One of the keynotes of President Obama’s foreign policy throughout his first term has been an attempt to pay lip service to the Arab Spring protests against authoritarian regimes throughout the Muslim world. Those sentiments were not matched with strategies that were designed to enhance the efforts of those who were advocating more freedom or even to ward off the unintended consequences of the unrest, such as the rise of Islamist parties like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Yet in spite of those failures the president has never stopped trying to pose as a friend of Arab liberty even if he did nothing to help that cause. But the recent demonstrations in Turkey have exposed Obama’s policies in a way that perhaps no other development has done.
By continuing to support the Turkish ruling party, as it now becomes the subject of anger from its citizens, the administration is showing its true colors. If Obama is not prepared to criticize his friend who heads up the government in Ankara the way he has done other regimes that came under fire, then it shows that the talk about democracy was just so much hot air and that when push comes to shove, the president would rather befriend an Islamist ruler than embrace the pleas of the Turkish people for change.
Let’s specify that America’s attitude toward Turkey is complicated. First of all, it is a NATO ally and a nominal democracy. The United States also needs Turkey to be a responsible actor in a region where even more hostile powers, such as Iran and Russia, are creating havoc. It is also true that Turkey is key to efforts to oust the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and in any hope of preventing Iran and its Hezbollah allies from consolidating its axis of power there.
But some of the same things—at least insofar as regional stability is concerned—could have been said about the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt. But in that case the president lost no time in throwing a longtime American ally under the bus. I am not one of those who blame the president for Mubarak’s fall. The longtime dictator could not have been saved even with energetic American support and there was a good argument to be made that what the U.S. needed to do was to get out in front of the problem and support Egyptian moderates and to encourage the army to do a deal with them to bring about a peaceful transition to a new government. But instead of doing that, the U.S. encouraged the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and used its economic leverage to prevent the army from stopping the Islamists from taking power.
But in Turkey, the Islamists are already in power and have spent, as our Michael Rubin has documented many times, the last several years transforming an imperfect democracy into an authoritarian state. Yet it is the person who has been the architect of that depressing move away from freedom, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who seems to be President Obama’s favorite foreign leader. Erdoğan was recently in the U.S. for meetings in Washington and got his customary warm welcome from his pal in the Oval Office. The U.S. has worked hard to get the Turks to back away from open conflict with Israel. But even though an Israeli apology solved the flotilla controversy, the Turks continue to be ardent supporters of Hamas and therefore part of the problem rather than the solution.
Yet with the Turkish people beginning to push back against the seemingly inexorable drive of Erdoğan’s AKP to Islamicize what was once a thoroughly secular country, surely what is required from the president of the United States is more than a hug for his friend in Ankara. An American government that did not hesitate to embrace the Tunisian and Egyptian protests yet which stayed silent when demonstrators took to the streets in Istanbul—just as it did when Tehran was the scene of massive protests against another Islamist regime in 2009—has opened itself up to charges of hypocrisy as well as incompetence.
Americans cannot be guardians of the freedom of all other nations, but surely the U.S. government must be a friend to the cause of liberty if it is to keep faith with the values that have sustained our nation. No one should have any illusions as to the AKP relinquishing power simply because the Turkish people have taken to the streets. But if this episode passes without an expression of American support for those seeking reform in Turkey, then it will confirm that the Obama administration’s version of realpolitik has more to do with the president’s level of comfort with Islamist regimes than it does with American strategic interests.