Turkish police stormed Taksim Square in Istanbul tonight, clearing the park of protesters in a brutal show of force. For those who hadn’t quite gotten the message that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had adopted authoritarian methods, the images of the massive use of force against peaceful demonstrators illustrates the way the Islamist government was prepared to suppress dissent. Erdoğan’s arrogant dismissal of criticism and willingness to both attack and delegitimize anyone who dares stand up against him may seem fairly familiar to those who have followed the protests that swept through the Middle East in recent years. But unlike previous chapters of this saga, this Turkish Spring is generating a confused as well as equivocal response from Washington.
We’ve previously noted the way the Turkish protests have highlighted President Obama’s hypocritical and often selective support for freedom abroad. While Obama pushed hard to force Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak out of power, his silence about the effort to stop Erdoğan’s culture war aimed at completing the Islamicization of Turkey has been conspicuous as well as ominous. But the difference between the two situations only highlights the importance of the administration’s willingness to give Obama’s friend Erdoğan a pass for his authoritarian behavior.
Obama has been blamed for Mubarak’s fall, but that conclusion was always more of a myth than anything else. Though the president could be said to have administered the coup de grace to the longtime dictator and U.S. ally when he pushed for his exit, Mubarak’s regime was doomed no matter what Washington did or didn’t do during his last days in power. Despite his desire to claim some influence on the Arab Spring, both the president and the United States were largely marginalized throughout the last two years in Egypt and events elsewhere in the region. Yet though Obama has sought to stay out of the drama unfolding in Turkey, he actually plays a far more important role there.
President Obama has claimed that Erdoğan is among his best friends in the ranks of fellow international leaders. The Turkish prime minister has reciprocated the president’s affection and, as the Associated Press noted today, Obama is understood to be the one foreign counterpart that has any influence on Erdoğan. That impact of that influence has been exaggerated as the so-called rapprochement Obama brokered between Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has not restored the old alliance between those two nations or in any way ameliorated the campaign of hate Turkey has been waging against Israel. So far it seems that the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey has been a one-sided affair, with Obama getting very little from his friend.
But this is the moment when Obama can redeem himself. Having posed as a friend of freedom for the past two years while actually facilitating the rise to power of Erdoğan’s Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt, the president can speak up at a crucial moment when Turkey’s future is still hanging in the balance.
Absent an American switch to a stance of vocal opposition to Erdoğan’s repressive tactics and bold imposition of Islam on a heretofore-secular nation, Turkey’s ultimate fate is not in doubt. Though Erdoğan was democratically elected, his policies to suppress freedom of the press and discourage opposition are making that distinction meaningless. If left unchecked, more than a historic park will be demolished by the time the prime minister is through. While it is true the U.S. is counting on Erdoğan to counter-balance the influence of Iran in the region, the conversion of this NATO ally into an Islamist state is a threat to American influence as well as the freedom of Turkey.
President Obama must understand that while speaking up against Erdoğan will not be without cost, keeping silent will be even more costly. Erdoğan’s Turkey is no role model for the region. American credibility is on the line in the wait for Obama to speak out on Turkey. If he keeps silent, neither the Turks who suffer under Erdoğan nor other nations looking to see if the U.S. really stands for liberty anymore will ever forget it.