Erdogan may indeed be torn between his Islamic beliefs and his politics. But he has worked consistently to strengthen Turkey’s ties to the West, even when his foreign-policy initiatives-regarding the war in Iraq, peace in Cyprus, and Turkey’s accession to the EU-have complicated his relations with both Islamists and ardent secularists in the military at home.
In early 2003, AKP leaders assured the Bush administration that it could use Turkey for the transit of U.S. troops on their way to northern Iraq. But in March 2003, the Turkish parliament unexpectedly rejected the measure. Washington’s punitive decision to withdraw an offer of significant aid sent shock waves through the ailing economy and offered Erdogan’s detractors a chance to undermine him. It is unclear if the NSC, which would usually take the lead on matters of such national importance, demurred in order to engineer the debacle and embarrass Erdogan or if it genuinely thought Turkey’s decision not to participate could derail plans for war. Perhaps it calculated that a falling out within the AKP over the invasion of Iraq would bring down the government by driving a wedge between Erdogan and the party’s more traditional wing. If this was the strategy, however, it backfired. The United States went to war without Turkey; Erdogan won praise at home for standing up to the Bush administration’s bullying after the parliamentary vote; and when U.S. forces got bogged down by the insurgency, Erdogan was applauded for keeping Turkey out of the quagmire.
Erdogan’s Cyprus policy also pitted him against ultranationalists and other powerful constituencies at home. Within weeks of assuming office, he helped advance the island’s reunification by distancing his government from Rauf Denktash, the obstructionist Turkish Cypriot leader. Erdogan’s move pleased EU governments, which had wanted to resolve the dispute among Cypriots before starting accession talks with Ankara. But it exacerbated tensions within Turkey’s military.
The military is split between two camps over the extent to which Turkey should implement reforms sought by the EU. On one side, the Foreign Ministry and Hilmi Ozkok, the country’s top general and a member of the NSC, support Erdogan’s efforts. The NSC had previously undermined parties with an Islamic orientation, but Ozkok has preferred to work with the popular AKP. Reformers like him, as well as the national police and the military intelligence, support Turkey’s bid to join the EU. They understand that civilian control of the military is critical to Turkey’s EU candidacy.”