Turkey Pulse

Who does Obama talk to in Turkey?

Article Summary
With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expecting to hold onto his power over the Justice and Development Party and the government, will the US administration be able to engage with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu directly?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now Turkey’s first directly elected president. Constitutionally, he is not the chief executive of the country — Ahmet Davutoglu, the new prime minister, is. Yet, it is no secret that Erdogan plans to run Turkey from the presidential palace. This is Turkey’s problem to solve.

The United States and the Europeans have a different problem: Whom do they talk to when they have to engage Turkish leaders on matters of critical importance and joint decisions have to be taken? Erdogan, through his sheer personality and control of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) — which he created, and rules Turkey — will want to be US President Barack Obama’s interlocutor, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. Do these leaders take Erdogan’s phone call when they need to discuss Syria or Iraq, or any other issue of common interest? This is going to be a tough call.

Erdogan did not assume the Turkish presidency to become second fiddle to anyone. He is a consummate politician, a workaholic and a control freak. In the numerous tape recordings that became public last year, Erdogan is overheard ordering editors to fire specific columnists and interfering with news coverage. In one incident, he called from Morocco to complain about the content of the news ticker being displayed by a Turkish television network. In another set of conversations, he is heard chastising a government employee for authorizing the sale of a specific piece of property in Istanbul without asking him for his approval.

Over the years, Erdogan has built a massive patronage network that goes well beyond the AKP that he dominates, and includes business circles, media owners and religious and nonreligious nongovernmental organizations. Estimates vary, but some 60% of the media in Turkey today slavishly take their orders from Erdogan, and businessmen have pumped money into the patronage network to receive special favors and government tenders.

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Ironically, Davutoglu had been Turkey’s foreign minister until ascending to his new post. As such, in his new capacity he should be amply able to engage world leaders, as his predecessor did. Davutoglu was chosen by Erdogan to replace him precisely because domestic politics and the vast patronage network is something he knows little about or is interested in. Hence, Davutoglu will be working hard to come up to speed on these matters, and will undoubtedly take his cues from the president.

What about foreign policy?

The problem is that Erdogan sees himself as a global figure; he will not want to fade into the limelight. He has strong and heartfelt beliefs on many issues that he wants to continue to take the lead on.

The first test is approaching. The upcoming NATO summit in Wales on Sept. 4-5 will be the first opportunity for Erdogan to waltz onto the world stage as the newly elected president of Turkey. Also in attendance will be Obama, Merkel, Cameron and Hollande. Will Davutoglu attend? Highly unlikely.

This international event will then be followed by the yearly ritual in New York in mid-September with the opening of the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly. In turn, this will be followed by the G-20 summit on Nov. 15-16 in Brisbane, Australia. While it remains to be seen whether Davutoglu will accompany Erdogan, it is certain the Turkish president will be heading the Turkish delegation, and the US administration will be getting calls from Ankara requesting bilateral meetings between Erdogan and Obama.

More important than the international summits, however, is the day-to-day business of the government. In the past, Erdogan as prime minister took all the decisions because that was his right constitutionally. Will Davutoglu now have to consult with Erdogan every time a difficult issue emerges on the agenda?

How will the Obama administration react to efforts by Erdogan to usurp the powers of his former office? In effect, Erdogan wants to be both president and prime minister. Should the Obama administration make it clear that the president of the United States will primarily interact with the prime minister of Turkey, except for occasional courtesy conversations with Erdogan?

It may be beneficial to the US administration to clarify its position on this issue before things become messy. There are those who will argue, with some justification, that with real power residing in Erdogan, the United States would be making a mistake by alienating him. Washington would be cutting off its nose to spite its face, since if it wants things to be done, it needs to go to the source of power.

This eerily reminds us of the “old days” when the United States wanted something done in Turkey and encountered resistance from the government. It simply would bypass the politicians and go to the source of the power: the army. Today, however, Erdogan might say that going to him is different because unlike the army of the past, he has been elected to power. 

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Found in: un general assembly, turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, nato, barack obama, ahmet davutoglu

Henri Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

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