It’s Not Us—It’s Him

Our problems with Turkey aren’t due to Trump, or Obama, or any other President. Put the blame where it belongs: with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his choices.

Washington is a partisan and notoriously navel-gazing place. Diplomats, academics, and intellectuals often blame foreign policy failures on Presidents of the opposite party rather than on deliberate decisions by American adversaries. As hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled Turkish forces moving into Syria, and Trump’s domestic critics moved swiftly to blame him for the development, the President and some of his most vocal supporters blamed the Obama Administration’s naivety for laying the groundwork for the inevitable Turkish reaction. “Trump inherited from Obama a dysfunctional strategy for countering ISIS [the Islamic State],” Hudson Institute scholar Michael Doran wrote in the New York Post. “Trump is not betraying the YPG [the main Syrian Kurdish militia]. He is seeking to restore balance to American foreign policy.”

The problem with Turkey, however, is neither Trump nor Obama. Rather, it is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Love him or hate him, he is the most consequential Turkish leader since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and he has the second-longest tenure after Atatürk’s successor, İsmet İnönü. Erdoğan shook electoral politics in November 2002, when his party not only entered parliament but, through an electoral fluke, came to dominate it.

Over the ensuing 16 years, Erdoğan has used his position to remake Turkey fundamentally. As he consolidated power, he became more forthright about his goals. “We want to raise a religious generation,” he told parliament in February 2012. U.S. officials continue to comfort themselves in the belief that Turkey will revert to its previous character after Erdoğan dies or is defeated. This is a dangerous self-delusion. Consider education: More than 32 million Turks have received their education under Erdoğan’s leadership. During this period, the Turkish curriculum and broader education system have changed to promote Erdoğan’s religious and foreign policy agendas. In 2005, Erdoğan changed Turkey’s EU negotiating position to withdraw a commitment to secularism in education. He privileged graduates of Imam Hatip schools—Turkey’s system of madrasas—as they sought to enter the state bureaucracy. Within ordinary schools, he forced Sunni theological studies upon non-Sunnis.

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