Two weeks ago, President Obama in an interview listed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan among five world leaders with whom he has been able to forge “friendships and the bonds of trust.” (The others were the leaders of Britain, Germany, India and South Korea.)
Last fall, the administration selected Turkey as the most suitable co-chair for its flagship new Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) initiative. Around the same time, news reports said Obama had spoken with Erdogan by phone last year more often than he had with any other leader apart from British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The choice of Turkey as GCTF co-chair raised eyebrows because Erdogan has embraced Hamas – designated a foreign terrorist organization – and as an active member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is supportive of the bloc’s position that “armed struggle against foreign occupation … shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”
Furthermore, until a recent fallout over the crisis in Syria, Erdogan forged a close relationship with Tehran, even as the U.S. sought to lead international efforts to isolate the regime, a designated state sponsor of terror, over its nuclear activities.
Just 20 months ago, Erdogan slapped down the Obama administration by refusing to support a key U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. Although the resolution passed, “no” votes by Turkey and Brazil robbed it of the unanimity so prized by U.N. diplomats wanting to send a “strong and unified” message on a pressing issue. (Lebanon abstained.)
Since then, Turkey has refused to comply with U.S. sanctions on Iran and has declined to criticize human rights abuses there.
Erdogan’s undisguised hostility towards Israel, Washington’s most important Mideast ally, has also prompted deep concern in both Israel and the U.S.
At home, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is accused of trying to stifle dissent by cracking down on journalists and opposition figures. Press freedom has steadily eroded in recent years – Turkey dropped from 98th place in 2005 to 138th (out of 178 countries) in Reporters Without Borders’ most recent “world press freedom index.”
In its 2012 global assessment, Freedom House called developments in Turkey “worrying, given the country’s role as a model for democracy in Muslim-majority countries and its aspirations to regional leadership.”
“While the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was credited with instituting important reforms during its early years in power, its recent behavior has triggered concern among supporters of press freedom and civil liberties,” the Washington-based democracy watchdog said.
“In the past few years, thousands of people have been arrested on charges of involvement with Kurdish terrorist organizations or participation in an alleged military conspiracy to overthrow the government. Those detained include journalists, scholars, and even defense lawyers.”
‘Our democracy is regressing’
In a Washington Post op-ed Monday, Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu claimed that his party had become the latest target in the AKP government’s “systematic and ruthless …persecution of any opposition to its policies.”
“Turkey today is a country where people live in fear and are divided politically, economically and socially,” he charged. “Our democracy is regressing in terms of the separation of powers, basic human rights and freedoms and social development and justice. Citizens worry deeply about their future.”
Despite these concerns, the Obama administration reserves warm praise for Ankara.
When Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies were roundly criticized during a Republican presidential debate in South Carolina last month – both by a Fox News moderator and by then candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry – the State Department defended it warmly.
Spokesman Mark Toner described it as a “stalwart ally,” “a strong partner” that “continues to play a very positive and constructive role in the region,” and “an example of so-called Islamic democracy in action.”
In the debate, Perry had been asked whether Turkey deserved to remain in NATO, given restrictions on press freedom, a soaring rate of murder of women, Erdogan’s support for Hamas and military threats against Israel and Cyprus.
The candidate’s response included criticism of Obama for “a foreign policy that makes our allies very nervous and emboldens our enemies,” and calls for the U.S. to “send a powerful message to countries like Iran, and Syria and Turkey that the United States is serious and that we’re going to have to be dealt with.”
During a State Department briefing two days later, the subject of a controversial court case in Turkey involving the murder of a journalist was raised. Toner’s colleague, Victoria Nuland, said the U.S. has made it clear “that we believe that an independent and transparent judiciary and full accountability are critical to all healthy democracies, including Turkey.”
Asked whether the administration believes that Turkey has an “independent and transparent judiciary,” Nuland demurred.
“I’m not in the business of giving report cards on people’s judiciaries,” she said. “They have a long history of an independent judiciary. I think what is needed here is confidence that this case and others like it are handled in a transparent way.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu travels to the U.S. this week for talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Nuland on Tuesday declined to “preview a meeting that hasn’t happened yet,” beyond saying they would likely discuss the situation in Syria.