Keeping Erdogan Honest

For the past six years, since the start of the misnamed “Arab Spring,” the West has failed miserably at reading developments in the Arab/Muslim world and responding to them effectively.

In early 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptian demonstrators filled Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, President Barack Obama erred badly in dumping then-President Hosni Mubarak, thinking that he was standing in the way of democracy instead of understanding that he was the only one capable of preventing chaos.

(Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recalls that the president “took the advice of three junior back-benchers in terms of how to treat Mubarak,” ignoring the counsel of his entire national security team. While the military advocated caution, Gates writes, the president pushed for Mubarak’s immediate removal from office, because he was determined to be on the “right side of history.”)

The inability to perceive reality as it is — namely, that mob scenes in Cairo are not the same as mass demonstrations in Washington, and that the Arab world has no experience with democracy — had disastrous consequences for the Egyptian people. Incomes plunged, unemployment soared, corruption reached unprecedented highs and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was swept to power.

When, a few months after taking office, Morsi issued a “temporary” constitutional declaration that in effect granted him unlimited powers, the people went back to the streets and called for his resignation. If not for the strongman Gen. Abdel el-Sisi, a protégé of Mubarak’s, Egypt would still be holding elections every year in a chaotic political environment that discourages foreign investors and encourages the arrival of terror groups like Islamic State.

Syria’s civil war, an outgrowth of the Arab Spring, has caused untold human suffering, with hundreds of thousands dead, millions wounded, and millions more displaced from their homes. The failure to intercede in a timely, effective fashion, the “principled” hands-off position taken by the West, has created a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions that has spilled over into Europe.

It has also created a leadership vacuum that has been filled by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has asserted himself as a kingmaker and dominant power in the Middle East.

The mistakes made in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere must not be repeated in Turkey. President Recep Erdogan is clearly taking advantage of the failed military coup of this past weekend to clean house, to dispense with his opposition in the most brutal fashion. The senior military command, which has always been the “responsible adult” in Turkey, keeping Erdogan from dragging the country into the Islamist orbit, is now being hounded.

It has been reported that in the first three days after the attempted coup, over 3,000 officers and soldiers had been arrested, including 100 with the rank of general or admiral. In addition, over 2,700 judges and prosecutors were arrested, including 148 out of the 387 court of appeals judges and 48 senior judges of the State Council, Turkey’s supreme court for administrative affairs.

Monday reportedly saw the suspension of over 8,000 police officers and senior officials at the Ministry of Interior, including 29 town governors and one district governor.

Many of those arrested are suspected of belonging to the Gulenist movement, led by Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish imam living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania whose extradition Erdogan is demanding. Gulen, who promotes the moderate Hizmet Islamic movement that advocates democracy and secular institutions, is accused by Erdogan of orchestrating the attempted military coup.

Secretary of State John Kerry is right to push back on Erdogan’s implications that the United States had anything to do with the coup and to make it clear that the extradition of Gulen will only be considered on the basis of firm evidence, not Erdogan’s paranoia.

But that is not enough. Washington must also act to protect Gulen’s followers and all those who believe in Turkey as a secular democracy.

The advantage of Turkey, as opposed to Syria or pre-Sisi Egypt, is that there is someone at the top to talk to. Erdogan understands the need to integrate into the West and form ties that will bring economic prosperity. It is that understanding that led him to sign a reconciliation agreement with Israel a few weeks ago.

This gives the West leverage. The United States, even in the waning moments of an outgoing administration, cannot afford to continue its non-interventionist policies. It has to read Erdogan the riot act, and make it clear that it will not tolerate the intimidation of thousands of pro-democracy secular forces. It must get very specific in detailing what the consequences will be for which human-rights violations.

Finally, we want to express our deep concern for the Jewish community of Turkey. At times of political turmoil, Jews are often cast as the scapegoat. We call on the administration to make it clear that it is monitoring the situation on the ground and will not allow any segment of the population in Turkey to be abused.

The United States has always stood for freedom and basic human rights. Those generals and judges and police in Turkey who have been hauled off must know that they are not alone, that they are not at Erdogan’s mercy. True, Washington needs Turkey, for a variety of geopolitical reasons, but Turkey also needs Washington.

It is important to recognize that and use it to keep Erdogan in check.