US Public Remains Critical of Turkey’s Democratic Record

Because of Turkey’s geopolitical significance for the United States’ policies towards Iran, Syria and Iraq, the Obama Administration has chosen to overlook the AKP’s failure to implement democratic reforms, explains Omer Taspinar. However, the American media has been less lenient in its treatment of human rights abuses and Turkish handling of relations with its Kurdish minority.

al-monitor A demonstrator stands under a Turkish flag during a protest against the recent attacks on Turkish military, in central Istanbul 20/10/2011. Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.

Topics covered

us foreign policy, us-turkish relations, us, turkish democracy, turkish civilian-military relations, turkish-kurdish relations, media, human rights, democratic reform, american public opinion

Jan 24, 2012

Recently, Turkey has experienced two significant developments. On the one hand the Kurdish issue has entered a new phase with the operations carried out against the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), which prosecutors say is a political umbrella organization that includes the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorist organization. On the other hand, for the first time in Turkish history, a retired military chief was arrested, marking the start of a new era in civilian-military relations.

How do the US administration and the media assess these developments in Turkey? Firstly it should be noted that there is a huge difference between the reactions of officials and the media. Official reactions are based on national interests. In this case it depends on what the USA expects from Turkey. In accordance with these expectations and the American national interest, the Obama administration sets out an order of priority.  For example, some people in the administration are concerned about the human rights and democratization record of Turkey. At the same time, the White House, Pentagon, and the Department of State have high expectations of Turkey in relation to American national interests.

What are these priority issues? Nowadays there are three main issues of the utmost importance for the American administration.

The first is the Iranian issue. Turkey’s possible support for oil sanctions against Iran is crucial to the Obama administration. The second priority is Syria. For the United States, it is vital that Turkey maintain its tough attitude. Finally, there is Iraq. The Obama administration is already concerned about the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq. If Turkey mounts a comprehensive military operation in Northern Iraq to combat the PKK, this would exacerbate the risk of internal civil conflict. Within this framework the Obama administration has to come up with a strategy on Turkey. Given that the American government has vested interests in the Turkish government, democratization and human rights have become of secondary importance. The Obama administration remains silent on these issues. Only when it is asked by Turkish journalists in Washington does the State Department spokesperson address these issues, and generally evades the questions with generic statements. The American government avoids speaking up on these issues because it is depending on Turkey [to come through on Iran, Syria and Iraq].

Lastly, this point touches upon a prevalent dilemma between real politics and idealism. The American idealists think that Turkey has failed to attain a healthy balance between freedom and security when it comes to the Kurdish issue. The realists, on the other hand, say that “Turkey expects military support from us rather than advice for further democratization on this issue.”

What about the American press?

The American press is much more independent and critical than the Obama administration. The media does not criticize Turkey much over its civilian-military balance. But the Kurdish issue is of interest to them. Ankara is accused of increasingly leaning towards authoritarianism. Additionally, the American press continues to remind Turkey of the fact that it can only be a model for the Arab world if a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish issue is achieved. It would be in the best interest of the AKP to pay attention to these critiques.

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