Turkey's president faces a scolding in Washington
By NAHAL TOOSI
Turkey's president, a man used to steamrolling his critics at home, is in for a rough visit to Washington.
As Recep Tayyip Erdogan began making the rounds in the U.S. capital Wednesday, dozens of foreign policy thinkers, including former ambassadors to Turkey, released a letter warning that the situation in the country is "deeply troubling."
The letter, which is heavy on right-leaning and neoconservative signatures, came as the White House tried to downplay questions about why President Barack Obama wasn't holding a formal bilateral session with the Turkish leader by saying the two would probably have an informal chat.
Erdogan, who leads a party with Islamist roots and is in town in part to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, also is slated to speak at the Brookings Institution on Thursday. A Q&A is planned, during which the Turkish leader may face some tough questions about the direction he's taking his country.
Turkey is a key Middle East ally for the U.S. It borders Syria, has sheltered millions of refugees from the war-torn Arab state and allows the American military to use an airbase on its soil to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State.
But Erdogan, who has served as prime minister or president of Turkey since 2003, has become increasingly autocratic, disappointing U.S. leaders who'd hoped Turkey could prove a model of Muslim democracy. An Atlantic article about Obama's foreign policy said the U.S. president considers Erdogan "a failure and an authoritarian."
The letter, released by the Bipartisan Policy Center, tackles Erdogan's perceived excesses head on.
It asks him why he's clamped down on the press in Turkey, and why more than 1,000 people have been arrested on charges of insulting him over the past year. It questions his desire to strengthen the presidency and raises fears about his crackdown on the Kurdish rebels, a conflict that is risking civil war.
The writers, who describe themselves as friends of Turkey, also express alarm about Erdogan's call for "a more expansive definition of terrorism that would include lawmakers, academics, and journalists whose words you believe make them terrorists."
The 48 signatories included prominent neocons such as Paul Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams, who served in the George W. Bush administration. But some who signed on are relatively moderate or even left-leaning, such as the New America Foundation's Anne-Marie Slaughter.
The letter was organized by Mort Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, who served as ambassadors to Turkey.
White House officials have dismissed reports that Obama was snubbing Erdogan by not holding a formal meeting with him. They note that dozens of world leaders are in town due to the security summit and that only one bilateral session, with Chinese President Xi Jinping, has been scheduled.
Vice President Joe Biden will meet with Erdogan, however, and the pair will likely discuss the fight against the Islamic State, whose jihadists control a large stretch of Iraq and Syria. Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, also said that Obama will probably have a chance to hold an informal talk with Erdogan.
"There obviously is a lot of important work to do with our allies in Turkey," Earnest said Tuesday. "First and foremost, that involves standing with them as they confront the kind of terrorism that they've seen inside their borders all too often in recent weeks. But that also includes continuing to intensify our coordination on key aspects of our counter-[Islamic State] strategy, including ramped-up efforts to secure the Turkey-Syria border."
Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations said that despite outward unity in the fight against the Islamic State, Turkey and the United States are still grappling with profound differences.
Turkey has wanted the U.S. to do more to oust the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, but Obama has been hesitant to commit too much to that goal. The U.S. also relies heavily on Kurdish fighters in Syria to take on the Islamic State, whereas Turkey accuses those fighters of links to Kurdish separatists on its soil.
"So relations are pretty bad, which is why there won't be a bilateral," Cook said, adding: "It's hard for the president to meet with Erdogan when the Turks are shutting down opposition media, jailing journalists, and intimidating academics."