Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent reelection – complete with constitutional changes eliminating the post of prime minister and downgrading the role of parliament – steers longtime U.S. ally Turkey further away from liberal democracy and ever closer to authoritarianism.
Today’s Turkey is a reminder that standing up for democracy while standing by less-than-democratic allies is one of the great tests of U.S. statecraft. President Ronald Reagan offered an example of how America can stay true to its friends and its ideals. It all begins with having a set of core beliefs to guide U.S. foreign policy. Before learning from Reagan’s example, we need to talk Turkey.
Not free while serving as Istanbul mayor in the 1990s, Erdogan was arrested for fomenting religious hatred, after declaring, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” It was an early indication of Erdogan’s bent toward Islamist governance – something that’s at odds with liberal democracy.
Also during his stint as Istanbul mayor, Erdogan explained, “Democracy is like a train: We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want.” This provided a window into Erdogan’s views on political power and a glimpse of what Erdogan would do if he ever gained control over the Republic of Turkey.
In 2003, Erdogan became prime minister – a post he has since abolished – and by 2010, Erdogan’s party was using brute political force to weaken the judiciary and shut down newspapers.
In 2014, he was elected president and proceeded to transform what had been a ceremonial head-of-state role into a powerful – and largely unchecked – chief executive.
By early 2016, Freedom House concluded that Erdogan “exhibited increasingly authoritarian behavior.” And in summer 2016, the backlash created by his authoritarian style spawned an attempted coup. Erdogan used the coup as a pretext to eliminate his opposition.
As CNN details, a year after the coup, Erdogan’s security forces had arrested/detained 113,000 people, including 1,000 police officers, 7,500 military personnel, 2,500 judges and prosecutors, and 2,700 journalists.
In the months following the coup, the Erdogan government summarily fired 1,577 college deans, 40,000 civil servants (including 4,000 judges) and 40 percent of Turkey’s general officers.
In mid-2018, Erdogan’s unchecked state machinery dismissed another 18,632 people from the civil service, including nearly 9,000 police officers and hundreds of teachers, as the Guardian reports.
If that many people had been involved in the coup, it quite simply wouldn’t have failed. But Erdogan, like all despots, was – and is – paranoid. The coup fed his paranoia – and fueled his drive to stamp out any opposition to his one-man rule. Thus, he has shut down 1,200 schools, 370 civil-society groups, 179 media outlets, 50 hospitals and 15 universities – transforming Turkey into “an open-air prison,” in the words of a purged public-transit operator.
In the days following the coup, Erdogan grounded flights into and out of the U.S. airbase at Incirlik – in the middle of the air war against ISIS – and his government has continually threatened to pull the plug on the strategically-located facility U.S. and NATO assets have relied on since the 1950s.
“In the aftermath of the coup, there were several attempts to impress upon the United States that Incirlik could be cut off at any time,” according to former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman. By March 2018, word leaked that the Pentagon was considering a dramatic drawback from Incirlik.
Erdogan’s Turkey – ostensibly a NATO ally – also has barred German officials from visiting German military personnel based in Incirlik, threatened to target U.S. forces operating in Syria, armed Hamas terrorists, purchased weapons systems from Russia and turned decidedly toward Moscow on the international stage.
Add it all up, and it’s no surprise Freedom House has downgraded Turkey to the “Not Free” category – citing the centralization of power under Erdogan, mass-removal of elected mayors, arbitrary prosecutions and civil-service purges.
This is not a defense of the military coup that tried to take down Erdogan. Although the military has intervened in Turkish politics several times over the decades, military coups are seldom the pathway to liberal democracy, as Gen. Sisi’s Egypt reminds us. Of course, it’s evident that “Erdoganism” is not the pathway to liberal democracy, either.
Unbeatable Given its strategic location, NATO membership and contribution to U.S. security interests over the decades, Turkey represents one of those tough tests for Washington in trying to balance U.S. interests and ideals. It’s a test Washington hasn’t aced.
Early on, President Barack Obama put a lot of faith in Erdogan – and gave him a lot of latitude. Hoping Turkey could play a larger role in regional security, “Obama began to court Erdogan, whom he saw as a moderate Muslim democrat who could help him stabilize the Middle East,” as Politico details.
But events across the Middle East – the fracturing of Iraq after U.S. withdrawal, the Arab Spring uprisings, the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria, the involvement of Iran and Russia in Syria, the coup in Turkey – overwhelmed Obama’s well-intentioned plans.
After the coup, the Obama administration urged “restraint by the Turkish government and respect for due process” and “the rule of law.” But by then, it was too late. Erdogan had ridden the train of democracy to his desired destination – using democratic means to undermine Turkey’s democratic institutions.
