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Will Erdogan Permanently Damage the U.S.-Turkey Alliance?

Doug Bandow

An important part of international diplomacy is making the
outrageous palatable. Extortion and menace are routine aspects of
foreign relations. Other than extreme examples such as North Korea,
however, governments normally veil their threats. Pretense is a
diplomatic virtue.

Not for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a sultan wannabe
who has accumulated increasingly dictatorial powers along with an
extravagant presidential palace to match. He frankly admitted to
holding an American as a human chit to trade for Muslim cleric
Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of planning the unsuccessful
2016 coup attempt. “Give us the pastor back,” said
Erdogan. “You have one pastor” of ours. “Give him
to us. You can easily give him to us. You can give him right away.
Then we will try [American Andrew Brunson] and give him to
you.”

Despite President Donald Trump’s strange new respect for
dictators, Erdogan is hostile toward America. Washington should
drop the pretense that Ankara is an ally. There always will be
areas for cooperation, but these days the Turkish government is as
likely to oppose as support U.S. interests and values.

When Erdogan’s party first won election in 2002, the former
Istanbul mayor was a liberator. He helped dismantle the
authoritarian-nationalist state created by Turkey’s founder Mustafa
Kemal Ataturk. Among Erdogan’s most fervent backers were liberals.
One of his signal achievements was putting the military back into
its barracks. The Justice and Development Party, though Islamist,
even improved the treatment of women, addressing domestic violence,
for instance.

However, a few years ago Erdogan shifted course. He once stated
that democracy was like a train: you get off when you reach your
destination. He apparently reached that destination after the party
won its third parliamentary election in 2011. As charges of
corruption mushroomed, Erdogan’s government became more
authoritarian and Islamist. After losing his parliamentary majority
in 2015, he won it back by playing the Kurdish card, ramping up the
brutal campaign against the radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party
that had previously cost tens of thousands of lives.

The Erdogan presidency is
a great tragedy.

Erdogan’s rise was aided by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim
cleric living in the United States who built a global religious and
social movement, known as Hizmet. Two decades ago Gulen received
political asylum when authoritarian secularists dominated Turkish
politics. Gulen’s loyalists were many, but his political
ambitions remained a matter of debate. In 2013, the politician and
preacher turned on each other. Gulen’s followers in police
and prosecution offices investigated alleged corruption reaching
Erdogan, and Erdogan retaliated by purging Gulenists from security
agencies.

The Justice and Development Party also shrunk the space for
other critics. Opposition businessmen faced politically motivated
regulatory attacks and tax investigations. The regime seized
independent media organizations, arrested journalists and
intimidated critics. The government sued hundreds of Turks,
including school kids, for insulting Erdogan. The increasingly
brutal assault against the Kurds turned communities into war zones.
So far hundreds of civilians have died, perhaps a half million have
been displaced, scores of local officials have been dismissed, and
security forces have been immunized from prosecution.

The latest State Department human-rights report cited
“arbitrary deprivation of life and other unlawful or
politically motivated killings,” “inconsistent access
to due process,” “government interference with freedom
of expression,” “inadequate protection of
civilians,” “prison overcrowding,” failing to
“maintain effective control over security forces,”
“an atmosphere of fear that further limited judicial
independence,” and “threats, discrimination and
violence” against numerous minority groups.

Erdogan also turned Turkey in a more Islamist direction. As
prime minister (later president) he began by ending the
military-dominated Kemalist state’s enforced secularism,
freeing people to publicly live their faith. But he later
conscripted the system for religious ends, encroaching upon the
Turkish people’s social freedoms.

Over time his foreign policy also turned hostile. Ankara long
tolerated Islamic State activities across its border into Syria.
Erdogan’s government conducted military operations against Syrian Kurds
working with the United States against Islamic State forces. The
Turkish military downed a Russian plane in Syria, raising tensions
with Moscow, but Erdogan later reconciled with Russia’s
Vladimir Putin. Ankara, nominally a member of NATO, recently
ordered S-400 anti-air missiles.

Erdogan’s relationship with U.S. and Western leaders
deteriorated even further after the failed July 2016 coup. Not
everyone in the West seemed disturbed by the attempted ouster of
the Turkish president—even though a military takeover would
have been the cure that killed the patient. His government had been
reelected multiple times; the likely result of a successful putsch
would have been civil war.

Unfortunately, rather like Adolf Hitler and the infamous 1933
Reichstag fire, the Turkish president used the attempted putsch as
an opportunity to crush all opposition. Any criticism was treated
as veritable treason. (So quick was he to take advantage of the
badly managed coup that some observers suggested that Erdogan
likely staged it.)

Even before the effort collapsed he contended that it had been
masterminded by his former ally, Gulen. Erdogan then sought to
destroy the Hizmet movement, dismantling schools, businesses and
other organizations associated with Gulen. Ankara initiated a
massive, Stalinist-style purge of anyone with the slightest
connection to the movement, including opening an account at a bank
owned by supposed Gulenists.

Some 170,000 people have been subject to various legal
proceedings, more than 150,000 have been fired or suspended, and
over fifty thousand have been arrested. Even the government does
not contend that most of these people were involved in the failed coup. Yet every week additional arrests
and dismissals are announced.

Targets include parliamentarians, judges, prosecutors,
professors, teachers and journalists. More than 160 media sources
have been closed. Websites have been blocked and around 150
journalists have been jailed. Nearly four hundred nongovernmental
organizations—including human rights, humanitarian and legal
groups—have been closed. The chairman and director of the
Turkish chapter of Amnesty International have been arrested.
Evidence of wrongdoing is irrelevant, since the charges typically
involve the barest association with someone in the Gulen movement
or Kurdish leadership.

