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Turkey and the Arab Spring Leadership in the Middle East

Some 15 to 20 years from today, it will be illuminating to examine how academic and policy circles read the period from early 2013 to late 2014 in Turkey. There are many competing narratives about the future of the country.


Some 15 to 20 years from today, it will be illuminating to examine how academic and policy circles read the period from early 2013 to late 2014 in Turkey. There are many competing narratives about the future of the country. One pessimistic reading that is currently popular with many American observers of Turkey goes as follows: the so-called “Turkish model” was all the rage just a couple years ago. Turkey was prospering and democratizing under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which was hailed for its successful fusion of Islamic values and democratic governance. Its leaders were widely respected abroad and were even named on Foreign Policy’s list of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” three years in a row.1 With the Turkish Republic’s centennial anniversary approaching, the AK Party had grand plans to make Turkey a major player on the international stage. Then a small protest by environmentalists turned into something more. From Taksim to Tunceli, Turkey convulsed for weeks as the Gezi Park protests unfolded. The Turkish model was finished—if the wave of protests was not enough, surely the corruption scandal that erupted in December 2013 put an end to it.2

Fuller’s Turkey and the Arab Spring adds an optimistic postscript to that narrative. The Turkish model may have fallen out of favor for the time being, the former CIA official concedes, but it ultimately represents the best model of governance for predominantly Muslim states in the Middle East. In a region “hungry for leaders of genuine vision” and models of “competent governance,” Turkey is the state best equipped to offer both (pp. 372-374). The AK Party has proven that a democratic government can reflect the piety of its citizenry, while also providing economic growth and playing a constructive role abroad. Recent protests and scandals have called the durability of the model into question. Fuller is pessimistic about the AK Party’s near-term electoral prospects, but in his opinion the party does not have to continue winning elections for the Turkish model to survive.

After using Part One and Part Two to briefly examine the current state of global politics and the meaning of leadership in the Middle East, Fuller examines the strengths and weaknesses of the Turkish model. This forms the lengthiest section of the book, Part Three. He concludes that there are a number of reasons to remain optimistic about the Turkish model, chief among them its economic success, its establishment of civilian control of the military, its growing ability to accommodate religious and ethnic diversity, and its clear success at the ballot box. Ultimately, however, the key for Fuller is the lack of any other attractive options in the Middle East—other possible claimants like Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are surveyed in Part Four and Part Five and are found wanting. Compared to the competitors, “Turkey represents the only forward-looking, advanced and democratic model that has successfully integrated a form of moderate Islam” (p. 263). Turkey may provide an imperfect model, but it provides a much more attractive option than any other state in the region.

Of course, Turkey may not remain such an attractive option for long. Fuller completed his manuscript in early 2014, and he acknowledges from the start that rapid political developments may overtake his argument. Indeed, he finished writing this book before the June 2014 local elections bolstered the AK Party, before Erdoğan declared his run for president, and before Erdoğan announced that the Gülen Movement (or Hizmet) would be added to a classified list of domestic and external threats.3 For Fuller and many skeptics, “He is in danger of dismantling his own remarkable legacy and engineering his own political defeat” (p. 347). If he continues down that path, the Turkish model may well lose its reputation for good. The Muslim populations of the Middle East have seen enough of authoritarianism and will not be inclined to take up a Turkish variant—the revolts of the Arab Spring would suggest as much. Nonetheless, Fuller offers a hopeful view of Turkish politics and seems to believe that any missteps now will be only fleeting bumps in the road.

Surely, change in Turkish politics will continue unabated as this review awaits publication. It will be easier to evaluate Fuller’s claims several years from now. Nonetheless, the book is insightful, though it sometimes makes too much effort to find those insights. Fuller brings many factors to bear, and the transitions from one to another are often jarring. For example, Part Six (the final portion of the book) leaps from discussions on Israel to the Kurds and then to the Gulen Movement before finally returning to the broader question of Turkey’s role in an evolving Middle East. For those familiar with Fuller’s previous books, this will come as a surprise as his writing has always been parsimonious. Perhaps his most impactful work is a tight, 196-page appraisal of Turkey’s role in the Muslim world that culminated in a powerful argument for “letting Turkey be Turkey.”4 Turkey and the Arab Spring takes 408 pages to make a similar point. This time, however, letting Turkey be Turkey means accepting it as a major influence in the Middle East.

The hallmark of Fuller’s books, Turkey and the Arab Spring included, is a long-term view that eschews the standard U.S.-centric analyses of Turkish politics and foreign policy. That quality is displayed again and shines through an occasionally uneven text. Fuller makes a compelling case that rumors of the Turkish model’s death are greatly exaggerated. The skeptics, however, will want to have an obituary drafted.

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