U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu did something extraordinary when they emerged from a January 12 bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Paris. Such occasions are usually marked by predictable boilerplate rhetoric about how productive the talk was and how closely both countries are working to solve pressing global issues, and Davutoğlu’s comments followed the standard script. What happened next was more unusual. After Davutoğlu finished speaking, Kerry took the opportunity to chide his Turkish counterpart for neglecting to mention an important component of the talks: Kerry’s emphatic rejection of Turkish claims that the United States had been meddling in Turkish politics and trying to influence the Turkish elections. As Davutoğlu sheepishly looked at the floor, Kerry continued that Davutoğlu now understood the score, and said that the two countries “need to calm the waters and move forward.”
Kerry’s addendum came in response to what has become a familiar Turkish government strategy of shifting the blame to outside powers, and particularly to the United States, when faced with any sort of internal opposition. During the Gezi Park protests in June, for example, Turkish government figures blamed Washington, CNN, and “foreign powers” for inciting unrest. More recently, when an ongoing corruption scandal exploded into the open in late December, Turkish ministers were quick to insinuate that the United States was the hidden hand behind the graft probe. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone for allegedly provoking Turkey and “exceeding limits,” a reference to allegations that the ambassador was somehow meddling in Turkish affairs and prodding the investigation of government officials.
It isn’t surprising that the Turkish government has blamed the United States for self-inflicted wounds. But it is surprising that the United States has finally responded forcefully. And, if Turkey’s behavior after the flap is any indication (it made a quick about-face on a number of issues that have been particularly angering the United States), the Obama administration should make getting tougher with Turkey a priority.
Turkey voted in the UN Security Council against additional sanctions on Iran; helped Iran get around the international sanctions regime; and even hinted at Iran’s natural right to a nuclear program.
Turkish officials like to describe the last few years as a golden age in bilateral relations. Davutoğlu, in particular, likes to wax on about the “model partnership” between the two countries. What he is responding to is the United States’ decision early in Obama’s first term to treat Turkey with kid gloves despite an increasingly long track record of troubling Turkish behavior. The United States had two main motivations. The first was the hope that Turkey could serve as a democratic example for other Muslim countries. For a variety of reasons, including Turkey’s unique history and its distinctive combination of structural pressures, it was never going to be a good model, but that did not prevent Washington from pushing it wholeheartedly.
The second motivation was a conviction that Turkey could serve as an interlocutor between the West and the Middle East. With its ties to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its relationship with Iran, Turkey was seen as irreplaceable, and Washington was reluctant to alienate it. Even when the United States instituted a policy directly intended to counter problematic Turkish behavior, Turkey was still given an inordinate amount of leeway. For example, in January 2013, when Congress passed legislation specifically outlawing trade in gas for gold to stem Turkish sanctions-busting in Iran, Turkey was granted a six-month buffer period. The only thing the backpedaling did was enable ever-bolder Turkish probing of U.S. red lines.
And probe it has. As has been documented repeatedly, Turkish democracy has been off the rails for some time. Since winning re-election in 2007, the AKP has systematically squeezed political opponents, consolidated state power, and done all it can to marginalize the feckless opposition. It has jailed journalists in unprecedented numbers, prosecuted citizens for insulting the prime minister, subjected companies that have run afoul of the government to crushing fines, and convicted military officers on charges based on forged evidence. All the while, the United States has largely sat on the sidelines with its mouth shut. State Department officials repeat the mantra that Turkey is more democratic now than it has ever been, and in 2012, President Barack Obama listed Erdogan as one of the five world leaders with whom he has the closest and most trusting relationship.
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