Why push Turkey away from the US and EU?
The coup attempt of July 15 in Turkey took place at a time when criticism against President Tayyip Erdoğan in the United States and the European Union had hit a record high.
“The West” had been welcoming and praising Erdoğan for almost anything he did as soon as his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) came to power in November 2002 when he was spearheading EU harmonization legislation or removing secularists and Kemalists from the state apparatus. A peak was reached in April 2009 when U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech in the Turkish parliament in the first stop of his first overseas trip after settling in the White House. There, Obama depicted Turkey as a model to the Islamic world of a secular democracy with a market economy in an Islamic society.
But just as every peak is also a turning point when the decline begins, Turkey’s good relations in its neighborhood were overshadowed by the “One Minute Crisis” with Israel. It accelerated with the flotilla tragedy in 2010 when Israeli commandos killed nine civilian Turks on board the Gaza-bound ship of the Mavi Marmara. Then came the Arab Spring later that year, which resulted in a chain reaction of crises not only with Arab countries like Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya, but also with the U.S. and the EU regarding the stance on the Syria civil war.
In 2013 another confrontation was added to the picture: the Gezi wave of protests and the way Erdoğan handled it caused his image in the West to be drawn like a despotic sultan with a gas mask in his hand or worse. It was then that he started to grow apart from his former close ally, Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in the U.S., presaging a full separation following the Dec. 17-25, 2013, graft allegations, which Erdoğan saw as an attempt to overthrow his government by pro-Gülenist prosecutors, judges and police officers who had actually acquired their key positions because Erdoğan had opened the doors of state offices that had been emptied through controversial court cases. It was also at that time that Erdoğan started to whet his appetite for an executive presidential system, which further increased concerns in the West that he might be aiming for one-man-rule. Erdoğan’s election as president in 2014 after which he started to open insult cases one after another against political opponents and journalists (not only inside Turkey) who criticized him also did not help his image in the West. Everything got worse, first with the end of the dialogue as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) resumed its acts of terror, which were crushed massively, and the crisis with Russia because of the downing of a jet when it violated the border with Syria.
In the first of 2016, Turkey’s image abroad started to become an image of isolation and identical to Erdoğan, as Turkey was nothing but Erdoğan.
That orientalist oversimplification reached such a level that Turkey’s normalization agreements with Israel and Russia on June 26 and 27, respectively, less than 20 days before the coup attempt, did not attract much sympathy among Western governments and media.
Is that enough to explain the embarrassing delay in the U.S. administration and the EU (other than Britain) in condemning the bloody coup attempt in Turkey on July 15? Absolutely not. Perhaps because of speculation due to the fact that half of the Turkish population did not vote for Erdoğan, some thought that opponents would side with the coup plotters and that some Erdoğan supporters would stay silent in fear. It turned out that Turkish people had become fed up with military interventions and took to the streets against it, regardless of their political tendencies – being for or against Erdoğan was something else. And when people thought that there might be Gülen behind the attempt, more of them poured onto the streets.
It is one thing to be concerned about human rights violations in Turkey as a show of solidarity – something I would personally appreciate – and it is something else to hesitate to condemn a coup in a NATO ally as if you are sorry that it failed to overthrow the elected government. In that, Turkey is not Egypt.
The U.S. and the EU leaders should think about the benefit of pushing Turkey away from the system, or, put another way, the risks of such action.
I believe they see that it would be of no use for the Turkish people, the bettering of democracy in the country, or Western interests in this strategically hotspot of the world.