Perle Prefers Military Intervention to Islamic Party Election Sweep in Turkey

While neo-conservatives continue to insist that they believe in democratization throughout the Islamic world (most recently at their “Democracy & Security” conference in Prague where President Bush himself gave a rousing speech on the issue), their sincerity on the question, particularly when it comes to the possible election of Islamist parties, remains very much in question, and not just with respect to the Palestinian Hamas.

Two weeks after participating in the Prague conference, former Defense Policy Board (DPB) chairman Richard Perle suggested that intervention by the Turkish military against the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) should not be cause for concern by Washington or the European Union (EU).

Speaking before a small lunch gathering at the Nixon Center here in Washington Monday, the influential American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellow was careful not to call for a coup d’etat against the AKP government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan if it should sweep next month’s election and revive its aborted effort to have Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul or some other religious AKP official, elected president. Indeed, at one point, he said it would not be a “good thing” if the military intervenes in domestic politics and that, in any event, he would not support an effort by the Turkish army to “destroy” the AKP.

At the same time, however, he repeatedly stressed that, when it comes to basic principles of democratic governance, most notably the subordination of the armed forces to the duly elected civilian authorities, Turkey should not be expected to conform to western norms. In fact, he described the European Union’s (EU) demands for full civilian control over the military as a condition for Turkey’s accession to EU membership as “unhelpful,” given the “extraordinary, unique relationship between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish Republic.”

In an apparent break with the purported neo-conservative view that democratic forms of government are a universal aspiration and not culturally determined, Perle accused the EU of “tinkering with internal Turkish institutions that work fine in a Turkish context and not in a European (context).” And he went on to endorse the military’s thinly veiled warnings in late April that it would “take sides” (widely interpreted, by, among others, the right-wing U.S. press, as mounting a coup d’etat) if Erdogan persisted in his choice for Turkey’s next president. “The effort by the Turkish Armed Forces to influence this situation,” Perle said, “is not extraordinary. The model we’re familiar with simply doesn’t apply in the Turkish case,” he said, adding somewhat later in the Q & A, “…Every country is different, and the Turkish tradition is different from American traditions.”

(Paul Wolfowitz, that most Wilsonian and least Likudnik of neo-conservatives, appeared to share that view back in 2003 when he complained about the Turkish military’s failure to exert more pressure on parliament to approve the deployment of U.S. troops on Turkish soil for the purpose of invading Iraq. “I think for whatever reason they did not play the strong leadership role on the issue that we would have expected,” he told CNN Turk. And when asked whether that would have been appropriate role for the military in a democratic system, he replied: “I think it’s perfectly appropriate, especially in your system to say it was in Turkey’s interest to support the United States in that effort …My impression is they didn’t say it with the kind of strength that would have made a difference.”)

The fact is, the neo-conservatives appear divided on the AKP, as they have been on a number of other issues, including, for example, whether to support Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza, how heavy a military “footprint” the U.S. should have imposed on Iraq after the invasion, or even, for that matter, on the pace or desirability of democratic “transformation” in the Arab world.

Thus, the Wall Street Journal’s heavily neo-con editorial board strongly denounced the Turkish military’s threat in a May 2 editorial that praised the AKP government having “done more to entrench democracy and free markets than have most previous governments,” asserting, in bold print, “Islamists are more democratic than the secularists.”

“…The immediate need for anyone concerned about Turkey’s future must be to get politics played by the rules and by the civilians. The military made important contributions to Westernizing the country, but its current behavior is a danger to Turkish progress.”

Six days later, however, the Journal ran an op-ed by Melik Kaylan, “an Istanbul-born writer living in New York,” that anticipated some of Perle’s arguments at the Nixon Center and concluded:

“A military coup is always a disastrous option, but without past coups would there even be a Turkey today? One need only look at Iraq, a democracy without an effective army, or indeed Lebanon, to imagine the possibilities.

“Turkey’s democratic history shows that politicians can too easily lead the country, whether by drift design to such dangerous political extremes as to threaten national security.”

