Read any newspaper, magazine, or journal article about Turkey over the last few decades, and the odds are that the Turkish military establishment was described as "staunchly secular," "powerful," "autonomous," "dominant," or all of these things. At times, it seemed that observers were in awe of the Turkish commanders, armed as they seemed to be with an uncompromising ideology and a will to act to ensure the security of Turkey's republican and, importantly, secular political order. The ideals, cohesion, and strength of the armed forces stood in stark contrast with the weakness and corruption -- especially during the 1990s -- of Turkey's civilian political leaders.
The military's reputation (some of it deserved, but also clearly exaggerated) is a function of the fact that between 1960 and 1997, the officers got rid of four governments that the general staff did not like. That's what makes the Friday, July 29, resignation of the military's most senior officers, including its chief of staff, all the more surprising. In Turkey, it is usually the military that pressures the government and forces the politicians to resign, not the other way around.
In a statement, the military's just-resigned chief of staff, Gen. Isik Kosaner, explained that the officers believed they could no longer "protect their personnel" from criminal investigations and as a result could no longer carry on their duties effectively. Within hours of the resignations of Kosaner, land forces commander Gen. Erdal Ceylanoglu, navy chief Adm. Esref Ugur Yigit, and their air force colleague Gen. Hasan Aksay, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed a new chief of staff, the former Gendarmerie commander, Gen. Necdet Ozel.
Erdogan's demonstration of strength and control only reinforced initial assumptions that the officers' move reflected the manifest political weakness of the Turkish armed forces and the ascendancy of civilian power. After all, the resignations did not destabilize the country, the financial markets remained steady, and there was no outpouring of public support for Kosaner and his colleagues. Turkey did not miss a beat. The only possible conclusion analysts can draw from this episode: Erdogan has won. The prime minister, buoyed by a recent election that saw his Justice and Development Party (AKP) win an unprecedented 49.95 percent of the vote, has finally mastered civil-military relations, paving the way for a potentially more democratic future.
At the same time, however, the emerging narrative about the resignations and what it means seems a little too neat. To be sure, the days when the Turkish military could oust a government by memorandum are long over, but the collective resignations of the country's senior brass raise a number of important questions about the quality of Turkish democracy and the future of civil-military relations.
In institutionalized democracies, where the military is subordinate to civilian politicians through regulation and tradition, senior commanders do not just bolt because they do not like something. They process their grievances through consultation with their civilian political masters. If that does not work, they salute the politicians and carry on with their duties. Not so in Turkey, where -- through four coups, numerous other more subtle interventions, and institutional mechanisms -- the military cowed civilian politicians into either accepting its dictates or risking punishment.
Of course, an argument can be made that Kosaner's resignation and Erdogan's refusal to allow the military to intimidate him may very well hasten the process of military subordination. Yet for all that Erdogan and his colleagues have done clipping the wings of the once-powerful National Security Council -- the body the military used to pressure civilian leaders -- by bringing officers accused of certain crimes before the civilian courts and gaining control of parts of the military budget, the officers still remain beyond the bounds of complete civilian control. After all, the Turkish national security state is 85 years old; it will take more than the resignations of the top brass to rip out its deep roots.
It is that stress on the military as an organization that may yet unravel Erdogan's apparent mastery of the officer corps. There is little doubt that there are more than a few officers (currently serving and retired) who have plotted against the government. Even if Erdogan has used that enigma wrapped in a riddle shrouded in mystery known as the Ergenekon investigation to unfairly target political opponents, as some allege, there was evidence when the initial plot was discovered that elements of the military were set on undermining Erdogan.
The AKP's firm grip on the government and thus its ability to affect the trajectory of Turkish politics for decades through well-placed supporters in the bureaucracy is anathema to the military. This was precisely the reason that Erdogan's onetime mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, who led Turkey's first experiment with Islamist-led government, was pushed from office in 1997's "postmodern" coup. Even if there was reason to suspect the armed forces of plotting against him, Erdogan was clearly using Ergenekon to hammer and humiliate the Turkish general staff into submission.