Austin Bay

In a democracy, when senior military officers can no longer support the policies of the elected civilian government they serve, they are supposed to resign their posts and retire -- not launch a coup.

 

This is one way to initially frame the complex circumstances surrounding last week's mass resignation by the most senior armed forces commanders in Turkey, the culturally Islamic nation bridging Europe and Asia and possessing NATO's second-largest military establishment.

It is a frame, however, with both encouragingly optimistic and oppressively pessimistic interpretations.

Let's start with the optimism. The Turkish military sees itself as the defender of Turkey's secular democracy. Ironically, in the process of defending democracy, on four occasions since 1960 the Turkish military has toppled an elected government, or threatened the government and precipitated its collapse. Coup leaders claimed they were protecting Turkey's political secularism and thereby ultimately defending democracy from the threat posed by Muslim recidivists and political extremists of the far left and right.

In the historical lens, the military insists it is forwarding the political and social modernization process begun by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Ataturk was a visionary, a dedicated secularist modernizer who pursued a socially transformational agenda. For example, between 1922 and his death in 1938, he emancipated Turkish women and liberalized and expanded public education.

As a war-winning general, Ataturk used the military as the primary (though not sole) instrument in his modernization process. The army had prestige, organization and educated officers -- all valuable assets in a land devastated by its loss World War I and the subsequent carnage of its victory in the ugly little conflict known as the Greco-Turkish War. When Ataturk died, however, he left Turkey with a democratic structure, not a democracy.

The optimists now argue that the modernization process Ataturk initiated has succeeded. Twenty-first century Turkey now possesses a robust and resilient democracy supported by a free press, eclectic civil society and a middle class interested in expanding economic opportunities. It no longer needs military intervention in domestic politics.

Moreover, the 1980 coup tarnished Turkey's armed forces when it imposed a constitution that circumscribed democratic rights and enshrined military privileges -- a praetorian constitution is a phrase used by its many critics. Protection of democracy decayed to coups by a praetorian guard cadre intent on determining political outcomes. Democratic Turks don't want that.


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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