Steven Cook and Michael Koplow suggest the United States government has held Turkey up as a democratic model even as, they write, “Turkey has essentially become a one-party state.” But prior to the recent protests, have U.S. public statements refrained from noting deficiencies in Turkish democracy? It depends where you look, the White House or the Department of State. U.S. rhetoric has not been uniform.
The White House has chosen to highlight military and economic cooperation, not political reform, in a way very consistent with Cook and Koplow’s piece. With nearby states in the Middle East like Egypt in the midst of political upheaval, Turkey served as convenient model of success. Turkey = Islam + democracy + US ally. What could be a better illustration for the president?
When Prime Minister Erdogan came to the White House on May 16, 2013, President Obama did not raise concerns about illiberal Turkish behavior in either the joint press conference or in an op-ed Obama published that day in the Turkish Daily Sabah. Obama focused on trade and investment, mutual security (NATO, terrorism), and Syria. Reporters did not ask either leader about the state of Turkish democracy.
Four years ago, when Obama traveled to Turkey in April 2009, his language was a little different; he did mention democracy. Obama highlighted a shared U.S.-Turkish commitment to “religious freedom, respectful of rule of law, respectful of freedom.” More importantly, in his speech to the Turkish parliament, Obama carefully asked for continued Turkish progress on reform: “These achievements have created new laws that must be implemented, and a momentum that should be sustained.” He went to great lengths not to single Turkey out, juxtaposing his comments (concerns?) on Turkish democracy with a reminder of how U.S. democracy too is a work in progress: “I say this as the President of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be President of the United States.” (The fact that he was speaking in the Turkish parliament might very well have shaped how such comments were delivered!)
They were not earth-shattering words, but he did explicitly mention the need for Turkey to do more work on the issue.
What about State? In late 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a different tack. In a speech in Washington, DC, hosted by the American-Turkish Council, Clinton focused mostly on economics and mutual security. But she also, gently I thought, raised substantive concerns about democratic reform:
The third point is that Turkey’s ability to realize its full potential depends upon its resolve to strengthen democracy at home and promote peace and stability in the neighborhood. The ongoing constitutional reform process is a valuable opportunity, and I’ve had very productive conversations with President Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, and others about this process, about its inclusivity and transparency that results in a document that deepens respect for human rights for all Turkish citizens, including the right to speak and worship freely. All minority groups need to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. I was particularly impressed by Prime Minister Erdogan’s statement during Ramadan that property would be returned to religious minority groups, and we also hope to see other positive steps, such as reopening of the Halki Seminary.
A vibrant economy depends upon the free exchange of ideas, the free flow of information, and the rule of law. Strengthening due process, cracking down on corruption, helps any country grow more rapidly, and also protecting a free and independent media, which plays a role that is very important.
She hits a lot of the key points: the constitution, a free media, rule of law, and human rights for all Turkish citizens. She did not juxtapose it with America’s own imperfections and continuing democracy implementation agenda. Fast forward 18 months and I can imagine those kinds of talking points were intentionally left out during Erdogan’s visit.
Department of State reports are even more at odds with Obama’s May 2013 comments. State’s Human Rights Report said many positive things about Turkey but also highlighted a number of shortcomings. The report’s executive summary listed the “most significant human rights problems during the year” including:
- “Deficiencies in effective access to justice”
- “Government interference with freedom of expression”
- “Inadequate protection of vulnerable populations”
The summary continued:
Other significant human rights problems during the year included: Security forces committed unlawful killings. Authorities obstructed demonstrations. Security forces allegedly used excessive force during sometimes violent protests related to the Kurdish issue, students’ rights, and labor and opposition activities. The government obstructed the activities of human rights organizations, particularly in the Southeast. Impunity remained a problem. The government investigated reports of abuse by security forces, but the number of arrests and prosecutions was low, and convictions remained rare, although the number increased from previous years.
As is typical with the State report, the full text of the Turkey section includes a variety of examples. Also typical of coverage of US allies, the criticism is usually embedded in positive statements. For example:
The constitution and law provide citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections based on universal suffrage. However, the government restricted the activities of some political parties and leaders.
That kind of good cop, bad cop statement is similar to comments by Daniel Fried, U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, on February 27, 2009 in advance of a Secretary Clinton trip to Turkey and elsewhere:
And Turkey itself has been going through a very important evolution at home, moving in a democratic direction, but also with a lot of strains as Turkey addresses issues of its democracy in its – under its secular – its secular system.
(Another annual State report worth considering is on International Religious Freedom. This from May 20, 2013: “Embassy and consulate representatives, as well as visiting U.S. officials, met frequently with government officials and representatives of religious groups to discuss religious freedom,…”)
And even outside the Obama administration, one can see that pros and cons writing. In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations released a major report on U.S.-Turkish relations. It noted: “Over the course of the past decade, Turkey has simultaneously become more European, more Muslim, more democratic, and more modern.” The report also notes many concerns about the practice of Turkish politics (pp. 20-26). Overall, it takes a middle ground: “On balance, it is clear that though the AKP took dramatic steps in 2003 and 2004 to forge a more open, modern, and pluralist society, questions remain about Turkey’s democratic transition. In some areas, the AKP-led government has used the same nondemocratic tools as its predecessor, making it appear no more liberal than previous Turkish governments.”
What it looks like, then, is a clear difference in past reports and statements from State – which criticize Turkey on democracy issues – versus the White House line as exemplified by the Erdogan visit in May. So when Cook tweets “Nary a word of criticism. It’s always sunny in Istanbul,” perhaps he meant the White House only.
Three broader thoughts:
1. IR 101: Different U.S. agencies may have different perspectives and policies on the same issue.
2. Public statements alone are not policy (and may be at odds with actual policy). Do they have any effect? Why issue them at all? Who does consume such words?
3. If the White House is ignoring illiberalism in Turkey, it looks like Turkey fits as a classic US ally: strategic needs (Syria, Israel, Arab Spring writ large, economics, NATO) trump pressing an ally on liberal reform. So what we may be hearing with changes in Obama’s rhetoric from April 2009 to May 2013 is a changed region in which the White House is even more willing to underplay the question of political openness and reform In Turkey (which, of course, would be ironic because you underplay illiberalism so as to highlight Turkey as…a liberal democratic model).