Before meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the G-20 this weekend, President Obama said in a CNN interview that he wanted to show support for the Turkish people following their country’s July 15 coup attempt, which he described as a “political and civil earthquake.” But, he added, “like any good friend we want to give them honest feedback if we think that the steps they’re taking are going to be contrary to their long-term interests and our partnership.”
Dealing with the strategically important countries with illiberal governments has always posed a challenge for Washington.
When he actually spoke with Erdoğan, however, Obama had clearly decided to prioritize support over honest feedback. Dealing with the strategically important countries with illiberal governments has always posed a challenge for Washington. With Turkey, however, the administration’s inconsistent rhetoric has only made this challenge worse.
By defeating a brutal coup attempt, the Turkish people protected their democratic institutions from military takeover. Now, however, the response to the coup, in which as many as 100,000 people have been purged from government positions and over 100 journalists arrested, represents the most serious threat to liberal democracy in Turkey. The Turkish government has been quick to equate opposition to its post-coup purges with support for the coup attempt—an excellent technique for the very kind of criticism Washington should be raising.
Yet at a moment that calls for careful, well-calibrated rhetoric, the Obama administration seems to have gone about the matter completely backwards, initially offering criticism in place of support and now offering support in place of criticism.
After offering high-profile criticism when it was least likely to be effective, the administration now seems content to avoid it altogether.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt, when a measure of sympathy would have been entirely appropriate, Secretary of State John Kerry instead made the improbable threat that Turkey could be kicked out of NATO for its undemocratic behavior. Then, when Vice President Biden visited a month and a half later, after the initial trauma of the coup attempt was beginning to subside, he declined to offer any criticism of Turkey’s actions whatsoever, even as the scope of the government’s crackdown was expanding. Now, Obama appears to have doubled down on this inconsistent approach in person. After offering high-profile criticism when it was least likely to be effective, the administration now seems content to avoid it altogether.
Unfortunately, Obama and Biden’s silence coincided with Turkey’s much-publicized efforts to mend ties with Moscow and intervene against ISIS, thereby creating the impression, fairly or not, that U.S. concerns about democracy are a matter of politics, not principle. That their silence was followed by an immediate decline in Turkish accusations of U.S. complicity in the coup likewise suggested, again fairly or not, that U.S. criticism could be preempted with anti-American bluster.
To be more effective in the future, Washington needs to be measured but consistent in its response to undemocratic developments. The Turkish government continues to be eager for high-profile meetings with the U.S. president, as well as visits from figures like Biden. Washington should make it clear that as long as Turkey continues to jail journalists or target opponents without regard for the rule of law, high-profile meetings will be accompanied by equally high-profile criticism.