How the US press got it all wrong about Obama-Erdoğan

How the US press got it all wrong about Obama-Erdoğan

This is not the first time we have see U.S. press have a huge discrepancy with reality. Still, they could not have got it more wrong.

I’m talking about U.S. media coverage of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent trip to the U.S.
Obviously, there was nothing wrong with the U.S. media’s comments on the deterioration of democracy in Turkey or Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies. What they got wrong was to claim that Obama would refuse an audience with Erdoğan because of democratic backpedaling in Turkey.

In an ironically comforting way, the U.S. press continues to see Turkey as part of the Western camp. You rarely see such negative coverage ahead of Arab leaders’ visits to Washington.

But they got it wrong to assume that the U.S. administration continues to see Turkey in this way. It seems that the U.S. media has missed the change in Washington’s attitude towards Ankara. 

Indeed, in the past, Turkey was an ally of the U.S. and it was worth investing in its democracy. The U.S. could press for freedoms in Turkey as it was cost free. U.S. criticism of Turkey’s democratic shortcomings rarely affected cooperation in bilateral or regional issues. After all, U.S. and Turkish interests tended to converge more than diverge. As the two could overcome their differences, Turkey’s nuisance value was manageable.

This is no longer the case under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). There is more divergence of views than convergence, especially in the Middle East, and Turkey’s nuisance value has peaked. 

The fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a priority for the Obama administration.

The best tool it has on the ground to fight ISIL is the People’s Protection Units (YPG). That is a big irritant for Turkey, which considers the YPG to be the arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria. U.S. aerial support for YPG advances against ISIL indirectly weakens Turkey’s fight against the PKK. That is why Turkey has threatened to hit YPG targets, something it has also done in the past. That is a big irritation for the U.S., which wants to strike a deadly blow on ISIL both in Syria and Iraq. 

Together with Arab tribes, the YPG is preparing an offensive against Manbij, located west of the Euphrates River and south of the Jarablus-Azaz line, which is Turkey’s “red line” in Syria. The Obama administration urgently needed to engage with Ankara in order to prevent Turkey from jeopardizing that offensive. 

U.S. officials knew that they could only do this through a meeting between Obama and Erdoğan, which would end up being a matter of prestige for the latter. U.S. officials figured there was no need to have an additional irritant in these talks, so avoided bringing issues of democracy to the agenda.

At the end of the day, landing a deadly blow on ISIL matters more to the U.S. than a few journalists or academics going to jail in Turkey.

As has been correctly suggested by Soli Özel from Kadir Has University, Obama talked of Turkey not as an ally but as a country with which it will act in times of need. 

Sadly, Turkey has become just another anti-democratic country in the Middle East that the U.S. needs to work with.

However, this will not serve the interests of the U.S. in the long term. In the short term, it remains to be seen to what degree Obama’s meeting with Erdoğan will bring about a change in Turkey’s policies.