Opinion

Nice-guy Obama fails Turkey's democracy

The Obama administration has been far too solicitous of Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan and his increasingly authoritarian ways. Its reasoning is based on the flawed assumption that being nice will ensure cooperation from this strategic ally. That hasn't been the case.

By , Op-ed contributor

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    A man flies a kite on a roof at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, as thousands of protesters returned to the square on Saturday to demand justice for a demonstrator slain by police fire during demonstrations in June. Op-ed writer Steven A. Cook says: 'The lesson from Turkey's current drama is straightforward: The US can secure its strategic interests and maintain its ideals simultaneously.'
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The US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, took a lot of criticism from Turkish activists when, after almost a month of street protests here, he affirmed Washington's support for Ankara in both good times and bad.

Given Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's efforts to blame his sudden political problems on unidentified "foreign agents," "Zionists," and even the American Enterprise Institute think tank, the ambassador's diplomatic niceties were prudent. A strong American rebuke would have handed Mr. Erdogan a gift by making the United States – not the demonstrations – the story in Turkey.

For all of Washington's diplomatic deftness during the crisis, however, the Obama administration has been far too solicitous of Erdogan and his increasingly authoritarian ways over the past five years. Its reasoning is based on the flawed assumption that being nice will ensure cooperation from this strategic ally that straddles Europe and the greater Middle East.

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Such a calculus is just another example of Washington choosing realism over idealism in foreign affairs. In this case, it would be far better for the US to err on the side of idealism. Washington has missed an opportunity to encourage Erdogan, who presided over impressive political reforms early in his tenure, to continue Turkey's transition to a liberal democracy.

When President Obama took office in January 2009, he was determined to improve US-Turkey relations after six years of tension over the American invasion of Iraq, which borders Turkey. Mr. Obama put Turkey on the itinerary for his first overseas visit that April, and worked hard to give meaning to the "model partnership."

There were good strategic reasons for righting the relationship. When the president first took stock of US foreign policy, he must have noted that Turkey sat at the center of all of Washington's pressing foreign-policy concerns. Ankara was involved in debates as diverse and important as the future of NATO, of which it is a member, and how to ensure a unified and federal Iraq.

There was also a sense among senior US policymakers – even well before the Arab Spring uprisings – that a prosperous and democratizing Turkey, under a party of Islamist patrimony no less, could somehow be a model for the Arab world.

Relations were not always smooth, however. The sharp deterioration of Turkey-Israel relations that began with the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in late 2008 put Washington in an awkward position between two key allies. The first half of 2010 was particularly difficult with a string of miscommunications over nuclear negotiations with Iran's and Turkey's votes against additional United Nations sanctions on the Islamic Republic. These and other incidents had US officials wondering why Turkey "wasn't acting like a NATO ally."

Obama and Erdogan met in private at a Group of 20 summit in June 2010 and hashed out their differences. It was at that Toronto summit that the two leaders gained new respect for each other and built a friendship that began an alleged golden age in bilateral relations.

From then on, strategic ties between Washington and Ankara deepened while there was a "willful blindness," according to one former US official, to Erdogan's increasingly nondemocratic approach to governing. In one odd moment in September 2010, for example, the US (along with the European Union) praised judicial reform that did not actually reform the judiciary – an urgent need – but rather made it possible for Erdogan to pack the courts.

The State Department made sporadic statements about the quality of Turkish politics during Obama's first term, including a strong statement in 2011 about freedom of the press from then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. More recently, Ambassador Ricciardone spoke out about human rights, but Turkey's deputy prime minister promptly told him to mind his own business.

Mostly, the White House, which tightly controls Turkish policy, has been silent. The Obama administration has given the Turkish government a pass on its intimidation of the press and efforts to clamp down on freedom of expression, its legislative highhandedness and use of machinery of the state to strike fear in the hearts of businesspeople who disagree with the government, and the not-so-subtle effort to write a constitution that serves Erdogan's ambition to move from the premiership to a newly powerful presidency – in contrast to the current relatively weak configuration.

Those opposed to calling out Erdogan for his authoritarian ways argue that Washington needs Ankara for a variety of important issues, and, as a result, the US should not rock the boat with a strategic ally. But this does not stand up under scrutiny.

The US has held back on criticism of Turkey's democratic deviations, and yet that has not prevented Washington and Ankara from recent disagreements over Israel, Syria, and, increasingly, Iraq. If suddenly the US sharply increased its criticism of Erdogan (as German leader Angela Merkel has done), and also moved closer to Ankara's position of more robust involvement in Syria (as Washington now seems to be doing), it is unlikely that the Turks would rebuff Washington's new approach in a fit of pique.

Finally, Turkey has moved closer to the US on Iran not because the White House has overlooked Erdogan's authoritarian turn, but rather because the Turks finally recognized that Tehran's regional ambitions threatened Turkey's own goals.

With protests in Istanbul and other cities, there is little the US could or should do to try to influence politics in Turkey. The political tumult resulting from the Gezi Park demonstrations is a Turkish story. Yet in the five years leading up to the demonstrations when the US could have signaled to Erdogan the importance of democratic politics, Washington balked based on a false assumption that it would disrupt bilateral strategic cooperation.

There is a Turkish saying that good friends "speak bitterly to good friends." In its effort to build strong ties with Ankara, the Obama administration should have taken that advice to heart. The lesson from Turkey's current drama is straightforward: The US can secure its strategic interests and maintain its ideals simultaneously.

Everyone will likely be better off as a result.

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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