In Turkey, a requiem for George W. Bush’s democracy agenda

In late 2003, President George W. Bush strutted to a podium to assert that spreading democracy throughout the Middle East “must be a focus of American policy for decades to come.” This “global democratic revolution,” as he called it, was necessary “because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.” 

There are people in Washington who still believe that, who contend even today that democracy must be exported purely as a matter of idealistic mission. But back in the real world, Bush’s “democratic revolution,” which he tried to expedite through military force, has been a calamity. Despite trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, the Middle East is arguably less democratic today than it was 15 years ago.

Now even Turkey is feeling the pain.

The name Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is boldfaced in most world history books. In 1924, Ataturk abolished the last Islamic caliphate, then governed out of Turkey, and effectively ended the Ottoman Empire. He set about secularizing his formerly Islamist country with a suite of reforms, including the closure of Islamic courts and a transition to a Latin alphabet. The result was to transform Turkey into a rare Middle Eastern democracy, one that’s been battered by coups and violence, but has endured into modern times.

It is now under threat. Last week, a purported military uprising attempted to overthrow Turkey’s current president Recep Erdogan. The putsch failed and there’s since been plenty of founded speculation that it was staged by Erdogan himself as a pretext to claim the authoritarian powers he’s long desired. Whatever the case, Erdogan declared a state of emergency and Turkey right now is in the midst of a sinister government crackdown. Fifteen thousand have been detained, dozens of media outlets have been silenced, everyone from soldiers to teachers have been purged from public life, Amnesty International is warning of torture and rape in Turkish prisons—with no end in sight to any of it.

Turkey might be a secular country, but Erdogan isn’t a secular dictator in the mold of Bashar al-Assad or even Saddam Hussein. He ran for mayor of Istanbul on an Islamist ticket and has flirted with Islamists throughout his tenure in national government. In neighboring Syria, he’s tried to leverage the Islamic State and al-Qaeda against his sworn foe Assad. A friend emails from Turkey to say that since his crackdown, the streets have been full of crowds chanting “Allahu Akbar!”

Turkey is not going to transform overnight into Saudi Arabia. But right now, one of the most durable democracies in the Middle East is moving in a very despotic and chilling direction.

This is where the “global democratic revolution” has gotten us.

Of course, George W. Bush isn’t to blame for the pall that’s fallen over Istanbul. He maintained good relations with Turkey and even called for it to be admitted into the European Union. But there was always a bit of a domino theory behind Bush’s plan for democratization: knock down a dictatorship in one country and others will follow, spurred by locals pining for liberty. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world,” he said.

We tried that, and today even Turkey is slouching towards authoritarianism. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is as repressive as ever. Iran is making baby steps towards liberalization, but is still governed by its imperious mullahs. Libya is awash in anarchy. Syria is a devil’s triangle of the Assad regime, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. Egypt, having declared its independence, has since oscillated back to military dictatorship. The Arab Spring has given way to the frigidity of Jihadist Winter. ISIS is the most powerful terrorist gang the world has ever known.

Even in nations where something resembling a representative government exists, Bush’s claim that democracy would be a predicate for stability hasn’t proven true. Tunisia, for example, has been touted as the lone success story of the Arab Spring, yet it’s also the number-one source of foreign recruits for the Islamic State. Iraq, too, has a parliament, but it’s on the brink of collapse and ISIS still controls a vast swath of its territory.

Democracy is a fine system of government, but it is also—as Aristotle understood—only one system of government. Its openness makes it easy for malefactors—like Islamists—to infiltrate. And it’s very difficult to transplant into parts of the world where it has no precedent. It took the West centuries of meandering political thought to finally achieve the American system. We’ve spent trillions on the fantasy that in the Middle East it can be done in a couple years.

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