The Skeptics

Will Erdogan Permanently Damage the U.S.-Turkey Alliance?

An important part of international diplomacy is making the outrageous palatable. Extortion and menace are routine aspects of foreign relations. Other than extreme examples such as North Korea, however, governments normally veil their threats. Pretense is a diplomatic virtue.

Not for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a sultan wannabe who has accumulated increasingly dictatorial powers along with an extravagant presidential palace to match. He frankly admitted to holding an American as a human chit to trade for Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of planning the unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt. “Give us the pastor back,” said Erdogan. “You have one pastor” of ours. “Give him to us. You can easily give him to us. You can give him right away. Then we will try [American Andrew Brunson] and give him to you.”

Despite President Donald Trump’s strange new respect for dictators, Erdogan is hostile toward America. Washington should drop the pretense that Ankara is an ally. There always will be areas for cooperation, but these days the Turkish government is as likely to oppose as support U.S. interests and values.

When Erdogan’s party first won election in 2002, the former Istanbul mayor was a liberator. He helped dismantle the authoritarian-nationalist state created by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Among Erdogan’s most fervent backers were liberals. One of his signal achievements was putting the military back into its barracks. The Justice and Development Party, though Islamist, even improved the treatment of women, addressing domestic violence, for instance.

However, a few years ago Erdogan shifted course. He once stated that democracy was like a train: you get off when you reach your destination. He apparently reached that destination after the party won its third parliamentary election in 2011. As charges of corruption mushroomed, Erdogan’s government became more authoritarian and Islamist. After losing his parliamentary majority in 2015, he won it back by playing the Kurdish card, ramping up the brutal campaign against the radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party that had previously cost tens of thousands of lives.

Erdogan’s rise was aided by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in the United States who built a global religious and social movement, known as Hizmet. Two decades ago Gulen received political asylum when authoritarian secularists dominated Turkish politics. Gulen’s loyalists were many, but his political ambitions remained a matter of debate. In 2013, the politician and preacher turned on each other. Gulen’s followers in police and prosecution offices investigated alleged corruption reaching Erdogan, and Erdogan retaliated by purging Gulenists from security agencies.

The Justice and Development Party also shrunk the space for other critics. Opposition businessmen faced politically motivated regulatory attacks and tax investigations. The regime seized independent media organizations, arrested journalists and intimidated critics. The government sued hundreds of Turks, including school kids, for insulting Erdogan. The increasingly brutal assault against the Kurds turned communities into war zones. So far hundreds of civilians have died, perhaps a half million have been displaced, scores of local officials have been dismissed, and security forces have been immunized from prosecution.

The latest State Department human-rights report cited “arbitrary deprivation of life and other unlawful or politically motivated killings,” “inconsistent access to due process,” “government interference with freedom of expression,” “inadequate protection of civilians,” “prison overcrowding,” failing to “maintain effective control over security forces,” “an atmosphere of fear that further limited judicial independence,” and “threats, discrimination and violence” against numerous minority groups.

Erdogan also turned Turkey in a more Islamist direction. As prime minister (later president) he began by ending the military-dominated Kemalist state’s enforced secularism, freeing people to publicly live their faith. But he later conscripted the system for religious ends, encroaching upon the Turkish people’s social freedoms.

Over time his foreign policy also turned hostile. Ankara long tolerated Islamic State activities across its border into Syria. Erdogan’s government conducted military operations against Syrian Kurds working with the United States against Islamic State forces. The Turkish military downed a Russian plane in Syria, raising tensions with Moscow, but Erdogan later reconciled with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Ankara, nominally a member of NATO, recently ordered S-400 anti-air missiles.

Erdogan’s relationship with U.S. and Western leaders deteriorated even further after the failed July 2016 coup. Not everyone in the West seemed disturbed by the attempted ouster of the Turkish president—even though a military takeover would have been the cure that killed the patient. His government had been reelected multiple times; the likely result of a successful putsch would have been civil war.

Unfortunately, rather like Adolf Hitler and the infamous 1933 Reichstag fire, the Turkish president used the attempted putsch as an opportunity to crush all opposition. Any criticism was treated as veritable treason. (So quick was he to take advantage of the badly managed coup that some observers suggested that Erdogan likely staged it.)

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