Frayed Alliance

02.20.14

New Calls For Obama To Confront Turkey

Experts and former officials from both parties sent a letter to the White House Thursday, asking the administration to speak out on Turkey's poor record democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

More than 80 top foreign policy figures from across the political spectrum wrote President Obama Thursday and asked him to end the U.S. government’s tacit approval of what they describe as the anti-democratic actions of Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan and his government.

“Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly undermining a central pillar of the decades-long, strategic U.S.-Turkish partnership:  Turkey’s growing democracy,” reads the letter, organized by the right-leaning Foreign Policy Initiative, the left-leaning Center for American Progress, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Freedom House. “We are writing because of our deep dismay at this development and to urge you to make clear to the Turkish public America’s concern about Turkey’s current path. Silence will only encourage Prime Minister Erdoğan to diminish the rule of law in the country even further.”

The letter was signed by several former Obama administration officials including White House senior director Dennis Ross, State Department policy planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Julianne Smith, an advisor to the Vice President. Republican signatories include Ambassador John Bolton, Sen. Norm Coleman, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.

According to the experts and former officials, Obama has been turning a blind eye to Erdogan’s descent into autocracy.  In their opinion, this alarming trend in Turkey has accelerated since last summer, when Turkish authorities used a heavy hand to disperse street protests and Erdogan denounced the protestors as “looters” while blaming foreign conspirators for the unrest.

Erdogan is also actively trying to cover up a huge corruption scandal which has engulfed his government since December, according to the letter. The Turkish Prime Minister has dismissed or reassigned thousands of prosecutors and police officers involved in the scandal, which ties Turkish government officials and even Erdogan’s son through shady business deals with Iran and al Qaeda.

The Erdogan govenrment has also imposed restrictions on internet freedom and freedom of the press. A new law would allow the government to block any website that has “insulting” content and Turkey still holds more journalists in prison than any other nation in the world. 

“These developments have already roiled Turkey’s economy, polarized its society, and endangered its political stability,” the letter reads. “Some might argue that because the United States has many interests with Turkey—not least of which is ending the violence in Syria and easing the suffering of its people—it should not risk alienating its ally. Should Turkey succumb to the authoritarian impulses currently on display, however, it would have profound implications for our ability to work together and, therefore, for our deepest interests.”

Top Obama administration officials have made it very clear they have no intention of commenting, much less getting involved in Turkey’s internal turmoil. Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and promised Washington wouldn’t interfere.

“We did also talk about the importance of both of our commitments to rule of law and to democracy and to the process of both of our countries respecting each other’s political process,” said Kerry at the time. “And I think the minister understood and made it clear that the United States of America has absolutely no interest in being caught up in or engaged in or involved in the internal politics, the election process of Turkey. And we are not.”

Obama spoke with Erdogan by phone Wednesday to talk about “a range of bilateral and regional issues,” according to a White House read out of the call. No mention was made of Erdogan’s anti-democratic tendencies. However, Obama “noted the importance of sound policies rooted in the rule of law to reassure the financial markets, nurture a predictable investment environment, strengthen bilateral ties, and benefit the future of Turkey.”

For a large portion of the foreign policy community in Washington, that amounts to a willful ignorance of the Turkish government’s activities and an abdication of American responsibility to deliver some tough love to its longtime ally.

“We fear that Prime Minister Erdoğan and the Turkish public have taken American silence to mean that the Prime Minister retains U.S. support and can proceed as he wishes.  In the meanwhile, the damage to Turkey’s democracy keeps worsening,” they wrote. “We believe it is important now to make it clear, privately and publicly, that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s autocratic actions and demagoguery are subverting Turkey’s political institutions and values and endangering the U.S.-Turkey relationship.”