White House officials are applauding Turkey’s Islamist government, which is gradually removing the country’s secularist political rules, suppressing free-speech, promoting Shariah Islamic laws and supporting the Islamist Hamas terror group’s effort to eliminate Israel.
Turkey’s “own example can be very powerful to countries now going through transition,” said Anthony Blinken, who is the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden in a Monday press conference called to describe Biden’s December visit to Turkey and Greece. “So it’s very encouraging to see Turkey play a strong leadership role [in the Middle East] … and that’s something that is in the interest of the United States.”
The administration’s policy is shockingly misdirected, said Barry Rubin, an expert on Turkish and Middle Eastern politics.
“A lot of people in Turkey are astounded” by Obama’s policy, he said. “This regime has thrown hundreds of people in prison without a trial or evidence, based on a phony conspiracy, and it is turning [Turkey] into a repressive police state, and yet it escapes criticism — it gets whitewashed by the West,” he said.
Turkey’s Islamist government, led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, has pushed hard to remove longstanding secular laws that bar female students or government workers from wearing head scarves, which are promoted by Islamists to separate men and women. Erdogan and his political allies have sued hundreds of their critics for slander, some of whom were sent to jail, and free speech advocates have also accused the administration of using what it calls the “Ergenekon Conspiracy” to jail journalists, lawyers and political critics.
Turkey’s government is also trying to expand its own clout in the region and promote its Islamist ideological allies in the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Libya and other Arab countries, he said. Hamas is the anti-Israel, Gaza-based affiliate of the Brotherhood, and it is noisily supported by Erdogan’s government and media allies.
The White House’s pro-Erdogan policy is being set by President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly shown his personal and political support for Erdogan.
Prior to the Nov. 3 Cannes meeting of international leaders, Obama chatted with leaders of France and the United Kingdom, shook hands with European president Herman van Rompuy and European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, and hugged Erdogan, who hugged him back. “The Europeans got a handshake but Erdogan got the hug treatment,” said a pool reporter covering the event.
Obama’s policy has also elevated Erdogan’s role in the Middle East, despite the prime minister’s Islamist ideology, and despite the deep-seated hostility between Turks and Arabs. The hostility stems from the Turks’ 500-year rule of the Arab countries until the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War 1, he said
“There are few international issues on which we do not consult closely with Turkey… in many, many areas we’re working very, very closely with Turkey,” said Blinken, who also served as an aide to Biden when he was a senator.
Biden’s two-day trip to Turkey is another demonstration of that support. The trip includes one day in the capital city of Ankara, which was captured by the Ottoman Turks in roughly 1356. The next day, Dec. 3, he’ll be in Istanbul — the ancient capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, which the Ottoman army captured in 1453.
The Istanbul leg is focused on a a business summit, dubbed “Entrepreneurship, Values and Development: A Global Agenda,” which will be chaired by Erdogan.
“That’s the primary reason that the vice president is making this trip,” said Blinken. “It’s something that’s very important to President Obama, who initiated the summit.”
The conference will feature people involved in business issues and political advocacy. “We’ve seen — certainly throughout the Arab Spring — that [political] entrepreneurs have been at the forefront of pushing the envelope when it comes to change within societies, “ said Rashad Hussain, a U.S.-born Muslim who serves as Obama’s ambassador to the multinational Organization for Islamic Cooperation.
“The summit will allow entrepreneurs from all over the world to come together and share their experiences and discuss what they’ve been doing, some of the ways that they’ve been able to overcome obstacles that they face to expand their networks,” said Hussain, whose hiring was threatened when a 2004 tape recording showed him characterizing the federal prosecution of an Islamist terrorist supporter, Sami Al-Arian, as a “politically motivated persecution.”
However, when asked what the U.S. gets in exchange for its support of Erdogan, Blinken punted.
Turkey has deployed a contingent of troops to Afghanistan, is working to remove Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and “it played a very significant role in Libya in terms of supporting forces for progress there … [and] we’re seeing similar things in Egypt,” Blinken said.
The Turks got involved in Libya, and are pressuring Assad, because they want their Islamist allies in the transnational Muslim Brotherhood to gain power, said Rubin. The White House officials aren’t trying to leverage U.S. influence, nor to extract concessions from Turkey’s ambitious leaders, he said.
Moreover, he added, Obama’s alliance with Erdogan is being sidelined by the rise of Arab Islamist groups throughout the Middle East. “Arab Islamists are now getting into power [in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia], so what do they need Turks for?” he said. ”The only thing they have going for them is American patronage.”
White House officials “do not understand how diplomacy works,” he added.
This failure to use U.S. influence to win U.S. goals leaves Arab modernizers without an ally, and Arab radicals increasingly contemptuous of U.S. blundering, Rubin asserted.
The White House’s errors are made despite good intelligence about Erdogan and his goals, Rubin said.
For example, a leaked Department of State report by the 2004 ambassador to Turkey declared that “Erdogan has traits which render him seriously vulnerable to miscalculating the political dynamic, especially in foreign affairs. … [His] authoritarian loner streak … prevents growth of a circle of strong and skillful advisers, a broad flow of fresh information to him, or development of effective communications,” said the report by then-Ambassador Eric Edelman, who also described the “Islamist complexes and prejudices” of Erdogan’s deputies.
Blinken downplayed Erdogan’s efforts to impose Islamist ideology and Shariah Islamic law in place of the secularist rules set by Kemal Ataturk, the strongman who ruled Turkey after World War 1. “Obviously, there are areas where we clearly have disagreements with our ally and partner,” he said.
“We’ve been urging the Turks in this constitutional reform process to have an inclusive process that strengthens freedoms of expression, religion and other fundamental rights, including the human rights of minorities. … When we have disagreements, we make them known in a spirit of respect.” Blinken said.
The country has long been a member of NATO, and its leaders look to Europe and the Middle East, he said. “Turkey has, in many ways, a unique role to play as a bridge between these different worlds — an ability to talk to different countries in ways that are extremely helpful,” he said.
“That’s a cliche from 30, 40 years ago … and it is just not true anymore,” because the Turkish government is pushing its own goals, said Rubin. These days, he said, Turkey is “a bridge for spreading Middle Eastern influence into the West and Europe.”