Commentary Magazine


Topic: Turkish protests

Turkey’s Terrorism Confusion

One of the bedrocks of the U.S.-Turkey partnership has been U.S. provision of so-called counter-terrorism assistance to Turkey. In theory, the counter-terrorism assistance is meant to allow Turkey to counter its Kurdish insurgency, long led by the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK. However, for the past three months, the Turkish government and PKK have been in active peace talks and the truce between them has held.

I have written before about how a lack of a universal definition of what terrorism is hampers the fight against it. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will label the PKK as terrorists, but somehow say that Hamas is not a terrorist group. Indeed, as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer pointed out, Erdoğan took time out from managing the state response to protests by liberals, secularists, trade unionists, educators, and others to meet with senior Hamas leaders today.

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One of the bedrocks of the U.S.-Turkey partnership has been U.S. provision of so-called counter-terrorism assistance to Turkey. In theory, the counter-terrorism assistance is meant to allow Turkey to counter its Kurdish insurgency, long led by the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK. However, for the past three months, the Turkish government and PKK have been in active peace talks and the truce between them has held.

I have written before about how a lack of a universal definition of what terrorism is hampers the fight against it. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will label the PKK as terrorists, but somehow say that Hamas is not a terrorist group. Indeed, as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer pointed out, Erdoğan took time out from managing the state response to protests by liberals, secularists, trade unionists, educators, and others to meet with senior Hamas leaders today.

The problem has become even more striking in Turkey today. Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs and a close Erdoğan aide, has said that anyone who protests against the government in Taksim Square should be considered terrorists.

It is clear that Erdoğan’s definition of “terrorist” has less to do with violence and true terrorism and more to do with political opposition to him personally. As such, the provision of any lethal assistance or other counter-terrorism aid, such as provision of drones to Turkey, is inappropriate and should be stopped. The damage to U.S. policy of appearing to side with Erdoğan’s crackdown is simply too great, and against U.S. interests.

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Obama’s Turkish Crucible

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.

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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.

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Erdoğan Doubles Down; To Destroy Botanical Garden

Protests continue across Turkey, with some violence reported overnight, and police brutality continuing. The Turkish police have begun to arrest those using Twitter to announce protests. And the government has been holding counter-rallies, sometimes using Photoshop to fill in the crowds.

Rather than cool tensions, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems determined to throw fuel on the fire. The spark for the unrest was, of course, the prime minister’s determination to destroy a small urban park in order to build a shopping mall or, perhaps, a mosque. What started out as an environmental protest morphed into something far larger, largely in response to the prime minister’s arrogance and police crackdown.

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Protests continue across Turkey, with some violence reported overnight, and police brutality continuing. The Turkish police have begun to arrest those using Twitter to announce protests. And the government has been holding counter-rallies, sometimes using Photoshop to fill in the crowds.

Rather than cool tensions, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems determined to throw fuel on the fire. The spark for the unrest was, of course, the prime minister’s determination to destroy a small urban park in order to build a shopping mall or, perhaps, a mosque. What started out as an environmental protest morphed into something far larger, largely in response to the prime minister’s arrogance and police crackdown.

It’s against this backdrop that the announcement that Erdoğan will confiscate an eight-decade-old botanical garden and transfer it to the Istanbul mufti’s office seems like he is extending his middle finger to liberals, secularists, and the general public. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

On May 29, [Rector Yunus] Söylet wrote on Twitter that the Religious Affairs Directorate had been demanding the garden from the university for the past eight years following a question from a student. The university did not respond to the Hürriyet Daily News’ request for information on the issue. After Söylet’s remarks, a number of students, academics and activists gathered at a panel in Istanbul to discuss the significance of the garden for science and to voice their demands that the garden be maintained. Several academics are still waiting for a response from the rector’s office for an appointment in which they expect to express the importance of the garden to science. Istanbul University’s Alfred Heilbronn Botanic Garden was established near Süleymaniye Mosque in 1933, by Alfred Heilbronn and Leo Brauner, two Jewish professors who escaped Nazi Germany for Turkey. Erdal Üzen, an academic who has worked at the garden for many years, says the uprooting of such plants would cause damage to them. The botanical garden in Süleymaniye includes around 3,000 different plant species and 1,000 different tree species that function as a record of all the species found in Anatolia. The Turkey’s Biologists Association’s Istanbul bureau head, İlbay Kahraman, warned that the uprooting would cause great damage to the school and garden.

Once again, the Turkish prime minister demonstrates the confusion many Islamists and Middle East potentates hold regarding the difference between democracy and majoritarianism. As the spiteful Erdoğan doubles down, let us hope that the White House and State Department will dispense with the notion that Erdoğan’s Turkey is any longer a model once and for all.

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Why Do Academics Downplay Repression?

