Trump Can’t Let Erdogan Get Away With This

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a curious new plan for “strengthening our democracy”: Because the people of Istanbul had voted the wrong party into power, the city would be holding new elections.

Alleging fraud and irregularities, Erdogan’s AK Party scheduled a revote of the city’s municipal elections for next month, which the party lost in March to a coalition of opposition parties. It’s an untenable situation for Erdogan’s Islamist party, which relies on the patronage that comes from controlling local governments.

But a new election is untenable for much of the country, which erupted in protest after the announcement, and many Turks who had not previously been critical of Erdogan (including many celebrities) are taking the opposition’s side. Turkey’s former president and a co-founder of Erdogan’s party, Abdullah Gul, spoke out against the decision for a revote. Turkish media is reporting that Gul, along with former finance minister Ali Babacan, is planning to split from Erdogan and form a new party.

There has also been strong international censure of the decision, with condemnations from several European foreign ministers as well as the European Union.

Absent from this chorus thus far, however, is the Trump administration. Washington’s silence makes it seem as though the administration “wants Erdogan to stay in power forever,” says Ilhan Tanir, the executive editor of Ahval, a Turkish news site. “This is the time for the Trump administration to make a strong statement.”

The slow reaction from Washington may reflect the need to pay attention elsewhere. Since December, when President Donald Trump announced a U.S. withdrawal from Syria after a phone conversation with Erdogan, U.S. diplomats and generals have focused on getting Erdogan to promise not to attack the Syrian Kurds, who are a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State. To this day, U.S. officials tell me, Erdogan has made no such pledge. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is engaged in a so-far-unsuccessful campaign to persuade Turkey not to go through with the purchase of a Russian air defense system.

But while it may be understandable that a local election would not be at the top of the U.S. agenda with Turkey, it’s also inexcusable.

There is currently widespread support within Turkey to check Erdogan’s consolidation of power. American support for Turks who oppose the AK Party’s electoral chicanery is a smart bet: Not only would it preserve credibility with the government that comes after Erdogan, but it would also weaken a president who has become an unreliable ally.

During the Obama years, Erdogan allowed his territory to be used by the Islamic State to establish pipelines of new recruits from Europe into the group’s proto-Caliphate. He has taken a page from Iran’s playbook and tried to extract concessions from the West by taking hostages. He is flirting with Russia, buying an air defense system incompatible with NATO’s weaponry. And he still won’t promise not to slaughter the Kurds who helped vanquish the Islamic State in Syria.

A Turkey without Erdogan would still present challenges for U.S. foreign policy. But the main irritant in the relationship will be gone. The U.S. does not have to intervene in Turkish politics. It only needs to listen to what millions of Turkish citizens, including Erdogan’s former allies, are now saying. This is one case where America’s values align with its interests.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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