Does anyone remember when Recep Tayyip Erdogan first visited the White House in December 2002? Although his party had claimed a significant victory at the ballot box the month before, he was not elected because he was prohibited from running for election. Yet then-President George W. Bush still held a closed-door meeting with him and still engaged in talks regarding the preparations for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. What they discussed still remains secret, but clearly it created significant American misconceptions. The Bush administration was shocked when the Turkish parliament refused to allow the U.S. to use its country as a thoroughfare to invade its neighbor. Erdogan pushed the political blame to the opposition party for this decision and strengthened his ties with Washington.
The Bush administration had already catalogued Erdogan’s political Islam as moderate. Erdogan was involved in a marriage of convenience with the Fethullah Gulen movement, whose exiled leader lives in the U.S. — and the U.S. celebrated their coming into power as a point of strength in its fight against radical Islam in the aftermath of 9/11. Also implicit was a message to the secular camp in Turkey that they had failed democracy by denying people religious freedom, and America threw its political capital on the side of the incoming government for a righteous reason. As time went on, America began taking this kind of twisted approach as the new way forward in its relationship with Turkey.
With the strong backing of Washington, Erdogan became more assertive and courageous domestically. He replaced established-state bureaucrats with Gulenists. Then those Gulenist judges and prosecutors filed a case against hundreds of active and retired military personnel, accusing them of forming a terrorist organization and engaging in terror activity — the infamous Ergenekon trials. They also started making arrests at dawn in an attempt to silence all opposition in media, academia and civil society. The U.S. looked the other way for years under the rationale that the military’s track record made the possibility of another coup possible. U.S. officials like Condoleezza Rice began accusing the secular opposition’s critical voice of being hysterical and paranoid about Erdogan’s intentions.
This was the beginning of Erdogan’s surge in power. The opposition — mainly secular and liberal Turkish people — believed that Americans avenged the Turkish parliament’s 2003 decision. They believed that Americans were unable to convince the opposition to do the U.S.’s bidding in Iraq and that Erdogan was so eager to grab and hold onto power that he did all he could. This partnership had nothing to do with supporting democracy and it had no value-based grounding — it was based on simple calculations. The U.S. needed a leader in power who could deliver what they asked for, and Erdogan filled the role in return for the U.S. helping him to stay in power.
Such simplistic approaches are not new to American foreign policy posturing. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the U.S. did the same thing. “Who would have predicted back when Ronald Reagan started arming the Afghan freedom fighters, as they were called — the Mujahideen — against the Soviets, that 20 years later, those very same people would come to New York and Washington and kill 3,000 Americans?” said former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith.
This is not to say Erdogan is equal the Mujahideen, but this is also exactly the same as the U.S. arming the Syrian Kurdish militia without considering the potential outcome. This reckless approach meddling in other’s domestic politics has become a custom only at the cost of people’s lives in these relative countries and no one survived such coziness with the U.S. power machine. Today, despite Trump’s claims about his relationship with Erdogan, the U.S.–Turkey relationship is at its nadir and this Syrian offensive will likely bring Erdogan’s end. But taking on Turkey like the others is simply irrational and Erdogan’s longevity in power would not be possible without the U.S. support.
Trump’s letter to Erdogan is only one example showcasing how low the dialog between the two countries went down. But if Trump aimed to push for Turkish military withdrawal with this, it will likely delay such decision. Furthermore this came just at a time when Vice President Mike Pence is about to arrive to Ankara for a quick visit to talk to Erdogan. This public belittling could provoke Erdogan to pass on this meeting with Pence, which could then put even further pressure on the relationship.
Before Americans started to criticize Erdogan’s governing style, I wrote a weekly column for the Washington Times chronicling the downside of his foreign policy. I would not have then nor will I now praise that foreign policy, specifically as it relates to Syria. But I am aggravated, furious and sad about the tone of American media coverage painting the Turkish military as carrying out a genocide or ethnic cleansing. The Turkey-bashing makes me wonder whether people have lost their ability to value human life at all sides. This guilt that Americans seem to be feeling about the 11,000 Kurds who died fighting radical Islamic groups — where was it when there were more than 500,000 dead Syrians and millions more displaced from their homeland? And I wonder whether Americans really believe that they’re only innocent and there to fight for the good? This sensationalist coverage of the news is disturbing. But anyone would common sense would know that any combat operation risks killing civilians and that is beyond sad, but accusations of ethnic cleansing are nothing but propaganda framed by those who have bad blood with Turkey.
I don’t have an opinion on this Turkish military operation because the terrain is in such a mess that it is hard to follow why the Syrian Kurds became so depended on Americans, and sought so much support in arms and training. Do they really want segregation? Do they aim for Turkish land? Does America consider an independent Kurdistan carving land from all four countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, to end the Kurdish suffering? Could the Kurdish suffering be over when they have their own state? Could anyone who prioritize their ethnicity beyond anything else talk about peace and security?
Turkey is feeling the heat of America’s misguided policies in its neighborhood. And unlike the misguided news coverage, Turks and Kurds do unite — in their democratic fight to vote out Erdogan’s government, and no one here really believes Kurds demand secession. On the contrary, they fight for strengthening Turkish democracy. It is not an easy fight, but there is an incredible empathy and cooperation between Turks and Kurds and all segments of the society unlike never before for writing a better future for the country as ONE! But this simplistic approach of pitting one side against the other will only have a negative impact on those who are not able to see the bigger picture and will help the right-wing populist propaganda to take over.
I ask those who are covering the region for a little humanity, and I urge them to stop magnifying the unacceptable acts of crime and making generalizations. I also urge them to be especially careful while throwing such judgments as serious and horrifying as ethnic cleansing. That is not even propaganda; it is irresponsible reporting in an attempt to provoke people to do wrong.