Erdoğan’s uncomfortable US visit

Erdoğan’s uncomfortable US visit

It would come as no surprise to anyone if we were to conjecture that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not one of Washington’s favorite world leaders at present. 

There was a time when he was looked on as someone who could breathe fresh life into a Middle East unable to overcome its glaring democratic deficiencies and backward ways. In a controversial article for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg recently wrote that while President Barack Obama initially said Erdoğan was a “moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West,” he “now considers him a failure and an authoritarian.”

That article grated on nerves at the “Palace” in Ankara, which tried but failed to get a satisfactory denial from Washington for the views attributed to Obama. The latest “will-he-or-won’t-he” game with regard to whether Obama would meet Erdoğan during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington this week is telling enough.

News now is that “he will,” although this is being billed by U.S. officials as “an informal meeting.” But this news follows days of uncertainty on the topic, which fed speculation about how Erdoğan was being snubbed. Washington could have nipped such speculation in the bud if it wanted to, but didn’t.

Clearly Ankara used backchannels to push very hard for a meeting, even if it was for no more than a photo-op, in order to save Erdoğan’s prestige and to protect him from bitter barbs at home. One might also assume that there is an element of “noblesse oblige” here on the part of Obama in agreeing to a short meeting with Erdoğan.

But this does not do away with the chill between the two capitals. Turkey is making its annoyance amply known over Washington’s continuing support for Kurdish fighters attached to the People’s Protection Units (PYD) in northern Syria who are allied with the U.S. against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The U.S., on the other hand, is not hiding its displeasure over anti-democratic developments in Turkey, mainly in the area of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, which are being encouraged by Erdoğan.

Erdoğan’s latest outburst against Western diplomats attending the trial of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül in Istanbul last week is a case in point. The two prominent journalists are facing espionage charges for reporting on illegal arms shipments to groups fighting Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria by MİT, Turkey’s intelligence agency. 

Erdoğan blasted the diplomats, saying they had no business following this case and alleging that their brief ends at the borders of their consulates. All the retired Turkish ambassadors quoted by the media say Erdoğan has it wrong and that the diplomats acted within their brief.

This outburst by Erdoğan is also unlikely to have gone down well in Washington, whose own diplomat also followed the trial against Dündar and Gül. The U.S. displeasure was apparent in the remarks of State Department spokesman John Kirby. Responding to a question, Kirby said they stood by their diplomat who was acting in “keeping with standard diplomatic practice” and added, “This was not the first time, but it darn sure won’t be the last time that we observe these kinds of judicial proceedings.” 

The stern emphasis in Kirby’s words reflects the mood in Washington sufficiently when it comes to Erdoğan. The mood is unlikely to change soon, given the unlikelihood of Erdoğan’s becoming more “diplomatic” in his attitude toward the West.  

With something of another storm brewing in the background as a result of the “Reza Zarrab Case,” matters could even get worse. 

As to what relations would be if Donald Trump becomes the next occupant of the White House, only time will tell. But with two hot-tempered leaders representing diametrically opposed worldviews, it does not take much imagination to guess what the outcome will be.