Trying to spread democracy in the Middle East has always been a bad idea.  The quagmire in Iraq is largely thanks to George W. Bush and his team extending the original mission from depriving Saddam of his (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction to the establishment of a democratic Iraq as a first step to transforming the region as a whole.  The d-word was claimed to be the universal remedy for fundamentalism, terrorism, poverty, ignorance, and violence.

As we now know (and as some of us warned back then), democratizing the Middle East is unattainable in practice and undesirable in principle.  “Democratic transformation” tends to benefit one variety of political Islam or another—from the Muslim Brotherhood’s offshoots (in Gaza) to Iranian protégés (in Iraq).  Muslim political parties are happy to use the rhetoric of democracy for the imposition of a very different model of society.  That scenario is being played out even in the formerly Kemalist Turkey, which is once again an integral part of the Middle East.  No system of governance is viable outside of the framework of ideas and habits of the civilization that sustain it.  In the Muslim world Allah is the only sovereign, the ultimate source of authority and legislation.  All over the Middle East governments consist in practice of only one branch—the executive—controlled by a political party (Turkey), or a family (the Emirates), or an oligarchy (Egypt).

This is not to say that the United States is powerless to change, in the American interest, some of the more unpleasant aspects of Middle Eastern politics and society.  A greater respect for the rule of law, for example, can and should be demanded from the governments in the region Washington considers friendly.  Limiting a capricious exercise of state power and the abuse of legal mechanisms for political ends is a modest and pragmatic objective.  It should be accompanied by a clear statement of intent: We want you to become more stable by making your legal systems less arbitrary.

Unlike “democracy,” an efficient and predictable system of justice is not inherently contradictory to the spirit of Islam.  The discriminatory strictures of sharia vis-à-vis women and “infidels” are intolerable and should be discouraged, of course, but sharia rests on the demand for the observance of legal strictures.  This is a more promising base to build upon in the Middle East than the legacy of Pericles, Jefferson, or Lech Walesa.

A start should be made with Turkey, which at least nominally remains committed to the Western values, principles, and practices bequeathed by her founder 85 years ago.  A spectacular miscarriage of justice is in the making there, orchestrated and manipulated by the government and carried out by a pliant judiciary.  The story has been underreported in the United States, which reflects Washington’s long-standing reluctance to confront the realities of Turkey under the Islamist regime of the Justice and Progress Party (AKP).

In early April, over 100 active-duty officers were arrested as part of an investigation into an alleged plot to topple the government.  These arrests bring to 200 the number of active and retired officers who stand accused of involvement in the “Sledgehammer Plot,” dating back to 2003.  The suspects include the former commanders of the Turkish navy and air force.

What we are witnessing is a massive purge in preparation for the largest show trial ever in the noncommunist world.  The plot, the government alleges, included the bombings of historic mosques in Istanbul and the provocation of military clashes with neighboring Greece.  Such acts of terrorism and military aggression were supposedly designed to plunge Turkey into chaos and provide an opportunity for the military to step in and remove the AKP-controlled government from power.

Sledgehammer is connected to the wider “Ergenekon Conspiracy.”  In this Mother of All Plots, the “Deep State”—a shadowy coalition of senior military officers, the intelligence services, the judiciary, and organized crime—sought to foment unrest leading to a military takeover.  As Istanbul-based journalist Claire Berlin­ski explains, the claims defy logic:

Arch-secular nationalists, the prosecutors say, have been in bed with the Maoist PKK, the extreme-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party, the Islamist Hizbullah and Milli Görüs, the ultranationalist Turkish Revenge Brigades, the Turkish Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, and the Islamic Great East Raiders Front.  This is a bit like imagining that the Weathermen hooked up with the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers, Act Up, the Zeta drug cartel, and a dissident faction of the Republican National Committee . . .

Details of Sledgehammer emerged after an anonymous source delivered a suitcase full of supposedly secret military documents to a newspaper in January 2010.  Prime Minister Erdogan and other AKP leaders have openly lent credibility to the charges.  There are many inconsistencies in the documents, however.  Dozens of entities—NGOs, companies, and even military units—are referred to by names or acronyms they acquired long after 2003, and in some cases as late as August 2009.  The military has strenuously denied the allegations, claiming that the documents were forged and insisting that the scenarios were but a war game developed at a military-training seminar.

The Sledgehammer case is not a case at all; it is an attempt by the AKP regime to neutralize Turkey’s once-powerful military.  The government’s specific objective is to finalize the abolition of the army’s traditional role as the guardian of the country’s secular political system.  According to Dani Rodrik of Harvard University—whose father-in-law is one of the defendants—machinations in the guise of the judicial process mean that “Turkey’s relevance as a democratic beacon for the Middle East” has been undermined.

Turkey has grand ambitions as a different kind of “beacon.”  She is pursuing an openly neo-Ottoman strategy all over the region.  Her president Abdullah Gül claims that she can have a “great and unbelievably positive effect” on the Middle East.  Her Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declares modestly, “If the world is on fire, Turkey is the firefighter . . . assuming the leading role for stability in the Middle East.”

It is probably too late for Washington to encourage the generals (those not yet in jail) to bring the AKP to heel, but it is still possible to demand that the Prozess in the making be abandoned as a precondition of tolerating Turkey’s attempts at regional grandstanding.  Erdogan, Gül, and Davutoglu should be told that this would be the test of Turkey’s putative “positive effect” and “leading role” in the region.  That much, Ankara may be willing to do to maintain its bid for regional leadership, unhindered by Washington.

Standing up for the Turkish army—the only true ally the United States has had in that country for some decades now—at its time of need is just and prudent.  Washington should demand no more, but accept no less, than a scrupulous observance of Turkey’s own laws and legal procedures.  Their continued abuse is a matter of legitimate American concern, if President Obama is serious about his claim that Turkey is an essential bridge between the East and the West.

The United States cannot and should not try to effect regime changes in Turkey or anywhere else in the Middle East.  Washington has all kinds of political and economic tools at its disposal, however, to make Ankara more observant of the rule of law, domestic as well as international.  Using those tools judiciously but firmly has the potential to do more good—for those countries’ people, for the American interest, and for the rest of the world—than launching cruise missiles has ever done.