Why President Obama stopped calling Turkish leader Erdogan

The US used to hold Turkey up as a role model for the Middle East. But today, as it floats the possibility of banning Facebook and YouTube, Turkey has lost its shine.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks during their joint news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, May 16, 2013. President Obama once spoke regularly with Mr. Erdogan, and for years the White House held up Turkey as a role model for the Middle East.

News that hasn’t hit the headlines – yet

When President Barack Obama was preparing for military strikes on Syria last August, he called everyone who mattered – everyone except Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, although Turkey is a NATO ally that borders Syria and deeply opposes the Assad regime.

President Obama once spoke regularly with Mr. Erdogan, and for years the White House held up Turkey as a role model of a successful Islam-rooted democracy.

But when Mr. Obama called Mr. Erdogan on Feb. 19, it was after six months of silence – a reflection of Washington’s displeasure at how Mr. Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) handled antigovernment protests last spring and their resorting to anti-Western conspiracy theories, blaming everyone from business newspapers and bankers to Jews and Americans. 

“It wasn’t the brute force the police used [that caused the distance]… it was the discourse of the AKP and Erdogan and all the AKP-controlled newspapers about a conspiracy – a conspiracy to overthrow the Turkish government,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey specialist at Lehigh University, speaking at at the Sulaimani Forum, an annual gathering hosted by the American University of Iraq, Sulaimaniyeh.

“That came as a shock to the United States,” said Mr. Barkey. “They quickly came to the realization that…at a very senior level [Turkish officials] actually believed what they were saying.”

Erdogan mounted a divisive "us vs. them" attack on Turkish critics who had accused him and the AKP of "authoritarian" behavior. He called them political losers linked to "terrorists" who had violated "our" mosques.

Late yesterday, Erdogan said Facebook and YouTube may be banned in Turkey after local elections on March 30 because the social media sites were being abused by his enemies. 

Last May, Erdogan, his foreign minister and intelligence chief had dinner at the White House. Within weeks antigovernment protests had begun in Istanbul's Gezi Park. 

“The president doesn’t invite people to his own house very often,” said Barkey. “So it was actually a big gesture on the part of Obama, and yet two weeks later these same people were turning around and accusing essentially the US government and US institutions.”

Erdogan and the AKP have since been plagued by an ever-widening corruption scandal, fed by leaked wiretapped conversations of the prime minister, that has felled several cabinet ministers. In response, the government has reassigned thousands of police and hundreds of investigators, accusing them of running a “parallel state” for a US-based cleric and erstwhile ally Fethulleh Gulen.

The municipal elections at the end of March will show how much Erdogan and the AKP have been damaged by the protests, conspiracies, and string of corruption allegations.

Obama was reluctant to make the February call to Erdogan, says Barkey, "but he realized that he had to say something because too much had gone by." The official White House readout of the call said diplomatically that the president, among other issues, “noted the importance of sound policies rooted in the rule of law.” 

"Erdogan is still going to remain as a central figure; he’s not going away that soon,” says Barkey. “But he’s no longer going to be seen as the transformative leader he had aimed to be. The United States no longer looks at him this way, but…sees him as creating uncertainty and potential instability.”

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