Obama tells Erdoğan to stick to his words

Obama tells Erdoğan to stick to his words

Diplomacy is the business of subtly transmitting your messages. It is always what lies between the lines that matters, not what appears on the surface and at first glance. This is also how the White House’s official readout of President Barack Obama’s phone conversation with Turkey’s newly elected president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday should be read.

According to the readout, Obama congratulated Prime Minister Erdoğan on his election as the 12th President of the Republic of Turkey and wished him well as he begins his term later this month.

Crucially, however, the readout added that “the President praised the Prime Minister’s speech on Sunday and noted that as Turkey’s first directly elected President, the Prime Minister has an historic opportunity to further move Turkey forward.”

This was a reference to Erdoğan’s so called “Balcony Speech,” which he delivered on Sunday night after his victory had become certain.

Putting aside his remarks smacking of triumphalism against his domestic rivals - and the Islamist rhetoric about how it is not just Turkey but also Baghdad, Islamabad, Beirut, Sarajevo, Damascus, Aleppo Ramallah, Gaza, Jerusalem and a host of other cities with Muslim populations that are the victors of Turkey’s first direct presidential elections - this is what Erdoğan said:

“Those who did not vote for us, those who do not like us are not the losers of these elections. Today they too have won. My brothers, I say let as all start a new period of social reconciliation today. I want us to leave old arguments in the old Turkey. I want us to leave tensions, the culture of confrontation and artificial problems in the old Turkey.”

These are fine words indeed worthy of any leader which a large public support behind him. There is, however, a problem here. Erdoğan is known domestically and internationally as a combative politician who has deepened social divisions in Turkey.

He did not refrain from using the harshest remarks against those who opposed him in the presidential race. Neither did he hold back from using the ethnic, religious and sectarian cards to agitate Anatolia’s nationalist and devout Sunni masses against those who did not support him.

Many will therefore have taken his nice remarks during his balcony speech with a large pinch of salt having heard all this before. This is not Erdoğan’s first electoral victory - and one must credit him with the succession of victories he has secured over this past 12 years – and therefore it is not his first balcony speech.

Each time he has promised to respect the rights of those who did not vote for him, who have different beliefs or who have different lifestyles. Each time he promised to take Turkey’s democracy forward. Each time, however, he went on to do the opposite by fueling social divisions, not unity.

Individual rights in line with EU standards have also continued to be eroded under him, rather than being enhanced. This was also underlined in a release by Human Rights Watch after it became clear that Erdoğan had been elected president.

Meanwhile, a succession of media watchdog groups have been harshly critical of Erdoğan’s administration, with some going so far as to refer to Turkey as the “world’s biggest prison for journalists.”

When read against this backdrop the Obama’s praise of Erdoğan’s speech on Sunday, and his noting of the fact that Erdoğan “has an historic opportunity to further move Turkey forward,” gains much more meaning than it might at first glance.

It is clear that Obama is telling Erdoğan that words are all very well, but he has to stick to the letter and spirit of his remarks if he really wants to move Turkey forward now that he has been elected president. He is just saying this diplomatically.