By Joel J. Sprayregen
President Obama welcomed Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to the White House last week with warmth appropriate for the leader of a strategically located ally which is NATO’s only Muslim member, enjoys a booming economy, and holds elections which appear democratic. But Turkey brings to this alliance conduct which undermines constructive co-operation between our countries.
Turkey has its own plans for neighboring Syria. Erdogan once sought to appease his then friend Syrian President Bashar Assad by trying to cajole Israel into surrendering the strategic Golan Heights. Now, as Syria is immersed in a horrendous civil war which has taken more than 80,000 lives and sent 400,000 refugees into Turkey, Erdogan maneuvers to install an Islamist regime in Damascus. Eric Edelman, ex-U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, charged last week that Turkey “is pursuing a sectarian religious agenda in Syria, through political and military support for the Muslim Brotherhood…” (Online.WSJ.com/May 14, 2013)
Erdogan envisions a neo-Ottoman ring of Sunni Islamist governments in the Middle East, headed by Turkey. Experience in Egypt and Gaza shows that Brotherhood rule is destructive to democracy and indigenous Christians. U.S. policy is to seek transition in Syria to moderate democratic rather than radical Islamist rule, but inaction by our government diminishes hope for this outcome. Turkey has strong traditions of tolerance, but there simultaneously exists rancid bigotry in media and politics which derides the tiny minority (1%) of non-Muslim Turkish citizens (principally, Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Jews) as “foreigners.” Echoes of this bigotry persist in Turkey’s refusal to apologize for the killing of more than a million Armenian and Assyrian Christians during World War One.
Obama and Erdogan, in their White House press conference, praised each other for co-operation and friendship. Erdogan did not complain that Obama refused his entreaties to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, thus prolonging the murderous rule of Assad and the toxic influence of Iran in the region. But Erdogan brazenly sounded a defiant note when, answering a reporter, he said he would visit Hamas-ruled Gaza in June. This visit will contravene U.S. and European Union policy because Hamas is a terrorist group whose stated aim is to annihilate Israel. Secretary of State Kerry and the Palestinian Authority have urged Erdogan not to go. Obama had enough on his plate last week that he chose not to disagree publicly with Erdogan. It does not say much for contemporary American leadership that a purported ally would stand beside our President at the White House and insist he will defy U.S. policy.
This was not the only recent occasion of Turkish contravention of vital U.S, interests. In 2010, Turkey and Brazil cast the only opposing votes in the U.N. Security Council on Iran sanctions. Currently, Turkey is skirting sanctions by selling gold to Iran, the volume exceeding $6 billion since last July. Obama extracted from Erdogan in March a promise to repair frayed relations with Israel because it is important to U.S interests that its regional allies co-operate. Erdogan has been slow in fulfilling his promise and has seemingly breached it by contriving to involve the International Court of Criminal Justice in the case of Muslim Brotherhood activists killed while violently attempting to breach the Israeli blockade of arms for Gaza in a Turkish ship. These current provocations make most people forget that since 1973 Turkish armed forces have occupied part of Cyprus, an E.U. member, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Obama ignored an urgent plea to address Erdogan’s siege on the press. Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country, according to a blogged article by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker last year. Filkins asserted that 94 Turkish reporters are imprisoned, creating “an extraordinary climate of fear among journalists in Turkey.” Any of us who speak with ordinary Turkish citizens, as well as journalists, are told of fears of surveillance and intimidation. Erdogan’s government fined the opposition Dogan Media Group in excess of $2.5 billion. The respected Turkish newspaper Hurriyet called it “tax terror” seeking Dogan’s bankruptcy. Just before the summit, leaders of Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists vainly urged Obama in Foreign Policy “to deliver the message that Turkey’s failure to improve its record on press freedom is eroding the country’s strategic relationship with the United States…”
Anyone familiar with Turkey’s history, geographic location, capabilities and dynamism — as well as Turkish hospitableness — understands that Turkey has an important role to play in its turbulent region. Perhaps Obama talked turkey in his private parley with Erdogan. But from what was reported to the public, more candor accompanied by respect for democratic values is needed if Turkey wants to be considered a serious ally of the United States.