scratching their heads.

To those who claim the United States had a hand in the coup, the question is this: What possible motive could the United States have for manipulating the coup? The Turkish situation is far different from, say, what took place in Iran in 1953 when both the CIA and Britain's famed MI6 orchestrated the coup that ousted Mohammad Mossadegh. At the time Iran was seen as hostile to the United States and a threat to our strategic interests in the region.

It's unlikely Turkey will follow the Iranian model and spark an Islamic revolution such as that of 1979. Erdogan is no Khomeini. And Turkey doesn't fit the profile.

Whatever else, Turkey on paper remains an ally of the United States, despite its no longer necessarily sharing Washington's particular interests and vision. And it's still a NATO member. So the argument the United States would seek to destabilize a country pivotal to American interests including broad regional defense must falter on the altar of stone-cold reason.

And while it offers some plausibility, the argument about Gülen's backing the coup lacks evidence. Even so, the Turkish government has requested the United States extradite him to Ankara to face justice -- a contentious political issue in already tense U.S.-Turkish relations.

Despite its failure, the coup could have major ramifications. The concern among Western capitals is: What sort of foreign policy will Erdogan pursue now that he appears to wield even more power after his crackdown on remaining opposition, including the arrests of some 16,000 people? Washington has already expressed displeasure with Erdogan's authoritarian tendencies. To the chagrin of the United States, Turkey's increasingly combative nature could hinder regional efforts to crush ISIS.

The failed coup also paves the way for closer ties between Moscow and Ankara. This comes as analysts gauge vulnerabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal at Incirlik air base in Turkey.

In a world where tests of secular Muslim leadership too often seem to fail, what's unfolding in Turkey is discouraging. Chaos and lack of trust are becoming the order of the day. This could extend to massive surveillance programs under the dubious pretext of preventing further coup attempts. That means democracy is faltering, freedom of the press will cease to exist and Turkey, the one secular Muslim power we admired from afar, could become another example of short-circuited governance. This could confirm my theory that there will never be real democracy in the Muslim world -- and that the West needs to stop fantasizing about this unrealistic idea. And that means no more futile nation-building exercises in the Middle East.

Where does Turkey go from here? Who knows? What's certain, however, is that the Turkish government has no desire to take steps that bolster democratic principles. This means the United States needs to evaluate this relationship and decide how to proceed, because Turkey no longer conforms to what's expected of a U.S. ally. Turkey is convinced it no longer needs to pursue a foreign policy that meets Washington's expectations. Instead, it is pursuing a path that will allow it to play a more influential role in the region, one playing on Muslim passions in more extreme parts, even as it seeks to entice Russia into its toxic orbit.