Washington Got Turkey’s Dictator So Wrong
By Eli Lake and Josh
March 31, 2016
When Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits
Washington this week, it will be an opportunity for President Barack Obama, as
well as most of the Washington foreign policy establishment, to ponder how they
so misread a man they had touted only a few years ago as a great reformer.
Until 2013, Obama himself boasted of his close personal
friendship with the Turkish leader. In 2013, the last time Erdogan visited
Washington, Obama praised his Turkish counterpart for his efforts to normalize
relations with Israel and for a cease-fire with Kurdish separatists. Obama even thanked
Erdogan for his child-rearing tips.
This time it will be much different. Erdogan will get no
formal meeting with Obama this week when he will be in town for a nuclear
security summit, though he will be officially meeting with Vice President Joe
Biden. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that he expects
Obama and Erdogan will have an “informal discussion" instead.
The Wall Street Journal reported this
week that Obama turned down an invitation from the Turkish leader to attend the
opening of a Turkish-funded Mosque in Maryland. Obama recently
told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that he considers his old friend
to be a "failure and an authoritarian."
Even some of Turkey's closest friends in Washington are now
warning that Erdogan is becoming a tyrant. “Within the past decade, many of
Turkey’s friends here were optimistic about your country’s potential to
become a vibrant and stable democracy as well as a strong and capable U.S. ally.
Recent developments in Turkey, however, are deeply troubling," states an
open letter to the Turkish president drafted by two former U.S.
ambassadors to Turkey, Mort Abramowitz and Eric Edelman. That letter is to be
released Wednesday by the Bipartisan Policy Center and has 48 signatories,
including former senators Chuck Robb and Joe Lieberman.
Representative Steve Cohen, a Democratic co-chairman of the
Congressional caucus on U.S.-Turkish relations, which has supported
strengthening U.S. ties to Erdogan's government, told us the Turkish leader's
effort "to consolidate his power and his crack down on the press is
Erdogan has intensified his campaign against his political
opposition since his party lost elections last June. His coalition regained a
parliamentary majority in November, after Erdogan called for a new vote in
August, following his new military campaign against Turkey's Kurdish minority.
Over the past year, more than a thousand people have been
charged with the crime of insulting Erdogan personally, and hundreds of
academics have been investigated or disciplined for questioning his
government’s anti-terror policies. The letter from the Bipartisan Policy
Center also notes that Erdogan's government has taken over the largest Turkish
opposition newspaper, Zaman. “Why shouldn’t people in the European Union and
the United States be concerned about the prospects for a free media in
Turkey?” the letter asks.
And while these latest developments are significant, the
signs that Erdogan was a dictator-in-waiting have been hiding in plain sight. In
2010, Erdogan and his top ministers froze Turkey's relationship with Israel,
accusing the Jewish state of treating Palestinians the way Nazis had treated
Jews. In 2013, Erdogan ordered his police to disrupt peaceful demonstrations in
Gezi Park, a conflict which resulted in 11 deaths, more than 8,000 injuries and
more than 3,000 arrests.
Edelman, who served as ambassador to Turkey between 2003
and 2005, in late December 2004 wrote a
blistering cable to Washington warning: "Inside the party,
Erdogan's hunger for power reveals itself in a sharp authoritarian style and
deep distrust of others." In the same cable, Edelman writes that Erdogan
desired "absolute power," and that he was rumored to have huge sums in
Swiss bank accounts.
Edelman told us that despite these warnings, the U.S. gave
Erdogan a pass.
"In both the Bush and Obama administrations we tended
to overlook what was domestically going on in Turkey," Edelman said.
"We always had some piece of business that seemed to override the domestic
Abramowitz, who served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey from
1989 to 1991, told us that it was easier to overlook Erdogan's authoritarian
leanings earlier in his career because he did institute important domestic
reforms. For example, Erdogan until last summer supported more civil-rights
reforms for Turkey's Kurdish minority, allowing Kurdish schools to teach their
children in Kurdish as opposed to Turkish.
“The U.S. tries to give Turkey a wide swath, always
wanting to work something out with Turkey,” Abramowitz said. “The problem
was the changes he made in his early years have now been overtaken by his thirst
for power, his achievement of that power, and his doing of some very
James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador between 2008
and 2010, told us that the U.S. was always aware of Erdogan's human-rights
abuses. "Did we raise his early crackdowns on the press and the military in
meetings and in press releases? Yes," Jeffrey said. "Did we ever
threaten significant consequences in the bilateral relationship? No."
Jeffrey agreed with the assessment that Erdogan today is an
authoritarian. Though he added: "Nobody foresaw the recklessness with which
he would start dismantling the entire democratic system in Turkey. He was
obviously an authoritarian, but in a normal political system, his defeat in June
would have stopped him." Jeffrey said Erdogan's decision to call new
elections for November, as the country was reeling from a wave of terrorist
attacks, led Turks to go with the "devil they knew," and return his
coalition to power.
As Obama finishes his final year in office, he is stuck
with that known quantity in Turkey -- an ex-friend he thought he knew who turned
out to be an authoritarian he can no longer trust.