March 29, 2016 | The Wall Street Journal
Erdogan’s Tactics in Turkey–and Challenges in Washington
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is coming to Washington this week officially to attend a nuclear summit, but his larger agenda involves repairing Turkey’s international image and improving relations with the West. These will be difficult tasks amid his government’s crackdown on media outlets, academics, and Kurds.
The Turkish government’s heavy-handed approach to media has in recent weeks included taking over the country’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, Zaman, after police using tear gas and water cannons raided the paper’s offices early this month. State officials indicted Aydin Dogan, the founder of Turkey’s largest media group known for its independent editorial policy, on charges including smuggling and fraud. Access to social media sites has at times been blocked. Earlier this year, the president accused academics who criticized the government’s campaign against Kurdish militants of committing treason; at least a dozen were detained in January over “terrorist propaganda” after signing an open letter questioning the government’s fight against the Kurds.
Many in the U.S. might not have noticed the arrest of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab in Miami on March 19. Mr. Zarrab was charged with fraud, corruption, and evading international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. The allegations were widely reported in Turkey, where Mr. Zarrab was at the center of a corruption scandal in late 2013 that implicated many in Mr. Erdogan’s cabinet and family. Four cabinet ministers ultimately lost their posts, but the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) initially responded by purging the law enforcement officials involved and blocking further investigation. The case was later dropped.
This is a critical time for Mr. Erdogan, whose behavior has led the Obama administration to view him as a problematic partner in a key region. White House officials turned down the Turkish president’s request to accompany President Barack Obama to the opening of a Turkish-funded mosque in Maryland. Mr. Erdogan also has not secured a one-on-one meeting with President Obama during the Nuclear Security Summit. Many expect Mr. Erdogan to defend his country’s heavy-handed counterterrorism policies during a speech this week, but his words are unlikely to shift perceptions in Washington.
In part, that’s because while Mr. Erdogan is seeking to burnish his image here, pro-government media in Turkey have been publishing anti-American propaganda. Some outlets have framed Mr. Zarrab’s arrest as a U.S. conspiracy to topple the Turkish president. Some have linked the recent suicide bombing in Istanbul to the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington; others have accused former U.S. ambassadors who have criticized Turkey of having imperial intentions. This is not the first time Mr. Erdogan has pursued relations with the West while pumping xenophobic propaganda at home. As the Turkish president negotiated with the European Union recently for cooperation over the Syrian refugees flooding into Europe, he also criticized EU officials for their “hypocritical” approach to the issue.
The Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, and terrorist attacks across Europe have highlighted Turkey’s geostrategic importance to the West. The European Union’s recent deal with Ankara over migrants epitomizes its appeasement policy toward Mr. Erdogan. The success of that transactional relationship with the EU has boosted the Turkish president’s confidence at home and exacerbated his sense of impunity abroad. But Mr. Erdogan has not been as lucky on this side of the Atlantic. If Mr. Obama continues to give a cold shoulder to the Turkish president, whom he until recently considered a top foreign counterpart, look to Mr. Erdogan’s actions to understand why.
Aykan Erdemir was a member of the Turkish parliament in the Republican People’s Party (CHP) from 2011 to 2015. He is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst. They are on Twitter:@Aykan_Erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu.