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How Washington Got Turkey’s Dictator So Wrong

Bloomberg View

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Washington this week, it will be an opportunity for President Barack Obama, as well as most of the Washington foreign policy establishment, to ponder how they so misread a man they had touted only a few years ago as a great reformer.

Until 2013, Obama himself boasted of his close personal friendship with the Turkish leader. In 2013, the last time Erdogan visited Washington, Obama praised his Turkish counterpart for his efforts to normalize relations with Israel and for a cease-fire with Kurdish separatists. Obama even thanked Erdogan for his child-rearing tips.

This time it will be much different. Erdogan will get no formal meeting with Obama this week when he will be in town for a nuclear security summit, though he will be officially meeting with Vice President Joe Biden. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that he expects Obama and Erdogan will have an “informal discussion” instead…

Even some of Turkey’s closest friends in Washington are now warning that Erdogan is becoming a tyrant. “Within the past decade, many of Turkey’s friends here were optimistic about your country’s potential to become a vibrant and stable democracy as well as a strong and capable U.S. ally. Recent developments in Turkey, however, are deeply troubling,” states an open letter to the Turkish president drafted by two former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey, Mort Abramowitz and Eric Edelman. That letter is to be released Wednesday by the Bipartisan Policy Center and has 45 signatories, including former senators Chuck Robb and Joe Lieberman.

Representative Steve Cohen, a Democratic co-chairman of the Congressional caucus on U.S.-Turkish relations, which has supported strengthening U.S. ties to Erdogan’s government, told us the Turkish leader’s effort “to consolidate his power and his crack down on the press is troubling.”

Erdogan has intensified his campaign against his political opposition since his party lost elections last June. His coalition regained a parliamentary majority in November, after Erdogan called for a new vote in August, following his new military campaign against Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

Over the past year, more than a thousand people have been charged with the crime of insulting Erdogan personally, and hundreds of academics have been investigated or disciplined for questioning his government’s anti-terror policies. The letter from the Bipartisan Policy Center also notes that Erdogan’s government has taken over the largest Turkish opposition newspaper, Zaman. “Why shouldn’t people in the European Union and the United States be concerned about the prospects for a free media in Turkey?” the letter asks.

KEYWORDS: PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY, VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN