Turkish riots leave White House in uncomfortable position

Ariel Cohen Contributor
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White House officials are walking a fine line as protests, crackdowns and riots rock Turkey, a country that President Barack Obama has relied on as a key ally of the United States.

“We’ve made clear our concerns about the use of excessive force,” White House spokesman Jay Carney explained during Tuesday’s press conference. Carney came unusually close to criticizing a country that has been a key American ally since the end of World War II.

“As we stated from the outset last week, the United States supports full freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest, as fundamental to any democracy” Carney said. “We believe that the vast majority of the protestors have been peaceful, law-abiding, ordinary citizens exercising their rights.”

Obama has tried to beef up the U.S. relationship with Turkey, an American ally of long standing and NATO member since 1952. In 2012 the president named Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as one of the five world leaders with whom he had built “relations based on confidence” — a surprising claim considering that Erdogan reversed nearly a century of Turkish secularism when he took power in 2002 on the Islamist Justice and Development party ticket.

But Erdogan’s brutal response to the uprisings in Taksim square and other areas of Turkey has forced the White House and the rest of the international community to rethink Turkey’s status as a democratic partner.

“The recent unrest has called into question the popular belief in the United States that Turkey was a model for stability and democracy in the Middle East.” Senior Research Associate for Foreign Defense and Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Ahmmad Majidyar said. And if violence there escalates and Mr. Erdogan’s government continues its brutal crackdown, it’ll be difficult for Washington to maintain its close relationship with Ankara in the long term.”

Although Erdogan, was elected democratically and still has over 50% popular support, his radical response to the opposition is angering Turkish citizens.

The new violence has reinforced worries about the Islamist party’s willingness to tolerate an open society. Erdogan has placed limitations on consumption and sales of alcohol and banned public displays of affection during his three elected terms. He is reportedly considering a change to the constitution to allow him to run for an unprecedented fourth term.

Such authoritarian rule is unheard of in modern Turkey.

Though 95% of the country’s population identifies as Muslim, Turkey long took pride in its secular manner, even going so far a to place a ban on hijabs in public institutions in 1982.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk oversaw the secularization of Turkey, often with an iron hand, the 1920s. Since then, Turkey has continued to operate as a democratic and secular state. Turkish modernization has endured the Cold War, a quasi-war with Greece over Cyprus, and most recently an influx of Syrian refugees fleeing the death throes of the Assad family’s Baath dictatorship.

But now the capital is ablaze with protests and anger toward the government.

“[Erdogan] is not acting very liberal, and not very participatory.” Hurriyet Daily News columnist Mustafa Akoyol said in a discussion with Al Jazeera, “I think he should take a lesson from this incident and move on, and to try to listen to those who don’t agree with him … he should be able to build consensus.”

When Erdogan visited the White House last month, President Obama praised the Prime Minister’s efforts to normalize relations with Israel, and described Erdogan as one of his closest foreign allies.

But during Monday’s press conference, Carney said the United States is extremely concerned by the reports of excessive force by police, large numbers of injuries and damage to property.

“We call on these events to be investigated and to urge all parties to refrain from provoking violence,” Carney said to the press. “These events should be investigated.”

Yet despite these concerns, Carney reiterated, “We have a very important relationship with Turkey.”