Sgorbati Reviews "An Uncertain Ally" by David L. Phillips

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the U.S. Department of State during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama. He has published many books on the Middle East, including An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s DictatorshipThe Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East, and Losing Iraq: Inside the Post-War Reconstruction Fiasco

A Review of An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan's Leadership by David L. Phillips

By Susan Sgorbati 

At this moment of tumultuous transition in the presidency of the United States, nuanced and informed understandings of global politics are timely and more important than ever to read. An Uncertain Ally, by David Phillips, is a welcome addition to the literature and an important corrective to many popular misunderstandings of Turkey today. Phillips writes from experience; he was a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of State under the administration of three of our former Presidents—Clinton, Bush, Obama—and is the current director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute on the Study of Human Rights. Phillips gives us insights into the transition of power in Turkey as Recep Tayyip Erdogan gains the presidency in that country. Fundamentally, what we are witnessing is the relationship between a leader, governance structures, economic events, and conflicts that arise as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) wins the election in 2002. Phillips gives us a cogent history of Turkey, the ongoing conflict with the Kurds, relationships with its neighbors, and the importance of Kemalism and secular identity arising out of the nationalism of Turkey under Ataturk. Phillips adds to these topics the ongoing influence of religious belief in Islam on educational and institutional frameworks, the complicated networks related to terrorism, and the ongoing scandals of corruption at all levels.

In this way, Phillips reveals a comprehensive view of the complexity of what is now the contemporary infrastructure of governing in Turkey. While Turkey has its own unique history with democratic institutions that are clearly different from the United States, Phillips gives us a solid historical perspective of how democratic values arose out of the Ottoman Empire and were instantiated by Ataturk in the formation of a secular and national identity. Erdogan comes on to the world stage promising to uphold these values.

One of the unique factors of this book that makes it a fascinating read is what Phillips reveals to us in his introduction. Having contacts throughout Turkey, he relied on news accounts in English and Turkish rather than political analysis of sociological and academic research found in scholarly journals. He also gets primary information from sources that have been directly affected by the events portrayed in the book. Thus, a complicated and multi-faceted history of Turkey and its contemporary landscape becomes a vehicle for storytelling of the most rich and textured kind. As a reader I was engaged from beginning to end, and the suspense of the real world events and the protagonist of this story makes it all the more compelling and significant that we understand what is going on.

By witnessing unfolding news stories and first-hand accounts of Turkey’s recent past, Phillips honors the ambiguous and complex dynamics that make up politics, governing, and conflict. Erdogan is portrayed neither as good or evil, but coming into his presidency with enormous assets that are then compromised by power. He is a mixture of religious values, political savvy, and the need for control over his perceived opponents. In his early years, he instituted several very positive initiatives in Turkey, such as “the zero problems with neighbors” policy, which allowed diplomacy to make significant progress with the Kurds and with the Armenians, only to have him interfere and dismantle or crack down on what his administration had moved forward. He was also able to strike a balance with the Kemalism of the military and sectarian parts of the society. However, it is clear that the pressures of politics, the fear of opponents, and the temptations of power and money that have been systemically a corrupting influence in the governing of Turkey for many years influences Erdogan and his inner circle, as well.

This book reads as a tragic story of a talented leader with enormous potential, squandering his place in history. He has the ability to make peace with the Kurds, but labels them “terrorists” because a small faction of the PKK uses violence as a way to get independence. He brings forward reforms in education, only to impose religious instruction as a political means to an end of imposing Islamism on a sectarian culture. He brings talented and gifted men into his inner circle such as Gulen, Gul and Davutoglu, only to then suspect them of betrayal as soon as they disagree with him in a democratic debate on important issues. This book reveals an ancient and contemporary truth: that the character of our leaders matter, and the strength or weakness of democratic institutions in providing the checks and balances on the failings of leaders will ultimately determine whether democracies can survive the threat of too much centralized power and control over the people.

This book reveals how essential it is for a leader like Erdogan, who is a complicated mixture of religious values, national pride, and the need to demonstrate strength, to consider his place in history by embracing complexity, tolerance, and a respect for democratic processes. 

As we all get older, we realize that life is rarely about dichotomies of right and wrong, but more often a complex web of contradictions, ambiguities, and paradoxes. The need for simple answers is real, but often illusory. This book reveals how essential it is for a leader like Erdogan, who is a complicated mixture of religious values, national pride, and the need to demonstrate strength, to consider his place in history by embracing complexity, tolerance, and a respect for democratic processes. He has shown in his earlier governing years that he is capable of the legacy of enabling Turkey to have peace with its neighbors, strengthen its economic base, and maintain its rich and textured cultural history. To observe him moving away from these values to more control and power over his people, by imprisoning so many of his perceived opponents and causing so much fear and malaise among the populace, is a human tragedy of overwhelming proportions.

If Erdogan or his supporters read Phillips’ book, I hope they will realize that this is not a threat to their power, but a true concern for Turkey. Its people, its history, its culture, and its future deserve all of our love and respect as a democratic country, and Phillips assures us of this potential to develop real alliances with Turkey’s leaders and their citizens. But as his title of the book reminds us, this is uncertain. Phillips concludes his book with a set of recommendations that are politically sophisticated as well as personal to his own story. Part of that story is a Turkish term, “huzun,” which refers to a melancholia and sadness that is pervasive in the current narrative that is Turkey.

If Erdogan is truly a religious person and believes in the teachings of Islam, he will demonstrate the qualities of tolerance, humility, empathy, and concern for others. He will support democratic institutions that share power with diverse ethnic groups, and he will encourage healthy debate from the media, his parliament, and other parts of the society. This will only make him more powerful, more respected, and leave a lasting legacy for Turkey. These truths are what Phillips reveals in this important book. I hope the message gets to the leaders of Turkey and to other leaders around the world. This book helps the rest of us as citizens understand Turkey’s story in history and in the contemporary world, revealing the pressures on its democratic institutions, thereby helping us understand the threats to our own.

Susan Sgorbati is the director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College. She holds the Barbara and Lewis Jones Chair for Social Activism. She created Quantum Leap, a program that has reconnected over 3,000 at-risk students to their education in the southwestern Vermont public school system. She also created the conflict resolution program at Bennington College and the CAPA Leadership Institute that brings young leaders from conflict zones together to work on environmental disputes. She created a form of dance composition called “Emergent Improvisation” and her collaboration with scientists, Nobel Prize winner Gerald Edelman, and MacArthur Fellow Stuart Kauffman are included in her book, Emergent Improvisation: On the Nature of Spontaneous Composition Where Dance Meets Science.