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—the NGO of the Society of Friends or Quakers—won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, largely for its work with refugees, children, and prisoners of war during both World Wars I and II. The AFSC stayed neutral—a principle which it embraced strictly at the time—but by the 1970s, the AFSC had allowed leftism to trump pacifism. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the politicization of the AFSC and its moral unbearing than how it shilled for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge—an episode discussed at length in Guenter Lewy’s Peace and Revolution, until evidence of that group’s murder of a million citizens became insurmountable. Why politics blinded AFSC officials to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge up until that group’s public exposure, however, is something that the Society of Friends has never adequately explained.

Another episode—albeit one not involving genocide—involves the many American foreign policy thinkers who were willing to give the Islamic Republic of Iran if not a pass on human rights prior to the 2009 post-election unrest than at least a blind eye. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen—who traveled to Iran and wrote many columns more critical of American policy than that of the Islamic Republic—only had his epiphany about the true rottenness of the Islamic Republic after he witnessed the 2009 unrest. Likewise, prior to 2009, anti-Iran sanctions activist Trita Parsi hardly even paid lip service to Iranians’ human rights and only after the elections did he decide he would no longer dine with Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In reality, however, there has been no substantive difference between the Islamic Republic pre-2009 and post-2009. Evin Prison might be full now, but it was not empty in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. While many liberals and progressives mark 2009 as the turning point in their assessment of Iran, there has been little introspection as to why they were willing until then to give such a repressive government the benefit of the doubt.

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The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—the NGO of the Society of Friends or Quakers—won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, largely for its work with refugees, children, and prisoners of war during both World Wars I and II. The AFSC stayed neutral—a principle which it embraced strictly at the time—but by the 1970s, the AFSC had allowed leftism to trump pacifism. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the politicization of the AFSC and its moral unbearing than how it shilled for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge—an episode discussed at length in Guenter Lewy’s Peace and Revolution, until evidence of that group’s murder of a million citizens became insurmountable. Why politics blinded AFSC officials to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge up until that group’s public exposure, however, is something that the Society of Friends has never adequately explained.

Another episode—albeit one not involving genocide—involves the many American foreign policy thinkers who were willing to give the Islamic Republic of Iran if not a pass on human rights prior to the 2009 post-election unrest than at least a blind eye. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen—who traveled to Iran and wrote many columns more critical of American policy than that of the Islamic Republic—only had his epiphany about the true rottenness of the Islamic Republic after he witnessed the 2009 unrest. Likewise, prior to 2009, anti-Iran sanctions activist Trita Parsi hardly even paid lip service to Iranians’ human rights and only after the elections did he decide he would no longer dine with Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In reality, however, there has been no substantive difference between the Islamic Republic pre-2009 and post-2009. Evin Prison might be full now, but it was not empty in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. While many liberals and progressives mark 2009 as the turning point in their assessment of Iran, there has been little introspection as to why they were willing until then to give such a repressive government the benefit of the doubt.

The current unrest in Turkey continues the pattern. The protests which have now spread to dozens of Turkish towns and cities have deeper roots than the destruction of a small urban park. Perhaps it’s understandable that so many former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey pooh-poohed the erosion of basic freedoms in Turkey; after all, so many used their Turkish connections as golden parachutes after their retirement from the Foreign Service or, perhaps they feel more nobly, as sources to fundraise for various think tanks or academic programs in which they now sit. Others say quite openly—in private—that the need for access or worries about family remaining in Turkey leads them to temper criticism of the AKP. Some Turks self-censor out of fear for their jobs, while others cravenly act as propagandists, providing cover for the Turkish government’s war on the press in exchange for privilege and access.

When political Islamism is added to the mix, too many are willing to dismiss the erosion of liberty in order to stay on the correct side of political correctness. Here, for example, are two Turkey analysts a week before the nationwide protests began lamenting how analysts—with special snark reserved for yours truly—might utilize news of Erdoğan’s war on beer to promote the narrative (which they believed false) that Erdoğan might be trying to impose his social will and Islamize secular Turkey. Since the protests erupted, there has not been subsequent introspection about why they were so anxious to dismiss a repression which so many Turks so clearly felt and which so many now protest against.

It is a tragedy that so many American officials and analysts equate acquiescence to the erosion of liberty with sophistication and prioritize heeling to conventional wisdom with open and honest analysis of data. Too many countries—Iran, Turkey, China, Iraqi Kurdistan and Russia—use access as leverage to temper the criticism of analysts and academics.

When it comes to Iran and Turkey, there is also the bubble factor: Many of those traveling to Tehran remain in relatively cosmopolitan northern Tehran rather than Islamshahr or the Western neighborhoods in which so many Revolutionary Guardsmen live. And when it comes to Turkey, there is nothing more corrosive to good analysis than those congressional delegations or tourists that might visit central Istanbul or Ankara, but never visit Sultanbeyli or Kayseri where few tourists venture but Islamism is on full display.

