It was once conventional wisdom among administration-friendly policy wonks that President Barack Obama’s most successful foray into Middle East relations was his attempt to elevate relations with Turkey. Whatever else might be said about his confused, weak and reactive policy in the region, he had built a personal friendship with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and pulled Turkey back from forging a closer relationship with Iran.
President Obama saw Turkey as a model of Islamic democracy, where an Islamic party had been tamed by the everyday demands of governance, and had led the country to strong economic growth. Yet over the past year, Erdogan has shown increasingly authoritarian tendencies in the face of rising protests. Earlier this month, the Turkish government blocked Twitter, a self-defeating move that the White House felt compelled to criticize.
In his speech in Ankara in 2009, President Obama touted the country’s “strong, vibrant, secular democracy.” That democracy is now “in shambles,” as Ariel ben Solomon notes at the Jerusalem Post, and only victory by the opposition in Sunday’s local elections holds hope for significant progress. That means letting go of the idea that Erdogan and his party represent a model, and placing more faith in institutions that can restrain them.
One of the other notable areas of concern is Turkey’s relationship with Israel, which has deteriorated markedly over the past several years. That is partly because of Erdogan’s own ideological beliefs and political interests. Yet it is also because the Obama administration did little to insist that Turkey step back from confrontational gestures, such as the Mavi Marmara raid in 2010–and, in fact, indulged Turkey’s delusions over the affair.
The only sense in which Turkey is a model is the way it symbolizes many of the other failures of the Obama administration’s foreign policy: the obsequious gestures, the sacrifice of core interests, the wishful thinking. If a new Turkish government arises in national elections later this year, it may wish to “reset” relations–not on the dysfunctional terms that Obama attempted to set with Erdogan, but on more solid, and traditional, footing.