Back in 2011, during the height of what was then still optimistically being called the "Arab Spring," the Turkish press was in the habit of crowing that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was "one of the five" world leaders American President Barack Obama spoke to the most. Certainly, with Turkey's foreign policy at the time still showing promise and Ankara positioning itself to become a key and constructive regional powerbroker, speaking frequently with Erdogan made a lot of sense.
Things have changed a bit since that time, perhaps best reflected by the fact that Obama and Erdogan have not spoken on the phone since August of last year, following a turbulent summer that saw the Turkish government crack down hard on the large protests that rocked Istanbul and other cities for several weeks. But, after a long lull, the two leaders did reconnect, speaking on the phone yesterday about, as a White House readout put it, "a range of bilateral and regional issues."
The call comes at a time when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is facing some very serious domestic challenges, mostly in the form of large corruption probes which have targeted some now former ministers and businessman close to the party, to which the Erdogan government has responded by passing a series of increasingly worrying pieces of legislation aimed at increasing its control over the internet, media and judiciary. Although the language of the White House readout is fairly bland, its last sentence is worth noting. "....The President noted the importance of sound policies rooted in the rule of law to reassure the financial markets, nurture a predictable investment environment, strengthen bilateral ties, and benefit the future of Turkey," the readout read.
Could this be an indication of some kind of policy shift, with Washington deciding to get tough on Turkey for its domestic backsliding? In a blog post today that links to a new Foreign Affairs piece of his, analyst Michael Koplow suggests that the US has been more inclined lately to criticize Turkey, and that Ankara has responded by changing its behavior. From his post:
Turkey is backtracking on a couple of issues that have created friction with the U.S. in response to more open American criticism of Turkey. The Obama administration has generally given Turkey a free pass on its bad behavior across a range of issues, and I’m not confident that this new approach – which is more of a piecemeal one rather than a comprehensive rethinking of our strategy toward Turkey – is going to be more than a temporary blip. It should be though, and it shows that Turkey is indeed responsive to pressure.
Meanwhile, as the Daily Beast reports, a group of Washington-based think tanks and policy experts from across the political spectrum today released an open letter to Obama, asking to him to get even tougher on Erdogan's "autocratic actions and demagoguery," suggesting the decline of rule-of-law in Turkey will ultimately undermine relations with the US. From the Daily Beast's report:
More than 80 top foreign policy figures from across the political spectrum wrote President Obama Thursday and asked him to end the U.S. government’s tacit approval of what they describe as the anti-democratic actions of Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan and his government.
“Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly undermining a central pillar of the decades-long, strategic U.S.-Turkish partnership: Turkey’s growing democracy,” reads the letter, organized by the right-leaning Foreign Policy Initiative, the left-leaning Center for American Progress, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Freedom House. “We are writing because of our deep dismay at this development and to urge you to make clear to the Turkish public America’s concern about Turkey’s current path. Silence will only encourage Prime Minister Erdoğan to diminish the rule of law in the country even further.”
The letter was signed by several former Obama administration officials including White House senior director Dennis Ross, State Department policy planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Julianne Smith, an advisor to the Vice President. Republican signatories include Ambassador John Bolton, Sen. Norm Coleman, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.
It's still to early to tell, as Koplow points out, if the White House's greater willingness to criticize Turkey is part of a new, long-term policy shift. What is clear though is that Washington's "get tough on Turkey" lobby is certainly growing, something which may very make those Obama-Erdogan phone chats even less frequent than they have become.