Much has been written about the Turkish leader over the decades. He first came to the attention of Western countries in the early 1990s as mayor of Istanbul, an Islamist leading what was then perceived as a Western-oriented, progressive, cosmopolitan city. He was successful with reforms and constituent services, but Turkish courts ousted and subsequently imprisoned him and banned him from political office on religious incitement charges. Erdogan’s ouster and imprisonment merited little more than a footnote in most Western papers at the time. Fair or unfair, most American diplomats wrote Erdogan off.
He again appeared on the radar in the run-up to the 2002 Turkish elections, which occurred against the backdrop of a financial crisis, malaise, and a wave of anti-incumbent feeling. Former U.S. ambassadors sang Erdogan’s praises. So, too, did scholars affiliated with Fethullah Gulen’s Hizmet movement, which at the time allied itself with Erdogan against the broader secular order. A bipartisan array of U.S. policymakers agreed. They accepted and promoted the idea that Erdogan had learned lessons from excesses of past Islamist movement and that he could personally bridge Islamism with liberal democracy while Turkey continued to bridge East and West.