Chris Trotter: Deep State, big trouble

The Ataturkian legacy is being smashed to pieces by Turkey's Islamist President, Tayyip Erdogan. Will America's ...

The Ataturkian legacy is being smashed to pieces by Turkey's Islamist President, Tayyip Erdogan. Will America's democratic legacy be next, asks Chris Trotter.

OPINION: The number of references to "The Deep State" has shot up since Donald Trump became President of the United States. A term previously confined to academic discussions of Turkish politics is beginning to appear in mainstream news stories all over the world.

Driving the "Deep State" reference spike to ever-higher levels has been the obvious collusion of US intelligence agencies and key media outlets in the ousting of Michael Flynn, President Trump's national security adviser.

So, what is The Deep State? And do New Zealanders have any reason to worry that their own state may not be as shallow as it appears?

Turkey is still the best place to start this discussion.

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The secular republic created by General Mustafa Kemal out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire in the years immediately following World War I was very much a top-down affair.

Kemal and his army had saved the Turkish heartland from dismemberment at the hands of the victorious allies. For that historic achievement Kemal was not only given the name "Ataturk" – father of the nation – but the army which made it possible was accorded a privileged status in the Turkish state – and its politics.

Without the army, Kemal's modernisation and secularisation of Turkish society could not have succeeded. In the 1920s the Turks were an overwhelmingly rural, poorly-educated and deeply religious people. Had Kemal's social reforms (the emancipation of women, for example) been put to free and fair vote they would, almost certainly, have been defeated. Accordingly, Kemal's constitution expressly forbade the politicisation of Islam.

Below the surface of the Turkish state's everyday interactions with its people Kemal and his successors created a deeper structure of permanent state interests and actors. Any political threat to the Ataturkian settlement would be answered by its principal defenders: the armed forces, the secret police, and the ordinary police leadership. This was what Turkish political scientists dubbed "Derin Devlet" – The Deep State.

Following World War II, the Turkish Republic (which had remained neutral until the final months of the war) acquiesced in the United States' diplomatic and military policy of "containing" the Soviet Union and joined the Nato alliance.

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As a key player in the Cold War, the Turkish Deep State was now obliged to extend its grounds for political intervention to include not only politicised Islam, but any too-aggressive pursuit of socialism. It also stepped up its suppression of Turkey's minority Kurdish population's quest for self-determination.

Clearly, Turkey is not alone in possessing a deep state apparatus. No modern state considers it prudent to leave its people defenceless against either invasion from without or subversion from within. The more important question, however, is whether or not the core institutions of the state: the armed services, the secret services, police, judiciary and senior civil servants believe there to be certain political aims and objectives so contrary to the constitutive ethos of the state that they must be suppressed – at any cost.

There is ample evidence from New Zealand's brief history that this country possesses a deep state of considerable assertiveness. Any perceived threat to the dominant position of New Zealand's settler population; its capitalist economic system; or to its status as a member-in-good-standing of the Anglo-Saxon "club"; has been met with decisive and often bloody intervention. From the trumped-up excuses for Governor Grey's assault on the Maori King Movement in 1863, to the political destabilisation campaign which preceded the 1975 General Election, the machinations of New Zealand's Deep State are hard to miss.

The unmistakeable, if unacknowledged, shifting of pieces on the American political chessboard: strategic leaking of intercepted electronic communications; mass media revelations of politically compromising information; all points to the intervention of the same Deep State that brought down Richard Nixon.

President Trump should not be surprised. In the eyes of the American Deep State he is guilty of President Nixon's "crime" of attempting to supplant its own apparatus. President Trump's key advisor, Steve Bannon, has made no secret of his intention to engage in a Lenin-like "smashing" of the core institutions of the American state – or, at least, to purging their leadership. This cannot and will not be countenanced.

Equally forbidden is what the American Deep State has deemed an unacceptably dangerous attempt to alter the United States' geopolitical posture vis-a-vis the Russian Federation. In the National Security Agency and the CIA (if not in the FBI) there is clearly a powerful faction which regards the Trump Administration as having been irretrievably compromised by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This is a very big deal. The present situation in Turkey shows what happens when a populist president believes himself to be in the cross-hairs of the Deep State. The Ataturkian legacy is being smashed to pieces by Turkey's Islamist President, Tayyip Erdogan.

Will America's democratic legacy be next?

 - Stuff


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