The West had high hopes for Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Photographer: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

How Washington Got Turkey's Dictator So Wrong

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. 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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When Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Washington this week, it will be an opportunity for President Barack Obama, as well as most of the Washington foreign policy establishment, to ponder how they so misread a man they had touted only a few years ago as a great reformer.

Until 2013, Obama himself boasted of his close personal friendship with the Turkish leader. In 2013, the last time Erdogan visited Washington, Obama praised his Turkish counterpart for his efforts to normalize relations with Israel and for a cease-fire with Kurdish separatists. Obama even thanked Erdogan for his child-rearing tips.

This time it will be much different. Erdogan will get no formal meeting with Obama this week when he will be in town for a nuclear security summit, though he will be officially meeting with Vice President Joe Biden. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that he expects Obama and Erdogan will have an “informal discussion" instead.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Obama turned down an invitation from the Turkish leader to attend the opening of a Turkish-funded Mosque in Maryland. Obama recently told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that he considers his old friend to be a "failure and an authoritarian."

Even some of Turkey's closest friends in Washington are now warning that Erdogan is becoming a tyrant. “Within the past decade, many of Turkey’s friends here were optimistic about your country’s potential to become a vibrant and stable democracy as well as a strong and capable U.S. ally. Recent developments in Turkey, however, are deeply troubling," states an open letter to the Turkish president drafted by two former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey, Mort Abramowitz and Eric Edelman. That letter is to be released Wednesday by the Bipartisan Policy Center and has 48 signatories, including former senators Chuck Robb and Joe Lieberman.  

Representative Steve Cohen, a Democratic co-chairman of the Congressional caucus on U.S.-Turkish relations, which has supported strengthening U.S. ties to Erdogan's government, told us the Turkish leader's effort "to consolidate his power and his crack down on the press is troubling." 

Erdogan has intensified his campaign against his political opposition since his party lost elections last June. His coalition regained a parliamentary majority in November, after Erdogan called for a new vote in August, following his new military campaign against Turkey's Kurdish minority.

Over the past year, more than a thousand people have been charged with the crime of insulting Erdogan personally, and hundreds of academics have been investigated or disciplined for questioning his government’s anti-terror policies. The letter from the Bipartisan Policy Center also notes that Erdogan's government has taken over the largest Turkish opposition newspaper, Zaman. “Why shouldn’t people in the European Union and the United States be concerned about the prospects for a free media in Turkey?” the letter asks.

And while these latest developments are significant, the signs that Erdogan was a dictator-in-waiting have been hiding in plain sight. In 2010, Erdogan and his top ministers froze Turkey's relationship with Israel, accusing the Jewish state of treating Palestinians the way Nazis had treated Jews. In 2013, Erdogan ordered his police to disrupt peaceful demonstrations in Gezi Park, a conflict which resulted in 11 deaths, more than 8,000 injuries and more than 3,000 arrests.

Edelman, who served as ambassador to Turkey between 2003 and 2005, in late December 2004 wrote a blistering cable to Washington warning: "Inside the party, Erdogan's hunger for power reveals itself in a sharp authoritarian style and deep distrust of others." In the same cable, Edelman writes that Erdogan desired "absolute power," and that he was rumored to have huge sums in Swiss bank accounts.

Edelman told us that despite these warnings, the U.S. gave Erdogan a pass.

"In both the Bush and Obama administrations we tended to overlook what was domestically going on in Turkey," Edelman said. "We always had some piece of business that seemed to override the domestic side." 

Abramowitz, who served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1989 to 1991, told us that it was easier to overlook Erdogan's authoritarian leanings earlier in his career because he did institute important domestic reforms. For example, Erdogan until last summer supported more civil-rights reforms for Turkey's Kurdish minority, allowing Kurdish schools to teach their children in Kurdish as opposed to Turkish.

“The U.S. tries to give Turkey a wide swath, always wanting to work something out with Turkey,” Abramowitz said. “The problem was the changes he made in his early years have now been overtaken by his thirst for power, his achievement of that power, and his doing of some very undemocratic things.”

James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador between 2008 and 2010, told us that the U.S. was always aware of Erdogan's human-rights abuses. "Did we raise his early crackdowns on the press and the military in meetings and in press releases? Yes," Jeffrey said. "Did we ever threaten significant consequences in the bilateral relationship? No."

Jeffrey agreed with the assessment that Erdogan today is an authoritarian. Though he added: "Nobody foresaw the recklessness with which he would start dismantling the entire democratic system in Turkey. He was obviously an authoritarian, but in a normal political system, his defeat in June would have stopped him." Jeffrey said Erdogan's decision to call new elections for November, as the country was reeling from a wave of terrorist attacks, led Turks to go with the "devil they knew," and return his coalition to power.

As Obama finishes his final year in office, he is stuck with that known quantity in Turkey -- an ex-friend he thought he knew who turned out to be an authoritarian he can no longer trust.

(Updates number of signatories in fifth paragraph and revises 17th paragraph.)

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Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

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Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net