By Kathy Kemper – 07/07/10 10:36 AM ET
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Up until recently, discussions of Turkey have tended to focus on whether it would be able to meet the criteria for joining the EU. Now, however, in a dramatic reversal, people are asking: Why should Turkey worry about the EU?
It recently reported first-quarter growth of 11.4 percent, second only to China, and it has gone from being a Middle Eastern “basket case” to a regional powerhouse, challenging Israeli pre-eminence.
The West has long derided Turkey for its flirtation with Islamism, its human-rights abuses and its failure to democratize. And yet, it looks like Turkey may be having the last laugh. With the international system in a shambles and the major centers of power in the world struggling with challenges at home, the big winners are going to be those countries that expand their influence aggressively, without paying attention to democracy’s niceties. That’s the brutal reality.
A recent article hails Turkey’s “flexible dynamism — both social and economic,” which has allowed it “to expand the commercial ties with Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria that now underpin its ambition to become the dominant political actor in the region.”
Turkey’s current path to power recalls the legacy of Atatürk, the country’s founder. He was hardly without his faults. He was notorious for smoking as many as 3.5 packs of cigarettes a day. His wife divorced him after two years of marriage due to his drinking, legend says. He died of cirrhosis at 58. He got rid of the country’s national parliament, outlawed opposition parties and labor unions and rammed through legislation. And the personality cult that he created while in power remains to this day — I’ve never been to a country where a former leader’s picture is so ubiquitous. Russian and China included.
And yet, highly controversial a figure though he, no doubt remains, few question the contributions that he made to Turkey’s domestic stability and standing abroad. He was what you might call an “enlightened despot” — someone whose ruthless pursuit of the country’s self-interests moved the country along even while running roughshod over concerns and constituencies that a Western leader would take into account.
It’s a sobering message for us Americans to think about with July 4 just barely behind us. And while I’m the biggest advocate for democracy you’ll find, I can’t help but wonder if Atatürk had more foresight about the laws of the jungle than his Western counterparts. Leadership comes in many forms.