While U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone’s recent statements on press freedom and justice caused a minor tremor in Turkish-U.S. relations, President Barack Obama’s replies to questions on the same theme to daily Milliyet’s Washington representative Pınar Ersoy drew quite a contradictory picture. President Obama is on a completely different wavelength.
As a matter of fact, Pınar Ersoy left nothing vague in her question. First, she referred to the Council of Europe
report that stated, “there are some long-standing, systemic dysfunctions in the Turkish justice system adversely affecting the enjoyment of human rights.” She then listed the prolonged periods of arrests, the arrests of journalists and activists, and then mentioned the criticism that there was “democratic deficit” in Turkey.
After this, Ersoy asked: “Have you ever raised these concerns with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?”
In Obama’s reply, from the words he chose to his tone, there was no component that would make Erdoğan uncomfortable. On the contrary, the U.S. president praised “the reform platform of the AK Party government,” and highlighted that the United States “supported the government’s efforts to advance universal freedoms, including freedom of expression.”
The most important part of his reply is that Obama emphasized that “especially now, during this Arab Spring, so many people across the region are looking to Turkey as they seek to reform and modernize their own institutions.”
Thus, Obama once again demonstrated his reluctance to abandon his usual position of not making an issue of the problems concerning democracy and freedom of expression in his relationship with Erdoğan. Except for the talks in Canada
in 2010, Obama has preferred not to tackle these sensitive subjects in bilateral talks with Erdoğan.
We are faced with a contradiction here with regards to Washington. The contradiction comes from the adoption of different stances on the same file by President Obama and the U.S. State Department, which was under Hillary Clinton’s leadership until just two weeks ago. For example, when Clinton visited Istanbul in July 2011, she said that “a crackdown on journalists is inconsistent with other advances the country has made.”
Likewise, in the U.S. State Department’s human rights reports extremely critical expressions are included about freedom of expression. For example, in its recent report it stated that there was a “chilling effect” on the media and that criticizing the government carried “risks.”
Likewise, U.S. Ambassador Ricciardone at certain intervals publicly expresses the issues of freedom of expression in Turkey.
Which one is the determiner in this duality? No doubt, it is Obama’s stance, because Erdoğan bases his stance on the messages Obama conveys to him directly in their dialogues.
Obama also wants to keep his working relationship with Erdoğan on a smooth platform, as Erdoğan is a leader he needs in order to tackle many thorny issues such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. He wants to avoid such issues as press freedom shadowing his dialogue with Erdoğan.
Indeed, Obama’s viewpoint of not making international human rights issues his top priority is also a significant factor here. In the final analysis, U.S. interests once again surpass concerns regarding democracy such as freedom of the press. As things stand, it can be said that Obama has, to a certain extent, a more conservative line when compared to other Democratic presidents before him. In this respect, it would not be a mistake to say that the priorities that dominated Republican Ronald Reagan’s Turkey policy in the 1980s overlap with the line of Obama’s in 2013.
Sedat Ergin is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which this piece was published on Feb. 14. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.