Austin Bay explains why Ataturk matters

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Austin Bay is the author of the recently released book, “Ataturk: Lessons in Leadership from the Greatest General of the Ottoman Empire.”

A syndicated columnist and retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, Bay currently teaches a strategy seminar at the University of Texas-Austin. He holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Bay recently agreed to answer 10 questions about his book on the famed Turkish leader for The Daily Caller:

1. Why did you decide to write the book?

Credit the editors of Palgrave/Macmillan’s World Generals series. They decided in 2009 that they wanted a volume on Kemal Ataturk. My literary agent asked me if I was interested in the project. It took me, oh, two nano-seconds to say “yes.” I’ve been writing about the Near East and Balkans for almost three decades. I admired Ataturk as a military leader and as a revolutionary, and I think you can make the case he was the 20th century’s most successful revolutionary. I also believe his military record and military genius — and I use “genius” intentionally — are often neglected, given his subsequent political record. A book focusing on his military career would help rectify that.

2. What were Ataturk’s greatest non-military accomplishments?

Start with modernizing a culturally-Islamic society. Ataturk authored an orientation, not an ideology — the creation of a political, social and cultural process that would eventually make Turkey a democracy. His reversal of the Treaty of Sevres after World War I is remarkable diplomacy.

3. You write that Ataturk was as impressive a military commander as he was a modernizer and statesman. How so?

He not only succeeded at every level of command, he excelled, from the tactical to the strategic. Gen. [Wesley] Clark touches on this in his introductory essay [to the book].  Moreover, Ataturk had a gift of perception — he could relate ongoing or imminent combat operations to longer term strategic goals, and this perception informed his tactical and operational decisions. I don’t want to get us lost in jargon. He had a knack for making optimal decisions that affected immediate conditions and helped positively shape future conditions.

4. What are some of the most important lessons in leadership he left us?

Courage — physical and moral — are essential. So is responsibility, the responsibility to realistically assess conditions, plan realistically, then take action and take responsibility for the consequences. These are, of course, old lessons. He had goals, did he ever, but he was no ideologue. But he knew no plan survives enemy contact — successful generals adapt as the situation evolves.

5. What made Ataturk tick? What were his greatest influences?

He had great pride: Personal pride and nationalist pride. The Ottoman Empire’s technological backwardness and economic weakness, when compared to Western Europe, stung him. He wanted Turks to stand on their own, as equals, with other European nations. He was a man of action and that meant changing the Ottoman Empire — modernizing it. Like many modernizers of his generation, he looked at the French Revolution as an example of systemic change. He read widely, if sometimes shallowly. He sought ways to implement and sustain positive economic change and political re-organization. Sukru Hanioglu has a very good book published this year on Ataturk’s intellectual influences. Princeton University Press.

6. In what ways is Ataturk relevant to us today?            

Arab Spring 2011 is complex — it’s about many things. Revolutions always are. But there is a question that helps frame Arab Spring in an essential way: “How do you modernize a culturally-Islamic society?” For Arab Spring revolutionaries — the modernizers, not the militant Islamists, they’re just totalitarians in robes — for the revolutionaries who are focusing on jobs and political accountability, Ataturk provides a vision and a type of pragmatic guidance to policy.

Here’s the way I put it in a recent speech and an article. In order to avoid fossilization like what occurred in the Ottoman Empire, you have to encourage and protect creative renewal. That’s a tough trick. It involves a vision of the future and also a concept of what modernity is. Modernity is a fuzzy term, but it definitely connects to a condition which rewards creativity unchecked by clerics and ayatollahs and tyrants — and, for that matter, generals launching coups. He thought a political system built around a parliamentary democracy is best suited to sustaining social and economic creativity. He also knew you need courageous, honest soldiers committed to defending democratic pluralism. Modernizing revolutionaries who want to keep their popular revolution popular and productive should take note.

7. What would Ataturk think of modern Turkey?  

He’d be bowled over. Despite coups, the Cold War and uncomfortable neighbors, Turkey has a vibrant civil society, an expanding middle class, democratic elections, and, much to the frequent displeasure of its thin-skinned prime minister, a lively and critical free media.

8. Do you see any Ataturks in the Arab Spring? And what would Ataturk think the Arab revolutions taking place?

No, unfortunately I do not. But Ataturks are rare. A visionary pragmatist? That’s a bit of an oxymoron. A military genius who wanted a nation exercising — to use his phrase — humanist sentiments. He was unusual and right now we could use him. As for Arab Spring, I’m sure he would support the Arab Spring modernizers. He would be very suspicious of militant Islamist subversion.

9. What responsibility, if any, does Ataturk have for the Armenian massacres that occurred in Turkey, often referred to as the Armenian genocide?

Ataturk spent 1915 fighting the British — Aussies and New Zealanders, mostly — at Gallipoli. That’s when the greatest depredations against Armenians occurred. I address this in a very long end note, the kind of end note that could start another book as well as several arguments. It’s on page 184.

10. Any plans to write another book? If so about what?

I’d like to write another book on the continuing significance of World War I. This book on Ataturk touches on that. In fact, this book is an introduction to World War I — the Balkan powder keg and Ottoman imperial decay in some detail, the Great Power competition in Europe, the Near East and North Africa incidentally. But there is so much more to say. World War I shaped and misshaped the 20th century. That’s been said before. To a degree we’re dealing with it in the 21st century.

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Jamie Weinstein