As expressed in a New York Times article from Dec. 21, 2013, “Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan [sic] on Saturday continued his embrace of what has traditionally been the strategy of Turkish politicians facing a crisis: Blame foreign powers, in this case the United States.” The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is resorting to conspiracy theories to exonerate itself of serious charges on a corruption scandal. Doing so might tarnish Turkey’s image abroad and hurt national interests.
I’m sure the moment the corruption scandal broke out, the Obama administration started to pray to God that the Turks would not interject the US into this internal matter. The spokespersons for the State Department let reporters’ questions about this issue slide without saying much about it. They tried to act as an impartial observer. The Erdoğan government’s direct and indirect interventions on behalf of bureaucrats who are tackling corruption claims actually conflict with the democratic values that reinforce the “model partnership” between the US and Turkey. Despite this fact, the US government kept its criticisms private; it only encouraged judicial principles like transparency and fairness because it did not want to provide any ammunition to politicians or press who might harm US relations with Turkey, and particularly with Erdoğan. The US was determined to stay away from this Turkish family dispute.
It seems that those who were eager to put forth a foreign connection to discredit the corruption investigation could not find what they were looking for in Washington’s statements. Therefore, they turned their eyes to US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone in Ankara. Ricciardone hosted Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and party deputies for lunch at his residence on Thursday. He reportedly said transparency is essential in democracies and that his country is also closely following the major corruption investigation. Some people were unhappy about his remarks. Pro-government media organizations targeted Ricciardone in any ugly way based on allegedly anti-government remarks at another private meeting on Dec. 17 with EU ambassadors in Ankara. Then, on Saturday, Erdoğan threatened Ricciardone and other ambassadors without explicitly announcing their names, saying: “Do your job. If you leave your area of duty, this could extend into our government’s area of jurisdiction. We do not have to keep you in our country.”
Washington’s fears came true
What Washington was trying to avoid has happened. The US Embassy in Ankara made a statement via Twitter denying that the reported meeting between Ricciardone and EU ambassadors took place, and called the press reports a “complete lie and slander.” Although it was scheduled long ago, some media organizations tried to link the US Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen’s visit to Turkey with the ongoing corruption investigation, and the US officials noted this. It is true Halkbank’s role as a trade bridge between Iran and Turkey has been closely monitored by the US for a long time since the sanctions process against Iran. But one cannot cast suspicion on the investigation by claiming that the “US and Israel lobby wanted it” when its scope is much broader than the dealings with Halkbank. US officials have expressed their discontent with this propaganda to their Turkish counterparts via diplomatic channels. In order to prevent a diplomatic crisis between the two countries, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it was satisfied with the US Embassy’s statement and no plans were made for summoning Ricciardone to the ministry. The problem is: Will Mr. Erdoğan, who normally does not lend an ear to the Foreign Ministry’s reasonable input, act with restraint or not?
From the US perspective, Erdoğan is both the weakest and strongest link in US-Turkish relations. He is the strongest link because he is the democratically elected leader of a strategic ally that the US attaches utmost importance to. He is an influential politician who has a monopoly of power over Turkey, since he controls not only the executive branch but also the legislative and even the judiciary branches to a considerable extent. US President Barack Obama is aware of the fact that the US cannot get what it seeks from Turkey without reaching out to him. This is why Obama has developed a strong personal relationship with Erdoğan. On the other hand, what makes Erdoğan the weakest link is his touchy, unpredictable and increasingly authoritarian character. The US officials know that Erdoğan did not mind quickly severing ties with his former buddies Baath leader Bashar al-Assad and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. They are afraid the same thing could happen with Obama. Because of all of these reasons, although White House occasionally distances itself from Erdoğan, they take pains not to sever emotional ties, since the US does not want to damage its vital interests in Turkey.
White House perspectives on Erdoğan
The Obama administration made its strongest criticism against Erdoğan when he blamed Israel for being behind the Gezi Park incidents using an anti-Semitic tone. The White House is well aware that Israel is not welcomed even by the leaders of many of US-allied countries in the Middle East. Even the relationship between this White House and Israel has soured recently. However, when anti-Semitism is involved, powerful moral and political mechanisms come into play. The strong signals suggesting Erdoğan’s return to his “Islamist” roots put US officials into a state of heightened alertness. His day-by-day shift from a pragmatic, realistic and accepting leader toward an increasingly ill-tempered, uncompromising and anti-democratic one is creating risks for Turkey’s partners, including the US.
On top of his provocative attitude during the Gezi Park incidents, Erdoğan’s extremely harsh and paranoid reaction to the corruption investigation has further deepened international mistrust toward him. It also weakened the hands of those who want to showcase Turkey as an example for Middle Eastern countries. Many in the US capital have little or no doubt that the corruption allegations are largely true. Washington is cognizant that it will have to continue working with Erdoğan in the foreseeable future, but it also hopes more reasonable and uncontroversial actors will enter the Turkish political scene. This is why, nowadays, they are meticulously contemplating the possible effects of this latest domestic crisis on the upcoming elections.
Prime Minister Erdoğan loves to take all the credit when things go well and to blame his friends, partners or a totally unrelated group otherwise. One of the domestic victims of this chronic lack of self-criticism is the Hizmet (Gülen) community. Outside the country, the US and the “interest lobby” — by which Erdoğan means the Jews — top the list. Such overblown fantasies of internal and external enemies might set Turkey off on a dangerous path and undermine the nation’s stability. They must be abandoned immediately.
ALİ H. ASLAN