When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Tehran last week, his Iranian hosts made no mention of the domestic troubles facing him back home. That contrasts sharply with the kinds of criticism the notoriously touchy Erdogan regularly hears these days when traveling in the West. In particular, the problems facing Erdogan’s AKP government are placing a major burden on Turkey-U.S. relations. His authoritarian tendencies and proclivity to blame everyone, including Washington, for his domestic challenges have become increasingly difficult for the administration of President Barack Obama to ignore, despite the warm personal relationship between the two leaders. These challenges will likely only increase in coming months.
In recent months, Turkey
has experienced some of its most serious corruption scandals
and popular protests in years, with senior government ministers and executives charged with bribery, money laundering and gold smuggling. Though the protests have not reached the scale of those that erupted last June, when mass demonstrations saw more than 100,000 people on the streets, the current scandal quickly implicated the security forces. In response, Erdogan not only shuffled his Cabinet and removed several police officials, but he also attempted to enact a law requiring police investigators to keep their superiors—who are generally closely allied with the AKP government—informed of their investigations’ progress. However, the Turkish administrative court ruled the proposed bill unconstitutional.
Erdogan has blamed everyone from the Hizmet movement to Jews and foreign countries for his troubles. He has voiced disapproval of the U.S. willingness to harbor Fetullah Gulen, the head of Hizmet, which Erdogan has accused of infiltrating Turkey’s security forces in an effort to overthrow his government. Not only has Turkey experienced internal political rifts and international criticism as a result of these scandals, but its economic growth has been adversely affected.
Yet, it remains unclear how these developments will affect Turkey-U.S. relations in the long run. The closeness of that relationship has ebbed and flowed in recent years, depending on the issue. Possibly the most significant divergence between the U.S. and Turkey is now over the Syrian civil war. The Turkish and U.S. governments have both taken a strong and vocal stand against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but while Ankara has invested heavily in seeking a military solution in support of the Sunni insurgency, the Obama administration has been drifting back toward a negotiated settlement, especially since August, when it achieved an agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. Similarly, in Egypt, while the AKP has continued to back deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Obama administration has sought to develop a working relationship with the new military regime in Cairo. The two governments’ differences over Israel have been managed rather than resolved.
In Iraq, whereas Ankara works almost exclusively with the Kurdish Regional Government
, Washington continues to favor deeper Iraqi unity under the central government in Baghdad, which American policymakers see as the best counterweight to Iranian influence. Meanwhile, Turkish officials are very eager to restore economic and energy ties with Iran, which suffered due to U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector but also differences between Ankara and Tehran over the Syria conflict. For some time, U.S. officials had suspected that Halkbank, the center of the Turkish banking scandal, had been helping Iran evade sanctions over its nuclear program by using gold to purchase Iranian oil and gas. They criticized the Turkish authorities for not monitoring such activities more closely. Most recently, Turkey’s decision to purchase an air defense system from a Chinese company
under U.S. sanctions for selling weapons to North Korea, Syria and Iran has rubbed the U.S. and NATO national security communities the wrong way.
Until now, due to the importance of the bilateral relationship, U.S. officials have been reluctant to attack the Turkish government regardless of these diverging views. Even during the protests last June, Obama never directly criticized Erdogan for the police crackdown and harsh response. But in the recent scandal, Erdogan has blamed the U.S. ambassador, Francis J. Ricciardone, for supporting a plot against his government. When Erdogan hinted that he wanted Ricciardone to leave the country, Obama for the first time directly confronted Erdogan, warning him that such statements could endanger the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
Influential U.S. leaders have also expressed concern regarding Turkey’s commitment to political democracy, its economic trajectory and its foreign policy direction. Sen. John McCain suggested that, the country’s successes notwithstanding, many Turks worried that Erdogan “was becoming more like a dictator than a prime minister.” Morton Abramowitz, Eric Edelman and Blaise Misztal have similarly called on the Obama administration to take a much harder public stand with Erdogan because “his extreme actions and demagoguery are subverting Turkey’s political institutions and values and endangering the U.S.-Turkey relationship.”
The Obama administration has begun to move in this direction. Jen Psaki, U.S. State Department spokeswoman, insisted that, “We've expressed our concerns about some of the events that are happening on the ground directly, publicly and privately, and we'll continue to do that.” During a media briefing in December, she added that, “We would reiterate that we expect Turkey to meet the highest standards for transparency, timeliness and fairness in its judicial system.”
At a mid-January meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu glossed over these issues and displayed a united front and positive outlook for the future of the relationship. A statement by Davutoglu explained that Turkey and the United States would continue to work together in Syria on humanitarian issues and in support of the aspirations of the Syrian people. He also expressed support for Kerry’s facilitation of renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and on resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis.
Nevertheless, future developments could challenge the Turkish-U.S. relationship even further. The U.S.-Iran reconciliation, if it continues, will decrease Washington’s need to court Turkey to support U.S. policies regarding sanctions. Meanwhile, Turkey’s tarnished image has reduced its ability to promote pro-U.S. policies in the Middle East, including political democratization, creating a source of growing frustration in Washington in light of the diminishing U.S. role in the Middle East. Turkey’s economic slowdown will also lower its influence in Washington.
U.S. leaders will continue to be torn between seeking to sustain the advantages they receive from maintaining close ties with Turkey as an ally and disapproving of the Turkish government’s authoritarian behavior and human rights violations. But if existing trends hold, the balance could shift increasingly from the former to the latter.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.