Turkey and the U.S. have a history of close ties in the past; however in a recent poll, 72 percent of the Turkish population pointed to the U.S. as their country’s number one security threat.
Michael Houlahan, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. diplomatic service, including three years as the desk officer for Turkey, discussed how the rift between the two NATO partners developed. On Friday, he addressed the issue as the seventh speaker in the eight-part Great Decisions community series.
Modern Turkey was founded as a secular republic, and the Turkish military regarded itself as its guardians. The current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presents himself as the leader of a moderate Islamic party, Houlahan said. Erdogan gained his position through the weakening of the political role of the military, and he’s recently developed into an authoritarian and repressive figure.
Turkey’s poor human rights record and its turn toward authoritarian government are straining its relationship to the U.S., according to Houlahan. While the U.S. maintains relations with other authoritarian regimes, Turkey is moving in directions contrary to American interests.
A drastic purge of the Turkish military following a failed coup in July 2016 ended the careers of many officers trained by the U.S. Now, Erdogan accuses the U.S. of supporting the coup attempt, Houlahan said. The long conflict between the government and Turkey’s Kurdish minority now presents a major crisis in relations with the U.S. because America is allied with Kurdish militias in Syria in the fight against ISIS. The Turks are attacking those militias.
Houlahan also discussed “the degradation of Turkish democracy.” In electing Erdogan, the majority of Turks are supporting a populist authoritarianism — a kind of democracy that supports a strong man who does not value individual freedom. That results in “a tyranny of the majority,” Houlahan said.
In response to questions, Houlahan said that under the Trump administration, the State Department has been hollowed out; the Foreign Service is in disarray; and there has been no effective response to Russian interference in our 2016 election. Nor, Houlahan said, has the Trump administration released the $150 million designated for countering propaganda.
Great Decisions 2018 is Delaware’s free community discussion series about current U.S. foreign policy. It runs every Friday at noon through March 23 at the William Street United Methodist Church, 28 W. William St.