BACKGROUND: The Istanbul street protests began when a group of environmentalists staged a peaceful demonstration at Taksim’s Gezi Park to challenge the government’s plans to demolish the park to establish a shopping mall and other edifices. While the planned demolition of Gezi Park sparked the initial protests, the protest movement has adopted a broader agenda and gained a wider following, including several strata of Turkish society that have not engaged in such direct action before, such as some professionals and other members of the urban middle class. The demonstrators have a lengthy list of grievances against the Turkish government. Their most prominent concerns include objections to Erdoğan’s leadership style, seen as authoritarian and insensitive to the concerns of constituencies other than supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The protesters also object to the AKP’s attempt to impose moral conservatism on society, the restrictions imposed on the freedom of expression, and recent efforts to limit the sale and consumption of alcohol.
The Obama administration has declined to comment on these larger issues, at least in public. U.S officials have focused their criticism on the heavy handed police suppressions of the protests, referencing reports of excessive use of force by the police and pointing to the large numbers of injured protesters and widespread property damage. According to Turkish Doctor’s Association, as of June 17, four lives had been lost, six people, including a fourteen year old girl in Ankara, are in life-threatening condition, over seven thousand injured have been treated in hospitals, and eleven people have lost an eye during the police operations against the protesters. Without mentioning Erdoğan, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that, “We also continue to urge all parties to refrain from provoking violence.”
The U.S. State Department’s recent human rights report warns about “significantly restricted access to justice” for political prisoners and a restricting space for media freedoms in Turkey. Yet these issues have not figured in the official statements by the White House on the current crisis. In what would appear to be an attempt to counter the impression of relative indifference to the state of democratic freedom in Turkey, administration officials leaked to the news media supposed discontent with Erdoğan, leading one reporter to claim that in the Obama White House ‘there’s some wincing at the statements by Erdoğan” (Julie Pace, ABC News, June 11, 2013).
IMPLICATIONS: One reason for the Obama administration’s restrained approach is that Erdoğan and the AKP look to remain in power for a while given the lack of a strong national opposition party. The Obama administration for instance adopted a critical stance toward Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as his downfall grew more likely, but this is not the case with Erdoğan. The Turkish prime minister was elected to office in 2002, 2007 and 2011 by ever greater margins. The Turkish economy remains strong despite the recent global, regional, and domestic disturbances.
Conversely, the continuation of Turkey’s democratic system gives U.S. officials another excuse for inaction. Turkish voters can remove Erdoğan and the AKP through the ballot rather than rely on the military pressure that deposed Mubarak or the Western intervention that helped secure the political transitions in Yemen and in some former Soviet republics.
The United States is also relying heavily on Turkey’s support in dealing with regional security issues. The Syrian political opposition and their military components have used Turkish territory as a sanctuary and logistics support base. The AKP also made the contested decision in 2011 to host a U.S, missile defense radar on its territory to deal with Iran. The Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey remains an important logistics hub for U.S. military forces travelling between the Western hemisphere and key Eurasian countries or warzones in Afghanistan and in the Middle East.
The American media has provided some coverage of the Turkish protests, which began shortly after Erdogan visited President Obama in Washington. During the main news conference of the trip, on May 16, the two presidents visibly differed regarding Syria, with Erdoğan wanting to see more vigorous action by the Obama administration to help end this debilitating civil war. The two leaders also failed to agree on Erdoğan’s wish to see Hamas participate in Israel-Palestine peace talks and for Turkey’s state oil company to have greater access to northern Iraqi oil exports.
Many recent American commentaries express concern that Erdoğan’s actions were discrediting the “model partnership” image found in U.S. official discourse on Turkey since Obama’s first trip there a few months after he assumed office in January 2009. As one of the largest “electoral democracies” with a Muslim majority, the United States is looking to Turkey as a democratic model for Muslims and to present an alternative to Islamic extremism. However, Turkey’s value as a force against radical Islamist movements has been devalued by the Turkish government’s increasingly Islamic conservative bent and its espousal of the Sunni radical cause notably in Syria. Citizens and governments in Central Asia who previously saw Erdoğan and the AKP as role models of a moderate Islamist movement now see Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan as having as strong economies as Turkey but also being more secular and stable, if less democratic. The Arab Spring analogy was sometimes referenced in the American media, with the cozy relationship between Washington and Cairo when Hosni Mubarak still held autocratic power over Egypt cited as a common example.
However, Obama’s cautious policy toward Erdoğan’s Turkey does have some supporters in the Washington media and think tank community. For example, Doug Bandow of The American Spectator and the CATO Institute, while acknowledging that Erdoğan is not an ideal democratic leader, notes that Erdoğan was legitimately elected and a better alternative than the previous regime of military dictatorship (in the 1980’s), during which hundreds of thousands were jailed, tortured, and fifty five death sentences were carried out. In addition, Bandow points out that Turkey’s current government, while led by an Islamist party, is not a dictatorship like the former governments of Tunisia, Egypt, or the government on Syria; like many American commentators, he also views the AKP-governed Turkey as a considerably stable country in a Middle Eastern context.
CONCLUSION: It is widely known that President Barack Obama considers Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as one of his most important and valued foreign partners. The Obama White House believes it successfully recovered the alliance with Turkey which, under the previous administration, was in danger of collapsing over Iraq and other issues. Now the U.S. administration hopes for an equally successful recovery in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere where new Islamic-dominated governments have come into power. They want these new regimes to follow Turkey’s path toward moderation rather than that of Iran. Erdoğan was personally seen as wonderful foil to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even Erdoğan’s vocal support for Hamas has been overlooked as a helpful stratagem for undercutting Ahmadinejad’s support among the Arab masses.
In turn, although Erdoğan usually does not take criticism well, he has proved rather responsive to Obama. Most recently, Erdoğan accepted a phone call and apology from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Israeli attack on a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza. Analysts say Erdoğan would have been far less willing to accept the limited apology had Obama not been on the line coaxing a settlement. As Turkey has close to “zero friends” – except for the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq – in its neighborhood, Ankara has become increasingly dependent on sustaining good ties with especially the United States and its NATO allies.
In the case of the Turkish protests, President Obama seems to have calculated that it would prove counterproductive to call on Erdoğan to change his domestic course at a time when the Turkey-U.S. relationship remains focused on strategic and security issues. But if Turkey becomes politically paralyzed, as it was in earlier decades, Ankara will prove unable to play the regional security and economic role expected of Turkey in Washington. Erdoğan will also lack the popular support he needs to continue his controversial peace process with the Kurds or to draw support away from more radical Muslim forces in the Middle East.
The Obama administration will furthermore need to take into consideration that it may hurt U.S. interests in the long term if the United States is – once again -- seen to be compromising its fundamental values simply to secure tactical gains in the Middle East.