Later today, President Barack Obama will sit down with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Oval Office. It will be a friendly reunion. Obama has said Erdogan is one of the few foreign leaders with whom he has developed “friendships and the bonds of trust.” Speaking to the Turkish parliament four years ago, on his first trip abroad as president, Obama declared, “Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together — and work together — to overcome the challenges of our time.” These challenges are many — among them, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
While Turkey and America partnered for the greater good throughout the Cold War, no amount of White House praise can hide the fact that Turkey today is less a bridge between the West and the Islamic world and, increasingly, a force undermining trust and cooperation.
Erdogan, who is now in his second decade of power and quite openly plotting for his third, has transformed Turkey from an imperfect democracy based on rule of law into an increasingly dictatorial state rooted in religion. By tweaking university admission formulas, he privileged students from religious high schools, who had long been denied acceptance because they lacked a solid liberal-arts foundation. In order to help these unqualified graduates enter the civil service, Erdogan imposed a new interview process, transforming a meritorious civil service into a mechanism for political — and religious — patronage.
The Turkish military, once the envy of the Middle East, is now a shadow of its former self. Despite the recent peace accord with the leaders of the Kurdish insurgency, the Turkish military has trouble controlling large swaths of the southeast. And the Turkish air force continues to lose planes — the latest earlier this week — along the Syrian border when, in contrast, Israel has run high-risk missions without any casualties. The reason is simple: Like Josef Stalin, who gutted the Soviet military in the years prior to the Nazi invasion, or Ayatollah Khomeini, who did likewise to the Iranian military in the months before the Iraqi invasion, Erdogan has done his best to destroy his country’s military. One in five Turkish generals rots in prison, many on dubious charges and most without even a court date.
American diplomats initially cheered the reforms that excised the military’s role in politics — after all, ending military influence over politics is a noble goal. But since Erdogan’s government did not construct any alternative system of checks and balances, excising the military allowed him to pursue his agenda without regard for rule of law. He and his aides were not shy about seizing the opportunity. In response to judicial vetoes of the prime minister’s religious and social initiatives, Bulent Arinc, then speaker of the parliament and now Erdogan’s chief deputy, threatened to dissolve the constitutional court if it continued to find the ruling party’s legislation unconstitutional. More recently, in a fit of pique, Erdogan told parliament, “We want to raise a religious youth.”
Women and minorities have suffered disproportionately. Erdogan has forced Turkey’s minority Alevis to attend Sunni religious classes, and he has flushed women from top levels of the state bureaucracy, advising them that instead of pursuing a career they should have at least three babies and ideally more. And Turkish women today find not just their careers at risk, but their lives. In 2011, Turkey’s justice minister reported to parliament that, between 2002 and 2009, the number of women murdered each year had increased 1,400 percent. Some of that is the result of better reporting, but the bulk appears to be due to a sharp rise in the number of honor killings: Would-be perpetrators are no longer deterred by fear of prosecution, as the increasingly conservative police forces sympathize with the Islamist notion of honor. Obama once quipped that he had turned to Erdogan for advice on raising teen daughters. Perhaps for the sake of his two girls, he had better find a new role model.
In most democracies, the press holds the government accountable. That is no longer so in Turkey. Erdogan’s security forces arrest journalists with impunity; in ten years, according to Reporters without Frontiers, Erdogan has transformed his country into “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” After first stacking once-independent banking boards with functionaries trained exclusively in Saudi Arabia, Erdogan has used their financial pronouncements to justify seizure of opposition newspapers. Turkey now ranks below even Russia, Palestine, and Venezuela in press freedom. When career American diplomats like Daniel Fried describe Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party as “a kind of Muslim version of a Christian Democratic Party,” they appear so wrapped in the bubble of political correctness that they have become detached from reality.
American policymakers might shrug off Turkey’s domestic turn away from rule of law if it did not presage a transformation of Turkish foreign policy. Erdogan’s agenda has more to do with the promotion of Islamic solidarity than a fight against terrorism or dictatorship. The days of Turkey’s being “a vital and strategic partner of the United States,” as Condoleezza Rice once described it, are over.
A decade ago, Turks saw themselves as aligned with the United States, Europe, and Israel; today Turkey is firmly in the camp led by Iran, Sudan, and Hamas. If Turkey is a bridge between West and East, it is now decidedly one-way. Rather than pursue peace in the Middle East, Turkey seeks division. While the West sought to isolate Hamas until that group accepted the diplomatic premises upon which Middle Eastern peace must rest, Erdogan welcomed the group’s leader to Ankara, where his party cadres feted him and gave him a standing ovation. Erdogan subsequently labeled Israeli complaints regarding Hamas rockets “a hoax.” Turkish attempts to support and supply Hamas terrorists — the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” being just the most famous example — have made Turkey a terror sponsor in all but name.
Alas, Turkey’s support for terrorism neither begins nor ends with Hamas. When it was revealed that Cuneyd Zapsu, one of the prime minister’s top advisers, had donated tens of thousands of dollars to an al-Qaeda–linked financier, Erdogan shrugged off the information, saying of the financier, “I believe in him as I believe in myself. For Mr. Qadi to associate with a terrorist organization, or support one, is impossible.” Earlier this year, Ahmet Kavas — a product of the religious schools Erdogan promotes inside Turkey, and now ambassador to Chad — raised eyebrows when he denied that al-Qaeda was a terrorist group. This appears increasingly to be Turkey’s official position regarding al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, last year, the Turkish Islamist magazine Islam Dunyasi called for attacks on the United States. The Turkish government continues to support the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Turkey. When the leader of Turkey’s secular opposition questioned Turkey’s relationship with that group, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed any linkage between jihad and terrorism on the propaganda of “American neocons and Israelis.”
When it comes to common foes, Erdogan channels Secretary of State John Kerry: He was with them before he was against them. While Turkish diplomats point to cooperation with the U.S. and Europe in Libya, Erdogan was long a cheerleader for Moammar Qaddafi, even accepting the Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights (and an accompanying quarter-million dollars) just months before the Libyan strongman began massacring his own people. Likewise, while Turkey now sides firmly with the Syrian opposition, just a couple of years ago, Erdogan was Bashar al-Assad’s best friend. When the Lebanese people rose up against the Syrian army in 2005, Erdogan sided with the Syrians. As the White House sought to isolate Assad, Erdogan invited the Assads to vacation with him and his wife along the Turkish Mediterranean. Turkey’s new support for the Syrian opposition has less to do with a desire for Syria to be free, and more to do with furthering Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman vision and empowering sectarian radicals. Even in Afghanistan, Turkey is not fully on board with the coalition’s mission. Turkish-sponsored billboards in Kabul — outside the International Security Assistance Force bubble — praise a common Islamic heritage rather than promoting a unified Afghan government. And while Turkey maintains a large contingent of troops in Afghanistan, many Turks fight against American troops there under the banner of Taifetul Mansura, yet another Turkish al-Qaeda affiliate.
So when Obama meets Erdogan later today, what should the president say? Even as Turkey changes, Erdogan and his aides point to the relationship with the United States as evidence of Western endorsement for his agenda. Every word of diplomatic praise gets repeated in the Turkish press and, in all likelihood, read to the journalists, civic leaders, academicians, and military officers now sitting in Turkish prisons. A few choice words from President Obama regarding freedom, basic human rights, and the importance of standing up to terrorism regardless of the religion of its perpetrators would go a long way. Every emperor — or aspiring sultan, as the case may be — sometimes needs to be told that he is naked.