Explained Human Rights Watch: “The crackdown that followed
the coup attempt was symptomatic of the government’s
increasing authoritarianism. Under the state of emergency, the
president presides over the cabinet, which can pass decrees without
parliamentary scrutiny or possibility of appeal to the
constitutional court. Many decrees passed contain measures that
conflict with basic human-rights safeguards and Turkey’s
obligations under international and domestic law.”

The Erdogan government also targeted Washington, stoking popular
conspiracy theories—four of five Turks have a
“negative” or “very negative” view of
America—that the United States was behind the coup. One
cabinet minister forthrightly blamed Washington. Ankara also
sharply criticized the U.S. government for failing to extradite
Gulen. (Given the political benefits of blaming Washington, some
suspect Erdogan hopes the United States will continue to spare him
the challenge of actually having to try Gulen.)

Unlike in Turkey, extradition requires evidence sufficient to
satisfy an independent judge. Although the Turkish government
insisted on his guilt, it has provided little evidence. The Gulen
movement never had much success in infiltrating the military
leadership, and most participants in the coup had no Gulenist
association. Western intelligence agencies saw no evidence that the
seventy-six-year-old imam masterminded the coup. The little
testimony cited by Ankara likely resulted from torture. Human
Rights Watch noted “increased reports of torture and
ill-treatment in police detention, such as beating and stripping
detainees, use of prolonged stress positions, and threats of rape,
as well as threats to lawyers and interference with medical
examinations.”

Washington’s refusal presumably led to Erdogan’s
offer to trade Brunson, an American pastor who has lived in Turkey
for twenty-three years, for Gulen. Brunson was arrested last fall
and has been charged with “terrorism” and attempting
“to overthrow the Turkish government,” though an
official indictment has yet to be filed. Ankara has arrested
several other Americans on equally dubious charges, including a
chemistry professor, NASA scientist, and real estate agent. Their
family members have been prevented from leaving the country. The
Erdogan government detained Europeans as well and suggested
releasing German citizens in return for Berlin’s arrest of
members of the Gulen movement sought by Ankara.

Further damaging relations was the assault by Erdogan’s
security personnel on peaceful demonstrators outside of the Turkish
embassy during his recent visit. Subsequently fifteen of them were
indicted, though they remain beyond justice in Turkey. Moreover,
the United States arrested Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab,
charging him with breaching sanctions against Iran. He is thought
to know details of high-level corruption in Ankara. Similar charges
were recently brought against a former cabinet member and others.
Erdogan called the investigation “a step against the Turkish
republic.”

Turkey arrested U.S. embassy employees—Turkish
citizens—in February and early October. In the latter case
Ankara charged the defendant with being involved in the coup based
on four-year-old conversations with someone associated with Gulen.
Subsequently, the government summoned another local employee for
questioning after detaining his wife and son—a common tactic
used to force a confession.

In retaliation, the U.S. embassy announced that it was halting
the processing of visas to America. Turkey then responded in kind.
Unfortunately, relations seem destined to deteriorate further as
Erdogan attempts to force Washington to choose between acquiescence
to tyranny and commitment to human rights and the rule of law. In
August Erdogan said “Sooner or later the U.S. will make a
choice” between “the coup-plotting terrorist”
Gulen movement and Turkey. However, when asked about its
willingness to trade Gulen for Brunson, State Department
spokeswoman Heather Nauart said: “I can’t imagine that
we would go down that road.” Legally it cannot.

For years Washington has given Erdogan the benefit of the doubt
despite increasing authoritarianism at home and radicalism abroad.
Last month at the United Nations President Trump said bilateral
relations were “as close as we’ve ever been.” He
called Erdogan “a friend of mine” who deserved
“very high marks.”

But Erdogan is no friend to America. While the U.S.-Turkey
alliance goes back decades, its raison d’etre ended with the
Cold War. There is no longer a broad geopolitical conflict holding
the two states together. Indeed, Ankara is moving toward Russia.
Moreover, the United States and Turkey have very different
interests, or at least perceived interests, in the Middle East.

Still, Washington maintains access to Incirlik Air Base, which
is around sixty miles from Syria. This facility hosts U.S. aircraft
conducting operations in Iraq and Syria as well as some fifty
nuclear bombs. The base is convenient, but not essential. Retired
Gen. Chuck Wald, once a top air force commander in Europe, said
“It’s a good place to have a base, but can we do it
somewhere else? Absolutely.” Bulent Aliriza of the Center for
Strategic and International Studies made a similar argument.
“We could move out of Incirlik tomorrow,” he said.
“It is far less important in the fight against ISIS than it
was during the Gulf War.” Germany already has moved its
forces from Incirlik to Jordan’s al-Asrak airbase.

Although access to the facility is convenient, it is not
important enough to allow an unreliable, authoritarian and
increasingly hostile government to hold America hostage. In 2003
the Turkish government refused to allow Washington to use Turkish
bases in its invasion of Iraq. Ankara maintains ties with Iran; top
officials are suspected of helping to evade U.S. sanctions. The
Turkish government looked the other way in the early days as the
Islamic State used Turkish territory as a conduit into Syria. Even
today Ankara appears more interested in killing Syrian Kurds than
ISIS fighters.

Turkish cooperation is less likely in the future. With a hostile
public, transformed military and arbitrary president, even access
to Incirlik is not assured. Indeed, President Erdogan does little
to disguise his attacks on America. On the anniversary of the
attempted coup he criticized “our so-called allies, who are
trying to besiege us along our borders.”

The Erdogan presidency is a great tragedy. The principal victims
of the new sultan’s misrule are Turks. But he also has
destroyed the pretense that Ankara and Washington are united in a
valuable alliance worth preserving. The United States increasingly
must defend America’s interests and values from Turkey. That
includes preserving the rule of law at home and standing up for
those unjustly imprisoned abroad.

Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special
Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.