By Dexter Filkins
March 31, 2016
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s President, is coming to Washington this week, where he’ll probably meet President Obama. It’s a good bet he’ll manage to get in and out of the capital without being subjected to the public humiliation he deserves.
On paper, Erdoğan is an ally of the United States. Turkey is a member of NATO and a modern country with a Muslim majority that many American officials imagine as a bridge to the Middle East. Its military is helping in the fight against ISIS. When Erdoğan was first elected Prime Minister, in 2003, many hoped that he would serve as a democratic model for the rest of the Islamic world.
That was a long time ago. Erdoğan is well on his way to becoming a dictator, if he isn’t one already. Not long after his initial election, Erdoğan’s agents embarked on a large and sinister campaign to destroy his political opponents, jailing hundreds—journalists, university rectors, military officers, aid workers—on trumped-up charges and fabricated evidence. (In 2012, I wrote about Erdoğan’s campaign for the magazine.) Despite his excesses, Erdoğan remained popular as the Turkish economy rapidly grew. In 2014, having completed three terms as Prime Minister, he ran for President and won. Still, Turkish voters have refused to give him the blank check he desired, and last year turned down his effort to rewrite the Constitution to give himself vast new powers.
Since becoming President, Erdoğan has made a further turn toward dictatorship, crushing the remnants of a free press. In December, 2014, Turkish police arrested the editor of Zaman, the country’s largest newspaper, which had not only been a critic of Erdoğan but also written extensively about the corruption that pervades his government and family. The editor, Ekrem Dumanlı, was accused of trying to mount a coup d’état. Earlier this month, the government seized Zaman and began printing pro-government articles.
After Zaman, the newspaper Cumhuriyet remained one of the last pillars of the opposition press. In May, Cumhuriyet published video footage that showed Turkish intelligence officers ferrying trucks filled with weapons to rebel groups in Syria. There was nothing secret about this: Turkey has been one of the most aggressive and indiscriminate supporters of rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad, going so far as to arm the most dangerous extremists there, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the local Al Qaeda franchise. Turkey’s long-standing policy of allowing militants to enter the country and cross into Syria is as responsible for the rise of ISIS as any other factor.
The problem for Erdoğan was that the Cumhuriyet story came out just as he was succumbing to pressure from the Obama Administration to switch his policy and join the fight against ISIS. You can imagine what a hypocrite Erdoğan felt like when the Cumhuriyet story hit the stands. In November, government agents arrested its two top editors, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, both veteran journalists, on charges of espionage. Prosecutors are demanding life sentences for the pair. Erdoğan himself is a plaintiff in the case. Last week, a judge ordered the trial closed to the public.
Erdoğan’s campaign against Cumhuriyet has coincided with an equally brazen assault on Kurdish journalists, at least a dozen of whom have been arrested and detained on charges that they support terrorism. There are at least twenty reporters now imprisoned in Turkey, according to Nina Ognianova, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in New York. “It’s so hard to get information that we aren’t sure how many journalists have been detained,” Ognianova said. “The campaign is unrelenting.”
Under normal circumstances, Erdoğan’s march to authoritarianism might be expected to provoke criticism or even economic sanctions. But since coming to office in 2009, President Obama has treated Erdoğan like an ally and friend. His Administration has continued to do so, even after the crackdown on Zaman and Cumhurieyt. Why? Because the United States desperately needs Turkey, a Muslim-majority country, in its fight against ISIS. Turkey hasn’t even been helpful in this regard—it has been much more focussed on bombing the Kurdish enclave in north-eastern Syria, America’s most effective ally in the country—and there is evidence that Obama’s view is changing. In discussions with Jeffrey Goldberg, of the Atlantic, Obama said that while he once imagined Erdoğan as a moderate, he now sees him as an authoritarian and a failure.
That’s a start. Obama and Erdoğan are supposed to meet today in Washington. Let’s hope President Obama skips the diplomatic language and goes straight to the point: that any leader who jails journalists—and arms Al Qaeda and bombs the Kurds and jails his opponents—is no friend of the United States.