If nothing else, the timing of this is certainly interesting. Yesterday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Washington for his meeting with President Trump scheduled for later today. It’s an encounter which I already described as problematic at best, given Erdogan’s new status as a strongman and tyrant, and it doesn’t seem to hold the promise of much benefit on our part. And as you’ll recall, one of the main themes of Erdogan’s crushing of all dissent in his own country is his long standing claim that exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen was behind the attempted coup last summer. That’s why it seems to be a rather pointed jab for the Washington Post to publish a lengthy editorial from Gulen in their newspaper slamming the Turkish president on the day of the meeting.
Of course, virtually everything Gulen is saying in his op-ed is true, albeit with his own unique spin and a packaged denial of being involved in the coup. His critique of Erdogan’s regime is pretty much beyond question as we’ve been discussing here for months on end. And he even attempts to offer a way that western powers could help push Turkey back on the path toward true democracy, even if his approach seems a bit gauzy and pie-in-the-sky.
But the Turkey that I once knew as a hope-inspiring country on its way to consolidating its democracy and a moderate form of secularism has become the dominion of a president who is doing everything he can to amass power and subjugate dissent.
The West must help Turkey return to a democratic path. Tuesday’s meeting, and the NATO summit next week, should be used as an opportunity to advance this effort…
The people of Turkey need the support of their European allies and the United States to restore their democracy. Turkey initiated true multiparty elections in 1950 to join NATO. As a requirement of its membership, NATO can and should demand that Turkey honor its commitment to the alliance’s democratic norms.
For better or worse, Gulen is making some important points and I almost hope that both Erdogan and Trump are handed copies of this editorial before their meeting. I say “almost” because, while the message rings true, there probably isn’t a more divisive figure on the planet (in terms of the relationship between the United States and Turkey) to deliver it. We still have no way of knowing whether or not Gulen was behind the coup, was tangentially involved or is completely innocent as he claims. But what’s more important is that Erdogan believes that he was, or at least sticks to that claim in public so he can hold Gulen up as public enemy number one. Having one of the nation’s largest newspapers publishing his critique of Erdogan on the day of the meeting just seems like a pretty obvious broadside which is likely to inflame what’s already shaping up to be a tense meeting.
Then again, I’m not sure that there’s really all that much to lose here. What’s really going to come from this meeting? Erdogan has made it clear that he’s not backing down on either his attempts to get us to extradite Gulen or his ongoing assault on the Kurds. If the White House has been applying any pressure on him to release Pastor Andrew Brunson from prison it obviously hasn’t worked thus far. So I’m not clear on what our expectations should be today. In a best case scenario Trump could walk away with some sort of improved agreement on military cooperation and, just possibly, a promise for Brunson to be released. But at what cost? Are we going to give up Gulen in exchange, sending him off to what is almost certain torture and death without the benefit of a trial? Not that we owe him all that much, but it would certainly give the impression of having negotiated over a hostage release with someone who is allegedly still one of our allies.
Far more likely, assuming there aren’t already plans in place for those agenda items, is that this will wind up being some sort of grip and grin photo opportunity producing nothing more than some generic joint statement about how important the relationship between our two nations is. That winds up being a huge favor to Erdogan, giving him even more prominence and legitimacy on the world stage, while leaving the United States looking as if we’ll just continue to turn a blind eye to his despotic tendencies.
It’s too late to cancel the meeting now and I certainly hope that I’ll be proven wrong. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for anything wonderful to come of this.