The US foreign policy community has been making quite a few waves on Turkey lately. Barely a month ago, two former US ambassadors to Turkey wrote a scathing op-ed in Washington Post criticizing Erdogan and the AKP in its civil war with former allies in the Gulen movement. Yesterday, a who’s-who of the US foreign policy community wrote an open letter to Barack Obama claiming Erdogan is “subverting Turkey’s political institutions and values and endangering the U.S.-Turkey relationship.”
It’s certainly a good thing that influential policy leaders are aware of the real risk that Turkey’s fragile democracy could erode into an authoritarian one-party state. But the Skeptic in me feels these interventions lack a crucial component. Dani Rodrik voiced this in what I think is probably the best paragraph I read on Turkey this week:
We cannot look at all this and focus only on what Erdogan is doing without at least acknowledging that the Gulenists also bear considerable responsibility for bringing the country to its current crisis. The idea that there was something like the rule of law or Turkey was democratizing before Erdogan began to tighten the screws on the Gulen movement is dangerous nonsense. Those who call on Erdogan to respect democracy and the rule of law should be calling on the Gulen movement to do the same. Otherwise, they end up taking sides in a war in which neither side looks pretty.
It’s hard to keep a straight face reading some of the above linked interventions. One wonders where these concern were during the height of the Ergenekon, Sledgehammer trials, and KCK trials, which are only the most recent of Turkey’s long list of tainted political trials. I don’t remember seeing any concerns voiced after the Roboski massacre, when fighter jets bombed 40 (mostly-teenager) Kurdish villagers crossing the Iraq.
In regards to this, my inner Cynic is quite informative. In addition to noting that Kurdish villagers do not give a lot of political donations to US politicians, moreover the the apparent shift in many US policymakers’ views on Turkey may not be about its quality of democracy at all (perhaps it should, though).
Instead, as Michael Koplow explains in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the US has been getting increasingly annoyed with Turkey’s government for a host of other (not necessarily related to the quality of democracy) events. You should read the whole article but among a few key points that likely underlie the likely end of the US-Turkey “model relationship” are:
- Better Iran-Turkey relations
- Support for anti-Western Islamist rebels in Syria
- Problematic relations with Israel
- Procuring controversial missile defense systems from China
A fifth reason, missing in Koplow’s article (understandably since it focuses more international relations) is what is central to Rodrik’s argument, the conflict with the Gülen movement. Any causal follower of Turkey would be aware of the movement’s wide business (and indirectly, political) network in the US thru schools and political donations. Several of the signatories to the bipartisan letter as well as various op-ed articles are not unfamiliar to the movement (see here and here).
All in all, these (non-exhaustive) points suggest that Erdoğan has alienated enough of groups with influence in US politics to possibly gain a critical mass where actual foreign policy could shift.
My first concern is that none of these reasons are necessarily about the quality of democracy in Turkey or human rights, and any action Erdoğan can take to improve his relations with the US are unlikely going to be about improving democracy.
My second concern is that worse than a leader having a clean slate from the US to do whatever to your own country’s institutions, is a US foreign policy that swings too much against Turkey, and decides to act accordingly. Recent history is full of unfortunate examples of how countries suffer when their rulers outlive their friendship with the US.