Here’s one foreign-policy challenge where President-elect Joe Biden seems set to improve on President Trump: facing the fact that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no friend to the West — or freedom, for that matter.
In a 2014 New York Times interview, Biden rightly called Erdogan an “autocrat” and said the United States should back his opponents who’d like to get him out of office. “He has to pay a price,” Biden said.
He didn’t pay much price in the Obama or Trump years. He was long President Barack Obama’s favorite leader in the Muslim world, while Trump has boasted that he and Erdogan “have been very good friends, for a long time, almost from day one.”
This, when Erdogan’s been crushing freedom for at least a decade, and at a faster pace since the failed 2016 coup. He’s used state power to utterly neuter the once-free press, while still jailing journalists at a record rate. (Though China is beating him for No. 1 this year, 48 to 47 imprisoned reporters.) This year he started taking fresh aim at social media, pushing through laws that will make it easier to use them as another tool of state spying and persecution.
And he’s jailed tens of thousands of political critics — thousands for the “crime” of insulting him.
He’s also working steadily to end the republic’s century-old official secularism, with policies aiming to create a “pious generation” of radical Muslims who “will work for the construction of a new civilization” that emphasizes Ottoman history, rather than Western ideals.
Some democracy lives on: After his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, lost last year’s Istanbul mayoral election to its rival Republican People’s Party, or CHP, Erdogan alleged fraud and forced a do-over. But the people of Turkey’s largest city (and commerical nerve center) protested in mass, and the CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu still serves as mayor.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has revived the central government’s war on Turkey’s Kurds, and even taken that conflict into neighboring Syria — where his interventions in the civil war have been more about reining in that nation’s Kurds, and supporting his Islamist allies, than countering the rule of bloody Bashar al-Assad.
He’s also a big booster of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas — and increasingly allied with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to the consternation of all Turkey’s NATO allies.
The Trump administration on Monday sanctioned Turkey over its purchase of S-400s, a Russian missile-defense system: It’s banning all US export licenses and loans to Turkey’s defense-procurement agency and freezing the assets of the agency’s president, Ismail Demir. But the move comes pretty late; Ankara finalized the Russia sale more than a year ago.
Biden has the opportunity to reset Turkey-US relations. As veteran Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas noted in The Washington Post, “Turkey would not have so deviated from the West and its human rights record would not have grown so abysmal” had Trump taken a harder line with Erdogan.
What’s needed, she says, is “a US administration to deliver a clear message that doesn’t embolden Erdogan’s authoritarian instincts.”
Surely Biden can do that much.
We wish Biden luck — he’s going to need it.