President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey spent Friday reminding the world why he is Vladimir Putin’s preferred useful idiot. Continuing in that vein on Saturday, Erdogan tripled down on his imperial fanaticism.
Speaking at a party rally, Erdogan offered three repudiations of the democratic international order. First, he attacked France over its commitment to defend its democratic values and way of life. Second, Erdogan pledged to keep fueling the bloody war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Third, he promised new assaults on Greek sovereignty.
On the first count, Erdogan offered vicious insults to a nation in mourning. France is grappling with the brutal assassination of a teacher by a jihadist for showing his class Charlie Hebdo’s Prophet Muhammad cartoon. Defending the Fifth Republic’s secular constitutional foundation, President Emmanuel Macron has introduced reforms to obstruct Islamic extremists from enforcing intellectual and sexual segregation. Rightly also recognizing the societal challenges facing many young French Muslims, Macron’s actions are both necessary and overdue. There’s a basic truth at stake here: A democratic society must protect both the substance and the physical operation of its sacred constitutional values. That is what France is now doing.
Not in Erdogan’s eyes, however. Oh no, predictably offering no words of sympathy for the slain teacher, Erdogan instead argued that “Macron needs treatment on a mental level.” He continued, “The projection of caricatures insulting our Prophet onto the facades of buildings in France, the quasi-bulwark of liberty and secularism, is abject vulgarity. This is called not liberty, but blatant Islamophobia.” Then, in an apparent threat of Islamist violence against his nominal European allies, Erdogan warned that “with the front it has opened against Muslims, Europe is actually preparing its own end. If the European countries want to preserve their positions in the global system, which is being restructured politically and economically, they must at once tackle the affliction of Islamophobia in their systems. Otherwise, this affliction will bring down the entire Europe from France to Germany from the inside.”
Erdogan should be warier here. France would crush him in any war. Still, his furious rhetoric speaks to the nature of Erdogan’s leadership in 2020. Energized by the delusional belief that he is some kind of neo-Ottoman sultan destined to command the political future of Sunni Islam, Erdogan has abandoned any semblance of respect for Western democracy. Instead, he has sought to co-opt and direct the most exclusionary sentiments of Sunni Islam. The only Islamist elements that are too much for Erdogan are the most hard-line Salafi-Jihadists such as those of the Islamic State. And that’s only because Erdogan knows he can’t control them.
Next up, supporting the imperial subjugation of his enemies, Erdogan pledged continued support for Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Linking this endeavor to his broader Islamist narrative, Erdogan remarked, “Thanks be to Allah, [the Azerbaijanis] have succeeded to take those places back. Nothing can escape determination and conviction. When you are determined and trust in Allah, leave the rest to Allah.” We should read between the lines here. Motivated by a historical and ideological hatred as much as anything else, Erdogan has fueled and even encouraged Azerbaijan’s military action. Unmoved by the rising civilian suffering on both sides, Erdogan’s warmongering now pits him in rare disagreement with both Russia and the west.
Finally, Erdogan was back to his most obvious threat to NATO — that being his escalating confrontation of Greek sovereignty. Over the summer, Erdogan has deployed energy survey vessels alongside naval escorts into Greece’s exclusive economic zone. A clear breach of both international law and Turkey’s commitment to its Greek NATO ally, these deployments undermine the security and stability of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. It appeared for a short time about a month ago that Erdogan would accept German mediation on the issue and suspend future survey expeditions. No longer. Attacking what he described as Greece’s “spoiled attitudes,” the president warned that “until [the European Union and the U.S.] act in accordance with what is right and lawful, we are determined to put into action our own plans.”
Where does this leave us?
Well, with the increasing obvious but sad reality that Erdogan is no longer a partner to Europe’s or America’s democratic security. Instead, Erdogan requires confrontation. The United States should join with the European Union in preparing sanctions on the Turkish central bank. The Turkish lira is already at pathetic lows (in no insignificant part, thanks to Erdogan’s economic mismanagement). Let’s see whether the sultan feels so supreme when his economy implodes.