It’s no wonder Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a reputation for being the curmudgeon of NATO.
You would be, too, if your international claims-to-fame included jailing some 13,000 people for “insulting” your style of leadership, then saying Sweden isn’t fit for NATO membership because the country and its parliament is a “hatchery” for terrorist groups. The president has gone so far as to threaten to veto Sweden and Finland from joining the transatlantic alliance as a further counterweight to Russian belligerence in the region. “Neither of these countries have a clear, open attitude towards terrorist organizations,” Erdogan recently bellyached. “How can we trust them?”
He is no Turkish delight. “Erdogan is a pain in the neck and he likes it that way,” a high-level NATO official, who is not authorized to speak on the record, told The Daily Beast.
It’s hard to imagine just how embarrassing the Turkish president’s antics have been to NATO over the years. “Your voice comes out in a very loud tone,” Erdogan yowled in a televised WWE-like SmackDown with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos. “And the loudness of your voice has to do with a guilty conscience. My voice, however, will not come out in the same tone. When it comes to killing, you know how to kill.”
Eight years later, during a state visit to Washington, Erdogan directed 24 members of his Turkish Police Counterattack Team to punch and kick demonstrators assembled across the street from the Turkish Ambassador’s Residence. Nine protesters were hospitalized. Thirty Congressional lawmakers wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanding Erdogan’s security squad be “arrested, prosecuted and jailed.” Erdogan declared it was self-defense and flew home with his Counterattack Team, where they continued to lock up those who opposed the administration and purge all judges who ruled against any decision taken by the ruling AK Party.
Erdogan is also a bummer at NATO cocktail parties, and not because the 68-year-old strongman is a teetotaler. Since assuming power in 2003, he has indignantly displaced roughly one million Kurds while trumpeting the revival of the Ottoman Empire as the only way to bring peace to the Middle East. Erdogan’s government remains at number six on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of countries with the most imprisoned reporters. And last year, he arrogantly pulled out of Europe’s formally named Istanbul Convention, a 2011 treaty that protects women from domestic violence.
Yet the predominantly Islamic country of 84 million people Erdogan rules with an iron fist is neither a fascist regime nor a tribal enterprise ruled by petroleum potentates. Political scientists describe the Erdogan system as competitive authoritarianism, a hybrid theocratic organism that rules by decree and self-legitimates through problematic elections empowered by the Ottoman Slap, a recognized method of aggressive political administration codified by Ottoman soldiers, who legend maintains practiced open-handed wallops on blocks of marble and could shatter an opponent’s skull in battle.
“It’s clear that those who say, ‘We’ll respond if they hit us,’ have never in their lives received an Ottoman Slap,” Erdogan hectored U.S. officials who opposed Turkey’s 2018 military operations in Syria. It wasn’t the first time Turkey’s Sultan of Swat raised his hand to take down an adversary.
There’s likely no better Erdogan decoder than the Turkish-American historian and author Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Cagaptay’s last three books are respectively and poignantly titled The New Sultan, Erdogan’s Empire and A Sultan in Autumn. He describes Erdogan as “Janus-faced,” a reference to the Roman god depicted with one expression looking toward the past and another toward the future, much in the same fashion as Batman’s nemesis Two-Face.
Indeed, Erdogan in 2008 un-comically backed nuisance lawsuits planned by Batman Mayor Huseyin Kalkan against Warner Brothers and the producers of the Dark Knight film trilogy. “There’s only one Batman in the world,” Kalkan said of his oil-rich region named after a local river two decades after the Caped Crusader first appeared in 1939. “The Americans used the name of our city without informing us.”
Back in reality, Erdogan delights in his role as NATO’s coin-flipping Two-Face. On the one side, Erdogan’s reliance on the alliance is underscored by the fact that between the 16th and 20th centuries, Turkey lost 11 of 12 wars against Russia—one of the longest and bloodiest series of military clashes in European history.
But Erdogan is also a consummate gambler. In 2018, before Putin invaded Ukraine and amplified Turkey’s dependence on NATO muscle, Erdogan flipped $2.5 billion worth of coins from his depleted treasury to purchase 192 Russian S-400 ground-to-air missiles, later deploying four batteries of 36 mobile launchers in the same neighborhood as the NATO combat aircraft, the Kremlin’s Growler weapon system was designed to blast out of the sky.
The Pentagon snarled back, immediately canceling and then ring-fencing Turkey’s $1.4 billion down-payment on more than 100 F-35 jet fighters and sanctioning Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate boss Ismail Demir and three of his lieutenants.
Erdogan is now negotiating with the U.S. to instead use the cash-in-hand to buy 40 F-16 fighter jets and some 80 modernization kits for his other warplanes. The chances of a deal are darker than the Bat Cave. The U.S. Congress—soured over Erdogan’s human rights record and Russian S-400 training units traipsing around NATO territory—is unlikely to authorize the transaction.
Either way, Erdogan says he intends to acquire another batch of S-400s and has doubled-down on blackballing Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, claiming the alliance would become “a place where representatives of terrorist organizations are concentrated,” he said.
“Tayyip is a big man with a bad temper,” one of Erdogan’s many former colleagues told The Daily Beast. “He thinks that he’s more powerful than he really is. The question is how high is NATO’s tolerance for bad people.”