Managing Turkey Ties in Tough Times
By: Samuel Brannen
Only a few years ago, Turkey was viewed as a model for newly free nations in the Middle East and North Africa to move beyond the turmoil of the Arab Spring to a democratic and prosperous future. But over the past year, democracy within Turkey has collapsed at an alarming rate. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to eliminate all checks on his power, attacked freedom of assembly and speech (including a new Internet law that would make Russian president Vladimir Putin envious), and sought to reduce the press to an agitprop echo chamber. In recent months a major corruption scandal linked to the top echelons of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) broke, leading to the sacking of key ministers and a systematic counterattack on the judiciary and police carrying out the investigation. With no viable political opposition, the AKP and Erdogan are likely to remain in power until at least the next national elections scheduled for 2015.
As it turns increasingly inward, Turkey’s foreign policy has become reflexive, emotional, and often at odds with its own long-term interests. The most egregious examples have included support for extremist opposition groups in Syria and Turkey’s selection last fall of a U.S.- sanctioned Chinese defense company in the competition for a new integrated air and missile defense system.
And yet, Turkey remains intimately linked to key strategic matters in the year ahead for the United States, from addressing the horror in Syria to charting a course for NATO at the September summit in Wales. Washington can neither ignore Ankara’s break with shared values nor turn its back on Turkey’s continued importance in the region.
Erdogan respects strength. Washington has struggled to deliver a consistent, hard message to Ankara. Contrary to conventional thinking and the approach taken over past months, the surest way to lose Turkey is to remain silent regarding its internal politics. President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other senior U.S. officials must be very clear in coming months regarding their deep concern with Turkey’s direction and recent policy choices. There will be fallout, but also the chance for real conversation between allies. Or it will become even clearer to the Turkish electorate that the time has come for Erdogan to go.