Foreign Policy Blogs

Military Coups as a Sign of Weakness: Cook on Turkey

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (r.) stands by a military officer in front of an image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - Photo Credit: Newscom

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (r.) stands by a military officer in front of an image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – Photo Credit: Newscom

Last month Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations published an excellent summary of the ongoing investigations in Turkey and how they continue to roil the politics of that country.  “The Weakening of Turkey’s Military” is available here. Those interested in the topic should also take a look at Soli Ozel’s blog at World Affairs; the post titled “The Unraveling” is provocative and insightful.  I am not going to repeat their analyses here but anyone interested in the important role of Turkey in the Middle East, Europe and the tension between Islamic and secular politics should make sure to read what Cook and Ozel are publishing and posting (as well as Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).

The basic thrust of Cook’s issue brief is that the Turkish military is not nearly as strong a force as is often assumed.   Toward the end of the brief Cook drops in a paragraph that has implications for how we should think about interventionist militaries in any country.  The heading of the paragraph is a counter-intuitive eye catcher: “The Inherent Weakness of Coups.”

Although the arrest of the forty-nine officers is big news, the fact remains that the popular perception of an all-powerful Turkish military is largely incorrect. The officers regard themselves as the keepers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s principles of secularism and republicanism. Yet, Kemalism–at least the officers’ interpretation of Ataturk’s ideas–demands a drab political conformity that never accommodated Kurds, pious Muslims, Armenians, the small Greek community, and, as Turkish society has become more modern and complex, those who want to live in a more democratic political system.  The fact that the officers have had to intervene four times in five decades demonstrates their inability to force the military’s political will on society. To be sure, the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980, and the “blank” or “post-modern” coup of 1997 reflect the awesome firepower at the General Staff’s disposal, but coercion is the least efficient means of political control. Indeed, in the aftermath of each intervention, the military sought to ensure that it would not have to intervene again by writing, rewriting, and amending Turkey’s constitutions to safeguard the Kemalist political order, yet each time the reengineering of Turkey’s political institutions failed to prevent challenges to the political system.

The phrase that jumps out of that paragraph is “coercion is the least efficient means of political control.”   This is not wishful thinking but an analytical position of great policy import – and coercion in this case is not limited to military coups.  Cook himself noted much the same about Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt in a piece he wrote last year for Middle East Strategy at Harvard.  Cook says he is “channeling Gramsci” and indeed he is drawing on Gramsci’s work on the role of ‘political society’ in domination and hegemony.  Tomes have been written about it and no need to rehash here.  But there is still a standard reflex in policymaking circles that assumes that coercion, or the potential to coerce, is a sign of a political actor’s strength.  Yet just the opposite could be the case.  I am not suggesting that  the NSC start holding brown bag seminars on Gramsci, but taking Cook’s point seriously should be taken into account in assessing the strength of interventionist militaries (and others).  Who – and how – the US engages those actors hangs in the balance.



James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement