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Is Turkey's military plotting to overthrow
its government? 

Americans may kvetch about our red vs. blue bipolar politics,
but we've got nothing on Turkey

Let's play trivia!

There's no cheating, so turn off your smart phones and shut down your computer or else you're disqualified (unless you're reading this on a computer or a smart phone, in which case, never mind).

OK, ready?

Q: Which NATO giant has a powerful and vocal ultra-nationalist minority that refuses to accept the result of the country's fair, democratic elections, in part because they worry their country's elected leader has a secret plan to fatally subvert the nation's constitution with Islam?

Um, maybe that's too vague. Let me rephrase.

Which NATO giant other than the United States?

You don't know!?! OK, here's a hint: The answer's in boldfaced type at the top of this page. That's right, Turkey!

Americans may kvetch about our poisonous, left vs. right, red vs. blue, donkey vs. elephant bipolar politics, but when it comes to internal strife, we've got nothing on our pals over in Turkey.

As of me typing this, 31 current and former Turkish military officers have been charged in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow the Turkish government. Among those charged is the former head of Turkey's First Army region, General Cetin Dogan. To put that in perspective, imagine how odd and frightening it would be to democracy-loving Americans of all political stripes if Gulf War hero Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf or Surgin' General David Petraeus was arrested for plotting the violent overthrow of the Obama administration.

Details about the alleged plot are just now reaching the public thanks to the Turkish newspaper Taraf, which somehow got a hold of 5,000 or so pages of secret Turkish military documents. The plot itself appears to be at least seven years old. It was apparently hatched in 2003, just after the 2002 election of the Islamic Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

The plan, known as Sledgehammer, was Listerine-like in its diabolical cleverness. Students of marketing may recall that back in 1921, Listerine invented a fictional disease, halitosis, for the express purpose of selling its cure – the company's namesake mouthwash.

Well, back in 2003, elements of Turkey's military allegedly planned to trigger a national security crisis for the express purpose of stepping in to solve said crisis. The plot apparently involved plans to detonate bombs in Turkish mosques, as well as hatching ways to trigger a military confrontation with rival Greece by shooting down an airliner over the Aegean Sea. The plotters' hope was to so weaken the nation's confidence in the country's newly elected Islamist government that people wouldn't object to the military shoving aside that government.

The rise of Islamist political parties in Turkey is not welcome by Turkey's military or by many regular Turks. Many Turks view the strict separation of religion and government as the core characteristic of the modern Turkish state.

The Turkish Republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, believed the comingling of Islam and the government led to the Ottoman Turkish Empire's weakening during the 18th and 19th centuries – and ultimately its downfall after World War I. Prior to Ataturk, Turkey was ruled by monarchs who considered themselves not only the leader of Turkey, but also the leader of Muslims all over the world. Modern Turkey's military views itself as the guardian of the wall Ataturk built to divide mosque and state.

Sledgehammer wasn't the first or last time the country's military has clashed with democratically elected Islamist leaders in Turkey. In 1997, Turkey's military forced an Islamist government's collapse with a threatening memo. In 2007, the military tried the same thing – posting a threatening note on the military's website in response to the nomination of Islamist Abdullah Gul to Turkey's presidency.

Sensing public opinion was decisively in its favor, the AKP called the military's bluff and called for new elections that were essentially an army vs. Islamist referendum. The AKP sensed correctly and won big.

The recent arrests of once-untouchable military muckety-mucks suggests Turkey's government is increasingly confident it can take on the military without risking a coup. In fact, critics of the government say the arrests are as power-grabby as the military's supposed coup plot.

Maybe so, but the country is better off resolving its army vs. government clash with trials and elections rather than tanks and guns.

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