Similarly, the National Review ran an editorial, “Warm Turkey,” on May 11, in which it defended the AKP, insisting that it is “not an Islamist party on the model of Hamas. It is a socially conservative Muslim party not unlike the German Christian Democrats. …A fervent secularist would naturally not vote for the AKP, but he or she has no reasonable grounds for thinking that it wants to impose a theocracy,” it went on, attacking the Kemalist secularism as “extreme.”

“This extreme secularism has always needed naked force for its survival, hence the Turkish army’s role as the guardian of the secular constitution. But this is fast becoming an impossible policy in modern Turkey. Both the evolution of democracy and the spread of Islamic piety make it essential for Turkey to develop a more tolerant secularism that will permit the public expression of religious commitment.”

This comment, however, infuriated Barbara Lerner, a frequent contributor to National Review Online, who produced a lengthy rebuttal, entitled “America’s Neo-Turcophiles,” which also anticipated some of Perle’s arguments, on May 21. Scorning the comparison with German Christian Democracy, Lerner said it rested on a “very dangerous and fundamental” illusion; namely that “Islam is, ever was, or ever can be anything like Christianity, when it comes to a role in government. …Islam is both a religious and a complete all-encompassing system of theocratic government, here on this earth. Arguing that it can play a limited role in government is like arguing that one can be a little pregnant.” Lerner went on to compare the military role in checking “democratic excesses” in Turkey to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is hardly surprising in light of the differing origins of America’s democracy and Turkey’s. Many of our founding fathers were lawyers; most of Turkey’s were professional military officers, like Ataturk,” she argued, applying a form of logic that would likely prove most appealing to theocrats in Iran.

Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard ran an article May 1 by Stephen Schwartz, which both echoed the NRO’s editorial in calling a more relaxed secularism in Turkey but also suggested that the military really should be considered the lesser of two evils. “[T]he AK party is clearly an Islamist, Sunni-preferential movement with questionable links in the global underworld of Muslim extremism,” according to Schwartz. “An Islamist Turkey is doubtless a worse choice than a militarist Turkey from the European and global perspective…”

In yet another NRO op-ed, Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), took a rather ambiguous position but implicitly criticized positions taken by the Journal’s and the National Review’s editorial boards. “Surprisingly – or perhaps not – much elite European and American opinion has sided with the Islamists and against the secularists,” he wrote. “The Economist magazine, for example, recently ran an editorial saying that ‘if Turks have to choose, democracy is more important than secularism.’

“A thought experiment: if a majority of Americans voted for Christian fundamentalist politicians determined to dismantle the wall between church and state, would the Economist be equally supportive of their democratic mandate? If not, why the very different standard when the religion intruding into the political sphere is Islam?” he went on, citing the AKP’s alleged “increasingly friendly relationships with such groups as Hamas and its growing ties with Iran and Syria” as among other reasons to be concerned about the party.

Finally, Daniel Pipes, who has long warned against elections in Arab countries, in particular, precisely because they would bring anti-Zionist, Islamist parties to power, wrote in a May 15 op-ed in the ‘New York Sun’ that he was personally unclear about the AKP’s ultimate direction, but that, in any event, Washington should “side with its natural allies, the secularists.” Like May, he accused the AKP of trying “to apply the Islamic law by criminalizing adultery and creating alcohol-free zones, not to speak of its privileging Islamic courts over secular courts, its reliance on dirty money, and its bias against religious minorities as well as the persecution of political opponents.”

Despite Perle’s appearance at Prague and his rhetorical embrace of Bush’s democracy agenda, he and other neo-conservative hard-liners have been far less enthusiastic about the idea of its implementation if it is likely to bring to power anti-Israeli and/or Islamist parties, a phenomenon I noted in an article I originally published in Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper three years ago. Indeed, in his 2003 book, ‘An End to Evil’ co-authored with his fellow-AEI fellow and former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, Perle implicitly endorsed the Algerian military’s cancellation of the 1991 elections when it became clear after the first round of voting that the Islamist FIS party was about to sweep the board. “In the Middle East, democratization does not mean calling immediate elections and then living with whatever happens next,” he wrote. “That was tried in Algeria in 1995 [sic], and it would have brought the Islamic extremists to power as the only available alternative to the corrupt status quo.”

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Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.