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On the Record

U.S. recognizes the only interlocutor in Turkey as the president

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The only interlocutor for the United States in Turkey will be President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from now on, Professor Kemal Kirişci has said, adding that Washington has come to recognize the reality that whoever becomes the prime minister “knows he is not going to do anything that is unauthorized.”

The U.S. has lost its hopes regarding Turkish democracy, according to Kirişci, who is at the Washington-based Brookings Institute.

Prior to President Erdoğan’s visit, there were a record number of articles saying he would not receive a warm welcome in Washington, let alone a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. Yet Erdoğan ended up in the White House for a long meeting.

I was able to observe both of his visits in May 2013, and the one that took place last March. The difference is day and night. In 2013 the U.S. administration was bending over backwards to welcome Erdoğan, and he was hosted very lavishly.

The last visit was also preceded by the article of Jeff Goldberg, where there was a reference to how disappointed Obama was with his relationship with Erdoğan. I think that the appointment was given because Turkey and the president of Turkey is very central and critical to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This is the only reason why this appointment was given; this is my reading.

The meeting took place despite Obama’s disillusionment with Erdoğan. Does that mean that Turkey is indispensable, regardless of rules Turkey? Or is Erdoğan not expendable?

Both. The term that is being used in Washington for the U.S. relationship with Turkey is “transactional,” meaning wherever we have common interests and common concerns, we are going to try to cooperate. The idea of a model partnership based on shared liberal values is no longer an issue; the cooperation is out of necessity.

Was there ever a Davutoğlu effect in bilateral relations, since he was one of the figures shaping foreign policy?

Starting in September 2015, Davutoğlu projected the image of a pragmatic person wanting to address a problem. The way in which he handled the European migration crisis was assessed as something positive compared to the rhetoric the president uses where he is constantly criticizing and using contemptuous – almost denigrating – language toward Europe but also the U.S. I suspect that Davutoğlu was offered an audience with Obama [shortly after his meeting with Erdoğan] because of this.

How do you think Washington will see his departure?

At the micro level, they thought that there was room for a pragmatic, solution-oriented relationship with Davutoğlu. But in the course of the last year or two, they had also come to realize that Davutoğlu’s foreign policy based around his book “Strategic Depth” was producing conflict between Turkey and the U.S. – the conflict areas being Syria, ISIL, Egypt, Israel and Iraq. 

Do you think there will be any changes in relations with Davutoğlu’s departure?

I think there is a recognition in Turkey, Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world that from today onward, Turkey’s foreign policy will be run by the president. The notion that Turkey is a parliamentary system and the president is supposed to be equidistant from political parties does not reflect reality. The U.S., with this experience behind them, has come to recognize this reality. Whoever becomes the PM, they know he is not going to do anything that is unauthorized. The consequence is that Turkey-U.S. relations will not be where they were when Erdoğan first came to power; that’s how I can answer the question because it is comparative. At that time, in addition to Syria, trade, the economy and Turkey’s relations with the EU were also on the agenda.

These issues will no longer be on the agenda; there will be only one issue: the Syrian issue. [But another will be how will] NATO manage the challenges that Russia is bringing to European security? I think there is some room for interaction there.

Has the U.S. given up on Turkey as a reliable ally sharing the same values? 

It is sad but that is the reality. Turkey’s agenda today in the neighborhood is not an agenda that overlaps with the Western transatlantic community’s agenda. There is a lot of aggravation that emerges from that reality. For the U.S., the issue of ISIL is regarded as the major challenge emanating from the Middle East to U.S. and European security. I think they have reached a conclusion that cooperating with Turkey is an uphill battle. They also recognized Turkey and the U.S. have conflicting interests with respect to the PYD [Democratic Union Party]. Turkey considers it a threat to national security whereas the U.S. sees the PYD as an actor with which they are able to cooperate against ISIL in a decisive, reliable and credible manner. In the case of Turkey, there is cooperation but there are question marks over the reliability and credibility and commitment of Turkey.

Why are you using the word sad?

It is sad from a personal point of view because when you look at the world right now, it looks like there are two governance system competing with each other. One governance system is the system to which I thought Turkey was always committed. We became a member of NATO, Council of Europe and the OECD. We aspire to become part of the EU because I suppose we believed the values of members of this community provides more prosperity, stability and security to its citizens. Then there is an alternative form of governance represented by Russia, Iran and China [based on] the idea that the state should have a greater say on the economy, the state interest should prevail over the interests and the rights of individuals and that freedom of expression and media can be curtailed to serve state interests. Turkey is increasingly moving in the direction of this second form of governance.

Why, then, did Brookings invite Erdoğan, producing embarrassing moments when the president’s security detailed interfered with demonstrators?

Brookings has a long-established program called the Global Leaders Forum and invites presidents and prime ministers to give speeches. It is an independent think tank and does not confer legitimacy or illegitimacy on a speaker. The Washington audience got an opportunity to see how Turkey is being governed.

It looks like the U.S. remains indifferent to democratic backpedalling in Turkey.

There was a time at meetings on Turkey in which questions were raised along the lines of, “Why isn’t the U.S. doing more against this backsliding?” Interestingly, in the course of about six months or so, this question is being raised less and less. The U.S. has lost hopes about Turkish democracy. The primary reason for this is that they have this impression that Turkish society, especially after what happened after the June [2015] elections, gives priority to this kind of governance. Also, the Obama administration, especially compared to the Bush and Clinton administrations, is less comfortable with the idea of promoting democracy and supporting democratization.

The interview was originally published in Hürriyet Daily News.

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