The Obama administration has been far too solicitous of Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan and his increasingly authoritarian ways. Its reasoning is based on the flawed assumption that being nice will ensure cooperation from this strategic ally. That hasn't been the case.
By Steven A Cook
The US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, took a lot of criticism from Turkish activists when, after almost a month of street protests here, he affirmed Washington's support for Ankara in both good times and bad.
Given Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's efforts to blame his sudden political problems on unidentified "foreign agents," "Zionists," and even the American Enterprise Institute think tank, the ambassador's diplomatic niceties were prudent. A strong American rebuke would have handed Mr. Erdoğan a gift by making the United States – not the demonstrations – the story in Turkey.
For all of Washington's diplomatic deftness during the crisis, however, the Obama administration has been far too solicitous of Erdoğan and his increasingly authoritarian ways over the past five years. Its reasoning is based on the flawed assumption that being nice will ensure cooperation from this strategic ally that straddles Europe and the greater Middle East.
Such a calculus is just another example of Washington choosing realism over idealism in foreign affairs. In this case, it would be far better for the US to err on the side of idealism. Washington has missed an opportunity to encourage Erdoğan, who presided over impressive political reforms early in his tenure, to continue Turkey's transition to a liberal democracy.
When President Obama took office in January 2009, he was determined to improve US-Turkey relations after six years of tension over the American invasion of Iraq, which borders Turkey. Mr. Obama put Turkey on the itinerary for his first overseas visit that April, and worked hard to give meaning to the "model partnership."
There were good strategic reasons for righting the relationship. When the president first took stock of US foreign policy, he must have noted that Turkey sat at the center of all of Washington's pressing foreign-policy concerns. Ankara was involved in debates as diverse and important as the future of NATO, of which it is a member, and how to ensure a unified and federal Iraq.
There was also a sense among senior US policymakers – even well before the Arab Spring uprisings – that a prosperous and democratizing Turkey, under a party of Islamist patrimony no less, could somehow be a model for the Arab world.
Relations were not always smooth, however. The sharp deterioration of Turkey-Israel relations that began with the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in late 2008 put Washington in an awkward position between two key allies. The first half of 2010 was particularly difficult with a string of miscommunications over nuclear negotiations with Iran's and Turkey's votes against additional United Nations sanctions on the Islamic Republic. These and other incidents had US officials wondering why Turkey "wasn't acting like a NATO ally."
Obama and Erdoğan met in private at a Group of 20 Summit in June 2010 and hashed out their differences. It was at that Toronto summit that the two leaders gained new respect for each other and built a friendship that began an alleged golden age in bilateral relations.
From then on, strategic ties between Washington and Ankara deepened while there was a "willful blindness," according to one former US official, to Erdoğan's increasingly nondemocratic approach to governing. In one odd moment in September 2010, for example, the US (along with the European Union) praised judicial reform that did not actually reform the judiciary – an urgent need – but rather made it possible for Erdoğan to pack the courts.
There is a Turkish saying that good friends "speak bitterly to good friends." In its effort to build strong ties with Ankara, the Obama administration should have taken that advice to heart. The lesson from Turkey's current drama is straightforward: The US can secure its strategic interests and maintain its ideals simultaneously.
Everyone will likely be better off as a result.