Obama had working relationship with Erdoğan, doubted democratic deeds

Former U.S. President Barack Obama said his relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was based on mutual self-interest, rather than a belief that they shared any common commitment to democracy.

In excerpts of his memoirs, ‘A promised Land’, published on Tuesday, Obama said he grew suspicious that then-prime minister Erdoğan’s claimed adherence to democratic values and the rule of law was merely designed to bolster his own power base.

“Some observers suggested that Erdoğan might offer a model of moderate, modern, and pluralistic political Islam and an alternative to the autocracies, theocracies and extremist movements that characterised the region... I tried to echo such optimism. But because of my conversations with Erdoğan, I had my doubts,” he said.

Referring to the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, Obama cited Erdoğan’s Turkey in the context of a changing world, where the democratisation, liberalisation, and integration that had swept the globe after the end of the Cold War was starting to recede.

In their place, “older, darker forces were gathering strength, and the stresses brought about by a prolonged economic downturn were likely to make things worse,” he said.

“Turkey had appeared to be a nation on the upswing, a case study in globalisation’s positive effects on emerging economies,” Obama said. “Despite a history of political instability and military coups, the majority-Muslim country had been largely aligned with the West since the 1950s, maintaining NATO membership, regular elections, a market-based system, and a secular constitution that enshrined modern principles like equal rights for women.”

Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had swept to power in 2002–2003, touting populist and often overtly Islamic appeals, Obama said.

“Erdoğan’s vocal sympathy for both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in their fight for an independent Palestinian state, in particular, had also made Washington and Tel Aviv nervous,” he said. “And yet, Erdoğan’s government thus far had abided by Turkey’s constitution, met its NATO obligations, and effectively managed the economy, even initiating a series of modest reforms with the hope of qualifying for EU membership.”

Erdoğan’s objections to the appointment of former Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen as NATO secretary-general in 2009 and an eventual U.S. response set the tone for the rest of the U.S.-Turkey relationship under his watch, Obama said.

During a NATO summit, Erdoğan instructed his team to block Rasmussen’s appointment because his government had failed to censor the 2005 publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.   

“European appeals about freedom of the press had left Erdoğan unmoved, and he had relented only after I’d promised that Rasmussen would have a Turkish deputy and had convinced him that my upcoming visit - and U.S. public opinion of Turkey - would be adversely affected if Rasmussen’s appointment didn’t go through,” Obama said.

“This set a pattern for the next eight years. Mutual self-interest would dictate that Erdoğan and I develop a working relationship. Turkey looked to the United States for support of its EU bid, as well as military and intelligence assistance in fighting Kurdish separatists who’d been emboldened by the fall of Saddam Hussein. We, meanwhile, needed Turkey’s cooperation to combat terrorism and stabilise Iraq,” he said.

“Personally, I found the prime minister to be cordial and generally responsive to my requests. But whenever I listened to him speak, his tall frame slightly stooped, his voice a forceful staccato that rose an octave in response to various grievances or perceived slights, I got the strong impression that his commitment to democracy and the rule of law might last only as long as it preserved his own power.”