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Like Obama, Trump finds Turkey’s Erdogan is trouble

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“The bottom line is that we find ourselves in frequent agreement upon a wide range of issues.” That was the president talking about Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist strongman. President Obama, that is.

With the House voting Wednesday to condemn President Trump over Turkey’s slaughtering of the Kurds in northern Syria, it is easy to forget that Trump is not the first American president to be played by Ankara. In Washington’s quixotic quest for Middle East peace, the courtship of Erdogan — the delusion that the “Turkish model” is proof that sharia and Western liberalism can seamlessly blend — is a bipartisan affair.

I traced the history in “Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy” (2012). Coming to prominence as Istanbul’s mayor in the mid-1990s, Erdogan proclaimed himself the “servant of sharia,” preferring to be thought of as the city’s “imam.” He was convicted of sedition against the secular Kemalist order in 1998, after a revolt led by the anti-Western, anti-Semitic, sharia-supremacist party that morphed into the AKP that he leads today. 

Erdogan was steeped in Muslim Brotherhood ideology. Like community organizers of the left, the Brothers pursue upheaval under the cloak of “social justice” (the AKP is the “Justice and Development” party). When Islamist opposition fractured in 2002, the AKP captured parliament despite winning just a third of the vote, and Erdogan was promptly elevated to prime minister. 

Anxious to cultivate Muslim allies post-9/11, President Bush’s administration slobbered over Turkey’s new leader. Here, we were told, was a true “moderate” blazing the trail of “Islamic democracy.” Exactly backwards. Turkey already was a democracy when Erdogan and the Islamists came along. Their goal was to reverse Ataturk’s post-Ottoman turn to the West.

The cagey premier put it this way: “Democracy is just the train we board to reach our destination.” Far from demonstrating that Bush’s Islamic democracy project could work, Erdogan was proof that, given the opportunity in a Muslim majority country, sharia supremacists would coopt the democratic election process, gradually installing Islamic law, with all the suffocation of liberty that entails. 

As the Bush administration gushed over him, Western leaders suggested that Turkey could be fully integrated into Europe. Of course, Erdogan despises Europe. Ever the opportunist, though, he knew the integration his opposition craved could not be achieved absent conformance to core Western principles: religious liberty and civilian control of the military. Ironically, resistance to these principles was key to Turkey’s westward orientation — without it, the Kemalist establishment could not suppress sharia supremacism. By ostensibly supporting integration, Erdogan enlisted the West’s help in dismantling the bulwark against Islamism.

As Erdogan aided and abetted Hamas and Hezbollah, all the while conducting low-thrum hostilities against Israel, President Obama drew him close — very publicly elevating the would-be caliph as his ally and adviser. The American president backed Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt, to disastrous effect — wholly predictable to those with eyes to see, but not, alas, to Western elites insistent that the “Arab Spring” augured a democratic flourishing rather than the rise of supremacist Islam.

After the debacles in Cairo, where the Brothers were quickly ousted, and Libya, where Obama also backed Islamists against an unsavory American counterterrorism ally (as Moammar Gadhafi was regarded at the time), Obama prudently swore off intervention in Syria. Nevertheless, he remained mired in Washington’s policy confusion. 

First, he embraced Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as a democratic reformer. Then, siding with the Brotherhood, he decided Assad was an obstacle to democratization and a confederate in Iran’s Shiite terrorism. Finally, seduced by the allure of a historic Iran nuclear deal, he retreated from his “red line” against Tehran’s Syrian accomplice and pivoted to fighting ISIS — the latest iteration of Sunni jihadism for which Obama’s withdrawal of American troops in Iraq was being blamed, as if jihadism were spawned by “vacuums” and not indigenous Islamic fundamentalism.

Time after time, Obama promised there would be no American “boots on the ground” in Syria. We would find proxies. This brought him into conflict with his friend Erdogan. 

Unlike the Americans, Turkey’s premier deftly played rivals against each other — helping Iran circumvent sanctions while helping the Sunni jihadists wage war against Syria; drawing closer to the Kremlin while alternatively posing as a NATO ally and NATO malcontent. 

The Erdogan-Obama bromance was strained by the Kurds. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) led a terrorist insurrection seeking Kurdish autonomy. Across the border in Syria, a branch of the PKK became America’s most capable proxies. Not to worry, Obama assured Erdogan: The U.S. backing of the Kurds would be limited, and there would be no permanent Kurdish zone on Turkey’s border.

As night follows day, there soon were a de facto Kurdish zone on Turkey’s border, American boots on the ground, and an escalating American presence. When Obama left office, a reckoning was inevitable. So now it’s Trump’s turn to find that indulging Erdogan leads to trouble in the Middle East. 

The president campaigned on the contradictory agenda of pulling American forces out and crushing ISIS. Once elected, he ratcheted up the mission to “defeat” ISIS. The success he often touts in this regard is highly qualified: The territorial caliphate has been eradicated, and that’s a boon; but ISIS is not defeated, and it has always been more effective as an underground jihadist organization than a sovereign trying to govern territory. 

Meanwhile, al Qaeda has been left virtually untouched. Trump ditched the Kurds at Erdogan’s insistence and with assurances about a limited clearing operation. Now, he is being blamed for a bloodbath. Our troops have not been removed; they were merely redeployed out of harm’s way, making it appear that Erdogan is calling the shots. Ankara gravitates toward Moscow, while we ponder the future of NATO and the safety of our forces and nukes at Incirlik air base.

American administrations change, but two things persist: The Islamic democracy delusion and Erdogan as its foil.

Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at National Review Institute, a contributing editor at National Review, and a Fox News contributor. His latest book is “Ball of Collusion.” Follow him on Twitter @AndrewCMcCarthy.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Islam Kurdistan Workers' Party Kurds Muslim Brotherhood Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Turkey

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