It’s not just the leaks. At Slate, Phillip Carter argued that pushback from career officials had helped prevent Trump from instituting a plan to reinstate torture, labeling this the work of a deep state.
Not everyone buys the analogy.
“I wouldn’t call what is going on in the United States a Deep State,” said Omer Taspinar, a professor at the National War College and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who is an expert on both national security and Turkey.
The Turkish Deep State is something different, Taspinar contends—a clandestine network of retired intelligence officials, mafiosi, and others who engage in prosecutable criminal activity. He offered a hypothetical scenario that would echo the sorts of tactics the Turkish Deep State deployed in the war against Kurdish separatists: Imagine if white nationalists with ties to the administration conducted false-flag attacks intended to gin up concerns about Islamist terror and enable Trump’s tough immigration controls.
“It was not the judiciary, the civil society, the media, or the bureaucrats trying to engage in checks and balances against a legitimately elected government,” he said. “What we’re witnessing in the U.S., it’s basically the institutional channels.”
Even leaking, which sometimes does flirt with violating the law, doesn’t deserve to be tarred as the work of a nefarious deep state, Taspinar said.
“Anything that would try to portray what the leakers, or what the government officials try to do as a ‘Deep State’ is an attempt to delegitimize whistleblowers or people who believe that what the government is doing right [now] is against the Constitution,” he said. “Any kind of bureaucratic resistance is too innocuous to be labeled as the activities of the Deep State.”
Perhaps there needs to be a better term for the resistance that bureaucrats offer to presidents they oppose. (After all, some experts contend they also hobbled Obama on some issues.) But one common element, from whistleblowers to bureaucratic leakers to violent Deep State thugs in Turkey, is a commitment to certain norms and practices, and the sense that the only way to defend norms is to violate them on a case-by-case basis.
And as the Turkish example shows, that works—up to a point. The problem is that when a deep state pushes too far, it can undermine itself and end up empowering that which it seeks to prevent. The Turkish military repeatedly toppled governments, starting in 1960. But more recently, its power has waned. Current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used allegations of Deep State plotting against the government as a pretext for mass arrests of dissidents, detention of journalists, and further crackdowns on civil society. In July, some elements of the Turkish military attempted a coup, but were too weak to succeed. Even Turkish liberals who disliked Erdogan condemned the coup. The Deep State now seems too weak to work real change, but the threat is strong enough to allow Erdogan to discredit legitimate opposition.