On the occasion of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington, politicians and analysts are focusing on his direct attacks against the USA and Europe, and, on a geopolitical level, on his provocative behavior and revisionary policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, as well as his military invasion in northern Syria.
In this context, and despite President Donald Trump’s efforts yesterday to mend fences – with an eye on commercial gains – issues such as Turkey’s exclusion from the F-35 joint manufacturing program – due to Erdogan’s decision to acquire Russia’s latest S-400 air-defense system – and the prospect of financial sanctions from the US keep coming to the fore.
However, it is important to highlight a dimension of US-Turkish relations that is often overshadowed by the defense cooperation and bilateral trade, and that is the downturn in American public opinion on Turkey. In recent years, the country’s image has deteriorated dramatically and today is near rock bottom.
The last time Erdogan visited the White House two years ago, his bodyguards attacked Kurds who were protesting peacefully outside Turkey’s embassy in Washington. Naturally, the attacks and the Turkish officials’ unacceptable behavior was highlighted by the media. It was also unanimously condemned by Congress and sparked strong reactions from prominent lawmakers, most notably that of late US senator John McCain.
American journalists do not remain silent at the sight of the anti-democratic measures used by Erdogan in Turkey, the trampling of human rights, the persecution and imprisonment of their Turkish colleagues. They highlight the regime’s authoritarianism in their reports and comments, informing domestic – and to a significant degree international – public opinion about what is happening inside Turkey.
A similar spirit permeates an increasing number of analyses and reports by think tanks that have been critical of Erdogan’s policies, both at home and abroad, with the military operation against the Kurds in Syria being the more recent example.
At the same time, it is clear that Erdogan’s anti-Semitism has alienated, and in the process exasperated, the politically and financially strong American Jewish community. His image is problematic among the members of the overwhelmingly Christian community that constitutes the majority of Americans, as well as with Muslims of America.
Erdogan’s authoritarianism and his anti-American rhetoric have – irreparably – damaged not only his personal image but also his country’s. Those gray clouds that have gathered will not dissipate easily, even when the unpredictable leader is no longer in power. Whatever happens occasionally between Turkey and the US at leadership level, the relationship will be pervaded by a mutual suspicion.
America’s deep discomfort over Erdogan is also confirmed, not only by the proliferation of personalities and organizations that criticize or denounce Turkey, but also by the increasingly stern rhetoric used. Commenting on Erdogan’s visit to Washington yesterday, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen said, “This is not the time or place to be extending hospitality and exchanging niceties with a dictator.” That statement was made for the leader of a country that is currently a US ally in NATO.