Let us hope that after Cambodia, Iran, and Turkey, those enjoying Western freedoms will understand how tenuous such freedoms are. Whether motivated by some perverse form of Communism as in Cambodia or by political Islam as in Iran or Turkey, or by some other ideology, it does not take much for politicians to grow impatient with resistance to their ideology or agenda. The Khmer Rouge made no secret of their disdain for democracy, but both Ayatollah Khomeini—in the months before his return to Iran—and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan understood how powerful the rhetoric of democracy could be when trying to achieve the opposite aim and so cultivated a coterie of useful idiots along the way.

Perhaps if there’s any lesson, therefore, the default position for analysts should be skepticism: Analysts of Turkey, Iran, Egypt, or anywhere else should always assume liberty to be under threat unless the governments’ actions prove the opposite. Nor should analysts ever acquiesce to constraints against individual freedoms in the name of religion.

Iran and, alas, Egypt may now be too far gone, but the Turkish Spring provides hope that liberals will fight for their rights. Let us hope that they will have as much support for the cause of liberty as their opponents did when they sought to roll back freedoms.

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Erdoğan Threatens Vigilante Justice

Anger continues to rise in Turkey, where protests now rock more than 80 Turkish towns and cities. Like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh before him, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears defiant in the face of the protestors’ demands. At its core, Erdoğan and his supporters justify their actions in the fact that he won 50 percent of the vote in the last elections. In his mind, therefore, he has a popular mandate for anything he does—from meddling in an essentially local matter like the paving over of Gezi Park, to imprisoning opposition parliamentarians, to confiscating newspapers and television stations.

Alas, while fellow analysts like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook argue that Erdoğan is likely to survive the protests (and I largely agree with him), Erdoğan’s own statements suggest the worst may yet be to come. While Erdoğan has pushed less volatile AKP members like President Abdullah Gül and Erdoğan’s radical but more polite deputy Bülent Arınç in front of the cameras in recent days, their attempts to mollify the demonstrators have been overshadowed by Erdoğan’s barely concealed threat that he was “barely holding back the 50 percent” that voted for him from coming onto the street to take on the pro-democracy protestors.

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Anger continues to rise in Turkey, where protests now rock more than 80 Turkish towns and cities. Like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh before him, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears defiant in the face of the protestors’ demands. At its core, Erdoğan and his supporters justify their actions in the fact that he won 50 percent of the vote in the last elections. In his mind, therefore, he has a popular mandate for anything he does—from meddling in an essentially local matter like the paving over of Gezi Park, to imprisoning opposition parliamentarians, to confiscating newspapers and television stations.

Alas, while fellow analysts like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook argue that Erdoğan is likely to survive the protests (and I largely agree with him), Erdoğan’s own statements suggest the worst may yet be to come. While Erdoğan has pushed less volatile AKP members like President Abdullah Gül and Erdoğan’s radical but more polite deputy Bülent Arınç in front of the cameras in recent days, their attempts to mollify the demonstrators have been overshadowed by Erdoğan’s barely concealed threat that he was “barely holding back the 50 percent” that voted for him from coming onto the street to take on the pro-democracy protestors.

Indeed, it appears that some AKP members are already taking to the streets to confront violently those protestors who seek a more liberal and/or secular Turkey. After videos emerged in Izmir of police grabbing and handing protestors to others dressed in civilian clothes that would proceed to beat them, the governor of Izmir explained that the videotaped civilians were actually undercover police, but they had simply forgotten to bring their “police” vests which they are supposed to wear in such cases. Such an explanation does not seem credible, however, since those beating the demonstrators were not using batons, but crude wooden sticks, and many of them wielding the sticks and pipes against the protestors seemed to be no more than 16 or 17 years old. One of the so-called undercover police was further identified as a member of an AKP youth wing who had recently been ousted after tweeting, “One day we will bring down Ataturk’s Tomb, inshallah.”

Two years ago Cengiz Çandar, a pro-AKP journalist known to carry water for Erdoğan, criticized me harshly for referring to “Erdoğan’s Brownshirts,” and declared, “Freedom of speech is part of the daily routine in Turkey. Western attacks on the Turkish government smack of a dubious agenda.” Mr. Çandar, if you doubt Erdoğan’s Brownshirts exist, perhaps it’s time to hop out of the government car and turn on the television. In any dictatorship, there are—unfortunately—no shortage of journalists who will protect rulers who in turn privilege them.

Fortunately, such journalists often keep one finger to the wind to make sure they can ingratiate themselves. Çandar today is comparing the Taksim protestors to a “velvet revolution.” Let us hope that as the edifice of fear crumbles, other journalists will also prioritize truth over privilege. Not only will the Turkish people be better off, but so too will be the state of Turkish journalism.

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Turkish Protests Expose Obama’s Hypocrisy

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.

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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.

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