The Obama administration’s reaction to the Chen Guangcheng case is disgraceful, and will taint America’s name among liberty-seeking dissidents for a generation. While all eyes are on China, however, administration fecklessness regarding liberals, friends, and allies is spreading quickly. When it comes to standing up for principle, Obama’s reaction to Chen is the rule, not the exception.
Take Egypt: Adel Emam is perhaps Egypt’s most famous film comedian, sort of a cross between an Egyptian Steve Martin and Leslie Nielsen. Among his most famous films are Al-Irhabi (The Terrorist) and Al-Irhab wal kabab (Terrorism and Kebab). The first—released at the height of Egyptian Islamists’ campaign of terror—skewered the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist terror masters as cynical, hypocritical, and naïve. The latter took potshots at both religiosity and the inefficiency of the Egyptian bureaucracy. Islamists may tell Western journalists and think-tankers they will honor civil liberties, but nowhere do they tolerate satire or ridicule if they themselves are the target. Hence, their targeting of Adel Emam for films made years ago. Emam now faces three months in prison for “defaming Islam.”
In Turkey, too, Islamists are turning their attention to vengeance. In Turkey, accusation rather than evidence is enough to put anyone in prison. Less than 50 percent of those arrested are ever found guilty, but given the absence of bail, most rot in prison for years before their court dates. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama’s friend and confidante, has used this to full advantage. He has used the amorphous Ergenekon plot—more fiction than fact—to accuse past political opponents of malfeasance starting with the man who had faced him in mayoral elections in the 1990s. In recent weeks, the government has begun arresting those involved in pressuring the Islamist party of Erdoğan’s late mentor Necmettin Erbakan to resign. Never mind that the reason for Erbakan’s resignation was his efforts to overturn the constitutionalist order, and that those who urged Erbakan to resign were acting within the law at the time.
While European (and American) diplomats have reconciled the crackdown to the fact that many of those arrested were military officers—as if this exempts them fair targets for a venal prime minister—there are clear signals that civilians are now front-and-center and de facto government mouthpieces like Cengiz Çandar are naming civilians for police to target. There are also signs in the Turkish press that Erdoğan, the Putin of Anatolia, will also move against retired generals like Yaşar Büyükanıt for the crime of issuing a statement urging the government to adhere to the constitution. This was against the backdrop of senior aides like Bülent Arınç, now Erdogan’s chief deputy, to dissolve the constitutional court if it continued to rule against his legislation.
Obama’s worldview may have no place for men like Emam, but his crime was simply to use non-violent means to delegitimize the ideas and actions of a violent Islamist fringe responsible for the deaths of hundreds during Egypt’s Islamist insurgency. The world needs more satire, not less.
Nor may Obama like men such as Bir and Büyükanıt, but these generals were staunch allies who stood by the United States during the Cold War and who fulfilled their sworn duties to maintain the checks and balances within the Turkish system. Friendship should mean something; the United States should not simply sit back silently as a megalomaniacal ruler on borrowed time seeks vengeance upon anyone who has opposed him and his increasingly undemocratic agenda. Turkey may be a model, but it certainly is not one that the White House should want any state to follow. Rather than sit silently, it is time the White House speaks up for dissidents, whether they be blind Chinese activists, Egyptian comic actors, or Turkish generals.