President Donald Trump has taken an approach similar to Obama’s – one that downplays Turkey’s democracy deficit and emphasizes Turkey’s role in bolstering U.S. interests.
“I think Turkey can do a lot against ISIS,” Trump said in 2016. “We need allies. I don’t know that we have a right to lecture.”
In 2017, Trump explained, “We face a new enemy in the fight against terrorism, and again we seek to face this threat together ... working together with President Erdogan on achieving peace and security in the Middle East.” Calling the U.S.-Turkey military partnership “unbeatable,” Trump returned to his theme from 2016: “We want to get as many to help fight terrorism as possible.”
To his credit, Trump has recently increased political and economic pressure on the Erdogan government in an effort to gain the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who's been detained on dubious espionage charges.
Addition Obama and Trump’s realpolitik approach to Erdogan’s Turkey is understandable. But it certainly leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.
What Reagan’s example teaches is that it’s helpful and indeed necessary – especially amidst these moral mismatches with less-than-democratic partners and allies – to talk about freedom, the rule of law and liberal democracy. Reagan didn’t lecture America’s allies, but he never was afraid to use the language of freedom to challenge less-than-democratic partners to aspire to something better for their people. Nor was he afraid to offer material and moral support to civil-society groups, independent journalists, universities and NGOs – what he called “the infrastructure of democracy.” Erdogan’s targeting of these groups speaks volumes about his long-term goals.
Reagan understood the best way – perhaps the only way – to balance U.S. interests and American ideals is to keep an eye on the big picture. For Reagan, the big picture was defeating the Soviet Empire – America’s main enemy after World War II. Operating from that framework, Reagan backed pro-democracy and anti-communist movements (the two were not always one in the same) in Poland and Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Africa, El Salvador and Nicaragua. All the while, Reagan supported partners like Turkey, South Korea and Spain as they struggled through difficult transitions to democracy. And he stood by partners like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, even though they were less than democratic, recognizing that the alternative was worse.
That’s the real test within this test: determining if the alternative to Erdogan is worse than Erdogan. Trump, like Obama before him, has concluded that Erdogan is better than what might replace him. And it’s clear that both Obama and Trump have viewed Erdogan as, on balance, more helpful than harmful in pursuing America’s big-picture goals today – namely, targeting and defeating jihadist terror groups.
However, supporting representative government is also part of the big picture for America, as Reagan illustrated when the tide of free government swept over the Philippines.
After Corazon Aquino defeated America’s longtime anti-communist bulwark Ferdinand Marcos at the ballot box, Reagan privately appealed to Marcos to accept the results and refrain from using force to stay in power – and then provided America’s old friend a dignified way out: a one-way ticket to Hawaii. It was a striking and welcome change compared to how Washington had dealt with pro-U.S. autocrats during much of the Cold War.
In a similar way, it’s time for Washington to speak plainly and privately with Erdogan – an increasingly anti-American autocrat. Since Erdogan’s values do not align with the West’s, the focus for now should be on his interests. The message may best be conveyed in a series of questions: Are you with Russia – your ancient foe – or the West? Do you trust Putin – serial violator of treaties, patron of Assad and self-interested opportunist – or America, which has stood by you for almost seven decades? Do you want your country to be alone again – accepted neither by Europe nor Asia – or under the protective umbrella of NATO? Washington should use NATO as both carrot and stick to steer Turkey back on the path to liberal democracy. There are many economic and security benefits associated with NATO membership – and many risks and costs that Erdogan would have to shoulder outside the NATO alliance.
Hopefully, such a message would get Erdogan’s attention. But Washington should be prepared for Erdogan responding in a manner that accelerates Turkey’s drift away from the West. And if Erdogan continues to play games with NATO and with U.S. access to Incirlik, he should be prepared for the consequences. These might include withdrawing U.S. forces from Turkey and relocating them to existing bases in Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan; downgrading Turkey’s position within NATO; canceling Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program (something Congress is already contemplating); and most worrisome of all for Ankara, formally endorsing an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
Policymakers spanning the political spectrum – from Obama’s vice president to Trump’s national security adviser – have argued that it's time to stop resisting the centrifugal forces tearing Iraq apart. For now, Washington is right not to hasten Iraq’s dissolution. But when/if Iraq finally comes apart, the United States should be prepared to help the freest, most stable, most pro-American piece of Iraq join the family of nations – regardless of what Erdogan thinks about it.
The counterargument that America needs more allies in the region – not fewer – is sound in theory but shaky in practice, since Erdogan’s Turkey doesn’t act like much of an ally. Losing an authoritarian, pro-Putin, pro-Tehran “ally” could be a case of addition by subtraction.