Mr. Erdogan Goes to Washington

by Derek Davison

As Jim Lobe has already noted, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Washington this week to attend the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. His visit produced a fair amount of fireworks on Thursday, as his security detail clashed with protesters and journalists prior to Erdogan’s planned speech at the Brookings Institution. In his speech, and during the question-and-answer session that followed, Erdogan paid lip service to the ideas of press freedom and civil liberties, but the actions of his bodyguards and some of Erdogan’s own words painted a much different picture.

Erdogan’s arrival at Brookings was anticipated by dueling groups of pro- and anti-Erdogan protesters. When the anti-Erdogan protesters attempted to approach the entrance to the think tank’s offices, altercations reportedly broke out between the protesters and members of Erdogan’s security team, then between Erdogan’s security and a number of Turkish journalists. As Foreign Policy reported:

Local Washington D.C. police officers were forced time and again to get between Erdogan’s security forces and journalists and protesters. At one point, an officer placed himself between one of Erdogan’s security guards and a cameraman he was moving to confront, while another angrily confronted several Turkish security guards in the middle of the street, telling them, “you’re part of the problem, you guys need to control yourselves and let these people protest.” Another Turkish security official pulled his colleague away after he began arguing with the officer. Other members of Erdogan’s team stood in front of the Brookings building, motioning for the protesters to come closer, and making obscene gestures.

Erdogan’s bodyguards reportedly kicked one journalist, threw another to the ground, and then attempted to forcibly remove a third, Turkish reporter Adem Yavuz Arslan, from the venue prior to Erdogan’s arrival. Arslan was subsequently escorted back into the building by Brookings officials, including its president, Strobe Talbott, and its communications director, Gail Chalef. The National Press Club later issued a statement in which it “expressed alarm” over the incident:

“Turkey’s leader and his security team are guests in the United States,” said Thomas Burr, the National Press Club president. “They have no right to lay their hands on reporters or protesters or anyone else for that matter, when the people they were apparently roughing up seemed to be merely doing their jobs or exercising the rights they have in this country.

“We have increasingly seen disrespect for basic human rights and press freedom in Turkey,” Burr added. “Erdogan doesn’t get to export such abuse.”

On one hand, it’s not terribly surprising that Erdogan’s bodyguards felt empowered to manhandle journalists, given that they work for a man whose judiciary is able to simply seize control of unfriendly media outlets in Turkey. But the fact that this happened outside of Turkey, and in the American capital no less, illustrates the degree to which Erdogan has abandoned any pretense of honoring journalistic freedom. Or to put in another way, if this is what Erdogan’s agents will do to unfriendly reporters in Washington, imagine what they must be doing to unfriendly reporters in Ankara.

Erdogan on Kurds

Erdogan began his speech at Brookings by mentioning Thursday’s car bombing in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, which killed seven Turkish police officers. The Diyarbakir bombing was likely perpetrated by Kurdish forces—possibly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the offshoot Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), which has claimed responsibility for two bombings in Ankara in the past two months. With that attack serving as his backdrop, and complaining that “the international community doesn’t even label terrorists ‘terrorists’ today,” Erdogan insisted that there is no difference between the Kurds and the Islamic State:

We are trying to fight terrorism…but terrorism can easily change its identity. Terrorism doesn’t have any moral values. We first have to agree on basic principles, and after that we have to act on these principles. The most important principle is to be determined in our fight against all terrorist organizations, and not to distinguish between one and the other. For example, today we consider Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS] a terrorist organization—it is active in Syria and Iraq. There are people who argue that YPG [the People’s Protection Units, a Syrian Kurdish force] is fighting against Daesh, so YPG is a gang of good terrorists. We can’t accept this. PYD [the Democratic Union Party, a Syrian Kurdish political party that is affiliated with the PKK, though Ankara and Washington disagree on the extent of that affiliation] is fighting against Daesh, so they are good terrorists. This is also something that is completely unacceptable to us. Both of these organizations are accessories to the PKK terrorist organization.

Conflating the Kurds with IS might make good propaganda sense for Erdogan, who seeks to turn the international community and particularly the United States against the Syrian Kurds, but it is nonsensical from a factual and strategic standpoint. The Islamic State is an apocalyptic cult fighting to spread its “caliphate” over the entire Islamic world, while the Kurds, in Turkey and Syria, are fighting for national recognition and autonomy. Their motivations are completely distinct (so distinct that the PYD/YPG have been fighting IS in Syria for nearly three years), and therefore the potential solutions to their respective conflicts are entirely different. But when Erdogan provocatively lumps the PKK and its “accessories” in with IS, it does raise the question of whether he has any intention of ever pursuing a negotiated end to his government’s escalating war with its Kurdish minority.

During the question-and-answer segment that followed Erdogan’s speech, Brookings Vice President Martin Indyk raised the topic of press freedom in Turkey, which had been so poignantly highlighted by the way Erdogan’s security detail treated journalists before his speech. Asked about his “commitment to a free media in Turkey,” given that Turkey is among the world’s worst offenders in terms of jailing journalists, Erdogan maintained that “there are no journalists in Turkish prisons who have been incarcerated due to their profession or their right to free expression”—an allegation that is demonstrably untrue—and then justified imprisoning them by virtue of the fact that Turkish voters elected him president in 2014 by a considerable margin. His suggestion that winning an election gives him the right to do as he pleases doesn’t say much for Erdogan’s commitment to the rule of law.

Insults vs. Criticism?

Indyk’s next question produced the following surreal exchange:

INDYK: Our president is regularly criticized. He faces criticism from the press, from the opposition, from presidential candidates—it gets quite nasty. But that’s part of a free society. Turkey, too, is a democracy. Do you have a problem with people—with journalists—criticizing you?

ERDOGAN: I have no problems with criticism whatsoever. But when it comes to insult and defamation, of course I have a problem. I will thank each and every one of those who criticize me, but if they were to insult me, my lawyers will go and file a lawsuit. Insult is something different from criticism.

If that sounds familiar to you, maybe it’s because you heard Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump say it first:

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win… I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected,” he said. “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”

Who gets to decide what counts as “legitimate criticism” and what counts as “insult”? Erdogan? The Turkish judiciary, which has worked with Erdogan to shut down Turkish media outlets whose reporting fails to stick closely enough to the government’s narrative? Erdogan’s subjective line between “criticism” and “insult” has undermined freedom of the press in Turkey, and Thursday’s ruckus outside the Brookings Institution let the whole world know it.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.