Erdogan’s Enablers

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As you may have read, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan just won another "election." I use the term advisedly.

Yes, voters chose from among competing parties for both the parliament and presidency. But conditions heavily favored an Erdogan victory. "The incumbent president and his party enjoyed a notable advantage, also reflected in excessive coverage by government-affiliated public and private media," notes the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was an official observer of Sunday's election. The election took place under a state of emergency, which "limited fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression."

The news is not that Erdogan is turning his country from a flawed democracy to an Islamist police state. That's been known for some time. Rather it's that despite the many ways Erdogan has tried to suppress the opposition, nearly half of his country still voted against him. He received only 53 percent of the vote — and that's after a campaign of purges against Kurds, suspected coup-plotters and opposition media.

Make no mistake: Dark days are ahead for Turkey. But if there is a silver lining, it's that there are still millions of Turks that don't purchase the demagogue's religious nationalism. And Turkey's civil society, though diminished, is still functional.

That's why it's so important for Western leaders to calibrate their response to this election. America and Europe should not promise something they cannot deliver. They cannot rescue Turkey's people from their leader. What advanced democracies can do, however, is set a benchmark for something better.

So far, the responses from the West have not been encouraging. British Prime Minister Theresa May, for example, called Erdogan Monday and offered congratulations. On Monday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said President Donald Trump would be calling Erdogan to reaffirm the "strong bonds" between the U.S. and Turkey. In April, Trump congratulated Erdogan for the passage of a referendum that further consolidated his powers as president.

What's more, Trump's government has repeated the previous administration's early mistakes with Erdogan, treating him like an important ally, despite Erdogan's own recent anti-American outbursts, such as his promise earlier this year to deliver America an "Ottoman slap." The Pentagon is even pushing to sell the F-35 aircraft to Turkey despite mounting opposition in Congress.

Instead of trying to close a sale, the U.S. should start treating Turkey like Pakistan — a frenemy state that has at various times sponsored and combated terrorist groups. Trump suspended some $255 million of military aid to Pakistan earlier this year.

This approach — dubbed "quarantining" by Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise Institute — seeks to identify and address areas where Turkish and U.S. interests are not aligned. Rubin recommends working more closely on security cooperation with Greece, Turkey's longtime adversary, and trying to stop Turkish inroads into the Balkans. He also says the U.S. should consider removing its nuclear weapons from Turkey and study alternatives to Turkey's Incirlik air base, which stages U.S. air missions into Syria against the Islamic State.

Others would not go that far. "I would not use a word like 'quarantine,'" says former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman. Yet Edelman also recognizes the need for a more transactional approach to Erdogan. America needs more tough-minded diplomacy, he says, not less. This means making an issue of Turkey's detention of Americans and other Western citizens. It also means making clear the consequences if Turks attack Kurdish fighters in Syria, and encouraging Erdogan to end the collective punishment against his own Kurdish population, by offering to mediate negotiations.

The first step, though, is simple: Don't pretend that Erdogan is just another elected leader. Maybe Trump won't be able to help himself. He appears to appreciate the very qualities in Erdogan that make people like me cringe. For members of Congress, diplomats and other Western leaders, there is no need to gloss over his many defects.

None of this will persuade Erdogan to reform. But it will send a message of hope to the millions of Turks standing against the man who is doing his best to destroy what's left of their democratic institutions.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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