President Barack Obama may be facing many challenges at home and abroad. However, another emerging one may further complicate his life. NATO ally Turkey is mired in a crisis of its own making that potentially threatens its alliance ties, tax the US government’s patience and even spill over into the increasingly chaotic rest of the Middle East. Washington should perhaps get ready for an increasingly erratic and unpredictable Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who until May of last year was a valued White House speaker on many subjects, especially on Syria and the aftermath of the Arab Spring. On a trip to Brussels this week — the first in five years — Erdogan also saw how much he has alienated his European audience.
Two weeks after he was feted at a May White House dinner, Erdogan was confronted by massive street demonstrations that were violently suppressed by the police. What was remarkable, however, was not the police’s use of excessive force, but rather the discourse that emanated from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan, his ministers and media. They blamed the demonstrations on foreign plots, interest lobbies, Americans, Jews, the foreign press and a variety of other menacing institutions, including Lufthansa.
Obama’s response was to privately warn Erdogan of the potential damage of such diatribes to the US-Turkish relationship and Turkey’s image abroad and to ignore him since. Even when he was contemplating military action against Syria during the chemical weapons crisis, he avoided talking to Erdogan, whose country not only borders Syria but also serves as a critical node for relief operations and base of support for the rebels.
Six months after the Gezi Park protests, Erdogan is facing a corruption probe that has so far claimed four cabinet members and seriously undermined confidence in him. To quash the probe and prevent it from further damaging his administration and perhaps his own family, he has purged the police corps of many of its cadres, altered rules for judicial investigation and, most importantly, embarked on a far-ranging McCarthyesque campaign that claims that this is all part of a plot hatched by a parallel organization within the state to overthrow his government.
No one has been immune to such a scorched-earth strategy. In an unprecedented move, Erdogan directly targeted the US ambassador while his mouthpieces accused individual embassy officials of plotting against Turkey. Not a shred of evidence has been offered in this orgy of conspiracy theories that has also targeted European allies, Israel, Jews, Jewish capital, Dubai and even the Vatican, according to some. In fact, the pro-Erdogan press has worked overtime to manufacture plots. One of my favorites is how Kohlberg Kravis Roberts gave former CIA director David Petraeus $24 billion to overthrow the AKP government.
Even if the conspiracy campaign is nothing more than a cynical ploy to hold on to its support base until the March municipal elections, this relentless 24/7 drumbeat augurs ill for Turkey down the road. The crisis is only in its initial phases, yet every day brings new accusations and counteraccusations. Inflamed rhetoric further aggravates an already xenophobic atmosphere. As the AKP loses control over the use of incendiary rhetoric, one possible consequence is unexpected violence against AKP opponents, minorities or foreigners. Government actions have seriously eroded the already fragile rule of law. Because the claims of a plot are at best irrational, if not mendacious, they have destroyed the credibility of Erdogan, his cabinet and state institutions. How can Obama (or any European leader) trust Erdogan or any Turkish minister who one day accuses the United States of fomenting a coup and the next extols the virtues of the American alliance? It is no surprise that US approval is lower in Turkey than in most countries in the world.
More importantly, the atmosphere created by these accusations will seriously reduce Erdogan’s room to maneuver in foreign policy while increasing the risk of a miscalculation. From where Turks were riding high in the Middle East, they find themselves isolated and at odds with friends and allies over a variety of issues, most importantly on Syria and Egypt and to a lesser extent with Iraq and Iran and certainly with Israel. It is in Syria that the real danger lurks. Increasingly, Ankara is perceived to be either siding with Jabhat al-Nusra-type jihadists or having outsourced its Syria policy to an aggressive domestic NGO, the IHH. When the Turkish police on suspicion of al-Qaeda links raided IHH’s premises, it was the police officers who suffered the consequences, for they were relieved of duty.
What should the White House do? The aim should be to protect US-Turkish relations in the long term and prevent Ankara from damaging them. First, it has to prepare for any type of contingency, because the situation may spiral out of control. This is hard, because the United States and Turkey are involved in so many transactions on a daily basis. Second, it must quietly and then publicly warn Erdogan that he will be held directly responsible for any deterioration in relations or any acts of violence. Obama’s voice counts more than any combination of US institutions. Third, the United States should make it clear that support for all Turkish positions in international forums will be reviewed, including, for example, its application to accede to the UN Security Council.
Most importantly, the White House should not underestimate the ramifications of this domestic crisis in Turkey.