Butterfly Effect: The New Sultan of Kabul?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Can Biden advance global democracy by turning to autocrats like Turkey's Erdogan for help?
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
For four decades, Afghanistan has been the theater of the world’s most brutal proxy wars, involving the U.S., Russia (and formerly the Soviet Union), Pakistan, Iran, India and China.
Last week, a new actor entered that already crowded field: Turkey.
At their meeting on the margins of the NATO summit in Brussels on June 21, President Joe Biden and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, agreed that Ankara will take charge of securing Kabul’s international airport after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan in September. The Hamid Karzai International Airport is the principal point of entry for foreign visitors coming to the landlocked country. To America, this deal represents a get-out-of-jail-free card. But it’s also the foothold in Afghanistan that Erdoğan has been searching for.
He has already turned Turkey into a base for mediation between warring Afghan groups and the international community. Ankara plans to host a U.S.-backed international conference on the Afghan peace process soon. It has carefully cultivated relations with key domestic stakeholders in Turkey, including the Taliban and warlords opposed to the militant Sunni group.
But Afghanistan is only the latest evidence of Erdoğan’s growing global ambitions, from the Middle East and the Mediterranean to Latin America and Africa. For Biden, that represents a complex challenge. On the one hand, Turkey’s leader stands for the exact opposite of principles that the new administration in Washington has said it holds dear: democracy and human rights. On the other hand, Ankara is a NATO ally that’s central to U.S. aims to rebuild its own global influence without committing troops abroad.
How Biden reconciles those two conflicting interests could tell us how he will handle similar dilemmas with other useful but increasingly authoritarian leaders, from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. And that, in turn, could determine Biden’s global legacy — as the rosary-carrying moral leader he pitches himself as, or as someone willing to accept Faustian bargains to achieve immediate goals.
Erdoğan has in recent years tried to project himself as the new savior of Muslims around the world — while cracking down on mostly Muslim political opposition at home and staying silent against China’s brutal internment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs. In 2019, when the Indian government revoked the special semi-autonomous status that Muslim-majority Kashmir had enjoyed for seven decades, Erdoğan publicly took on New Delhi. Last year, his regime converted the historic Hagia Sophia monument that was serving as a museum into a mosque. Erdoğan publicly led the first prayers there. And in May, his government inaugurated a controversial new mosque at Taksim Square, previously a symbol of the country’s secular constitution.
Beyond the symbolism, he has also injected Tukey’s interests more directly than before into the Middle East’s volatile cauldron of tensions. In 2019, Turkish troops entered Syria and battled government forces with the blessings of then U.S. President Donald Trump. Erdoğan has also built a de facto alliance with Qatar and a working relationship with Iran as a regional front against Saudi Arabia.
And it’s not just Turkey’s immediate neighborhood. Erdoğan’s Turkey has begun to call itself an Afro-Eurasian state. That’s part of a major outreach to Africa, where Turkey has ramped up investments. By 2019, Turkey had embassies in 42 of Africa’s 54 nations, up from just 11 a decade earlier. It operates its largest overseas base from Somalia.
Thousands of miles away in Latin America, Turkish soap operas are beaming into living rooms from Chile to Mexico. That soft power is catalyzing a surge in bilateral trade, which almost tripled between 2006 and 2019.
This rapid global expansion of Erdoğan’s influence should be a matter of concern for the Biden administration if it wants to reverse the erosion of America’s credibility as a supporter of democratic values around the world. The current Turkish regime has arrested thousands of opposition figures, judges, teachers and journalists critical of Erdoğan. But if you’re America and have announced that you’re pulling out of Afghanistan’s endless war by September, you’re happy if someone else offers to fill the security vacuum you’re leaving behind.
Therein lies the dilemma — one that Biden is already experiencing with other leaders too. When Israel and Hamas were busy firing missiles and rockets at each other last month, the U.S. eventually turned to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to broker a cease-fire. El-Sissi came to power through a military coup against the democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi and has since entrenched his authority through fraudulent elections. Yet Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Cairo to thank el-Sissi for mediating the peace deal.
Meanwhile, Biden’s team is consorting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as New Delhi remains a key player in America’s plans to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region.
There are no easy answers for Biden. But the more he concedes to Erdoğan, the more other authoritarian leaders will conclude that they too can get a free pass if they offer their services for America to outsource.
And his own words will return to haunt him: “The days of cozying up to dictators” would end if he came to power, he told the Democratic National Convention last August. Ten months later, Biden risks handing over the keys to peace in some of the world’s most troubled hot spots to autocrats — democracy be damned.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi