Back in 2008, at the height of the global economic meltdown, Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Obama's designee for chief of staff, summed up his guiding political philosophy. "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," he told the Wall Street Journal. "Things that we had postponed for too long, that were long-term, are now immediate and must be dealt with."
It looks like Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was listening.
In the aftermath of last week's botched military coup, Erdogan has launched a far-reaching purge of political enemies, both real and imagined. In the immediate aftermath of the putsch, nearly 3,000 military personnel believed to be connected to the plot were arrested. That, however, was just the beginning. So far, news agencies estimate that some 50,000 officials — including soldiers, judges and lawyers — have been targeted by Turkish authorities. That number includes more than 15,000 teachers and other academic personnel whom Turkey's Education Ministry has suspended because it had questions about their loyalties to Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
But that may end up being just the tip of the iceberg. "This parallel terrorist organization will no longer be an effective pawn for any country," Prime Minister Binali Yildirim promised the Turkish parliament in recent days. "We will dig them up by their roots."
The targets of Erdogan's ire are twofold. The first is the country's military. Historically, the Turkish armed forces have served as the custodians of the secular state set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. They have exercised this role four separate times, most recently in 1997, when the military's influence led directly to the ouster of Islamist-leaning prime minister Necmettin Erbakan and his Refah party.
Not surprisingly, on coming to power in 2002, Erdogan and the AKP, itself an Islamist party, quickly came to see the Turkish military as a mortal threat. In the years that followed, through a series of deft political maneuvers and legislative tweaks, Erdogan and his followers successfully trimmed the once-pervasive power of the Turkish military. Controversial (and highly speculative) court cases involving alleged conspiracy did the rest, diminishing the previously unassailable image of the Turkish military among ordinary citizens.
Just how much so was evident in 2007, when the military attempted an "intervention" into Turkish politics through a posting on its website that warned the AKP of potentially dire consequences if it did not dampen its Islamist tendencies. The effort was met with widespread condemnation by ordinary Turks, putting the armed forces on notice that their status in society had changed irrevocably.
Since then, Erdogan has continued to press his advantage. As of 2012, some 20 percent of the country's generals were estimated to be behind bars, the victims of political pressure and suspect judicial proceedings. The rest of the country's officer corps was quick to grasp the new situation, receding into the political background and keeping its ideological views to itself. Now, in the aftermath of last week's attempted uprising, Erdogan has a reason to target the military anew — and to purge it of the last vestiges of political autonomy and dissent.
Even higher on Erdogan's hit list, however, is the amorphous civil-society movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, a onetime political ally of Erdogan's, has fallen out with the AKP in recent years on a variety of issues, from attitudes toward the Kurds to control of the press. This has set in motion a monumental tug-of-war between the Gulenists and the Turkish government, punctuated by intermittent rounds of political purges and arrests. Over time, an uneasy stalemate took shape, with the onetime allies each sharing a piece of the Turkish political and administrative pie. Now, the attempted coup (purportedly orchestrated by a Gulenist faction within the military) has given Erdogan's government the justification to go on the offensive once again.
In fact, so advantageous is the current set of events for Erdogan that many have speculated that he orchestrated the coup himself as a pretext to seize still greater power. Turkey's president, meanwhile, is wasting no time in doing so, signaling that he plans to give himself expanded powers in much the same way Adolf Hitler did in his rise to power in Germany.
Only time will tell whether he will succeed. But two things are already abundantly clear. The first is that Erdogan, through deft diplomacy and shrewd political machination, has emerged as the biggest winner of Friday's abortive coup d'état. The second is that Turkish democracy is liable to become the biggest casualty of it.