Obama administration was spectacularly wrong about Erdoğan - ex-aide

Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration was spectacularly wrong in its reasoning for working with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and believing Turkish civil society could succeed in containing the increasingly authoritarian leader, former U.S. State Department advisor Jeremy Shapiro wrote on the European Council on Foreign Relations website.

“Oh, c’mon, Erdoğan isn’t that bad – more to the point, he is the democratically elected leader of the country, so we have to deal with him,” Shapiro said was a line he often used in the early years after Erdoğan came to power in 2003 in response to warnings from Turkish friends.

At the time, Shapiro said he believed his Turkish friends “lacked objectivity and were too involved in their domestic struggles to see the bigger picture. America had to deal with the leader the Turkish people gave us and do our best with him. Erdoğan was not America’s first choice – but, hey, democracy is messy, and it wasn’t our choice after all”.

In the U.S. view, refusing to cooperate with Erdoğan or openly siding with the Turkish opposition, would give the Turkish leader a convenient foreign enemy to turn Turkey against the West, Shapiro said. Even though many in Obama administration grew tired of Erdoğan, the need for Turkey as an ally to solve Middle Eastern conflicts made working with him the best option.

“Recalling these conversations today is doubly painful. It is not just that we were wrong about Erdoğan and civil society’s ability to contain him. Of course, we were wrong – and spectacularly so,” Shapiro said. “In retrospect, the U.S. government also lacked objectivity on this question: we wanted to continue the U.S. relationship with Turkey as before, so we looked for reasons to disbelieve our Turkish friends.”

Since then, he said, Erdoğan had taken Turkey in exactly the autocratic direction that the Turkish opposition predicted. “And, despite U.S. efforts to work with his government, the U.S.-Turkish relationship has gone into the crapper. The U.S. is now the official scapegoat for practically everything that goes wrong in Turkey”.

Shapiro said the punishment for his analytical failure had gone beyond having to eat humble pie. 

“Rather, karma has sent its personal representative, U.S. President Donald Trump, to make me truly understand just how angry U.S. naïveté about Erdoğan must have made the Turkish opposition. Now, many of my foreign friends (including Turkish ones) are fixing me with that same patronising look and piously intoning that Donald Trump is the president of the United States, so they must deal with him – and, not to worry, American institutions will contain him.”