Obama and Erdoğan; a unique relationship
Francis Ricciardone, the American ambassador to Ankara, has been quite busy for the last two weeks, travelling across Turkey and giving messages on how a democratic society should operate. He first took the opportunity during his tour of mostly Kurdish populated eastern and southeastern provinces bordering Iran and Iraq, and then during Independence Day receptions at the various U.S. Consulate buildings, the last one being at his Embassy Residence in Ankara.
The messages were moderate in tone but clear in content, enough at least for media commentators to make reference to the Gezi protests that started shaking Turkey at the end of May.
In the speeches he delivered in Adana (hosting the most strategic NATO air force base in the region, İncirlik) on June 27 and in İzmir (hosting the NATO Land Forces Headquarters in Europe) on July 1, Ricciardone quoted both Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Turkish Republic in 1923, and former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. The quote from Kennedy was this: “For a nation that is afraid to let its people to judge the truth and falsehood in open market, is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
In the Istanbul Consulate on July 2, Ricciardone’s words could be interpreted as being in reference to the Turkish government’s search for Western conspiracies behind the Gezi protests, in which over 2.5 million people have attended according to Interior Ministry estimates. He said: “Americans neither see nor fear hostile threats against us or our allies from any other states or groups of people within our alliance of democracies.” It’s not only Americans, but Europeans also keep asking the Turkish government about the identity of those “interest rate lobbies” who want to undermine the economic success of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, without receiving a proper answer.
In former years, American ambassadors in Ankara frequently quoted the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Ricciardone did that, too.
When asked, Turkish government figures absolutely agree with the “shared principles,” and the Turkish Constitution ensures that the Turkish people enjoy those freedoms as well. However, Western diplomats have easily been able to follow what has been happening on the street and also from social media, despite part of the mainstream media tending not to reflect what is actually going on.
The fact is that while there is subtle, moderate, yet clear criticism by the U.S. Ambassador in Ankara regarding the Turkish government’s attitude on freedoms of expression, media and assembly, the statements from Washington DC that had been raining from the beginning of the Gezi protests (like those from the European Union) ceased following the White House statement on June 13 saying that Syria had crossed the “Red Line” and that the Syrian opposition would start receiving assistance.
There is another fact: U.S. President Barack Obama, who had declared Erdoğan as being among the top five political partners on the planet, is perhaps the only person on the planet who Erdoğan would like to listen to. The U.S. Independence Day reception in Ankara on July 3 coincided with critical developments in Egypt, where Ambassador Ricciardone had served before moving to Turkey. If the Obama administration is sincere in supporting Turkey as a first class democracy, not just a “bon pour l’orient” one, this might be the right time to encourage and support Erdoğan to realize more freedoms in Turkey.