Published by Foreign Policy 30 March 2016
The Turkish president told a gathering of academics and former government officials that the White House was wrong to back the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State.
Facing a high-profile snub from the White House and a growing chasm with the United States over human rights and press freedoms, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan courted Washington’s top think tank luminaries on Tuesday night in an effort to rehabilitate his image and criticize the Obama administration’s policies in Syria.
During a private dinner at Washington’s high-end St. Regis Hotel, a defiant Erdogan ripped the American media’s coverage of his administration’s policies and bashed the White House’s support for Kurdish fighters in Syria. Washington sees the Kurds as their most valuable proxies in the ground battle against the Islamic State, but Erdogan views them as terrorists aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a militant group struggling for autonomy. Kurdish militants have been tied to several recent bombings inside Turkey.
“He kept coming back to that issue: Terrorists are terrorists — there are no good ones” said one attendee of the dinner, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He pretty much threw the administration under the bus.”
The attendees included Joel Hellman, the dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; Jane Harman, chairwoman of the Woodrow Wilson Center; Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and other high-profile academics and former U.S. officials.
Erdogan is in Washington to meet Vice President Joe Biden and attend the administration’s 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. But he is not expected to enjoy a formal meeting with President Barack Obama — a slight the White House explained away as scheduling issue but which has been widely perceived as sign of Obama’s frustration with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian actions.
The visit follows the seizure of Turkey’s largest newspaper, Zaman, by authorities who accused the paper of serving as a mouthpiece for Fethullah Gullen, a one-time Erdogan ally now charged with attempting to overthrow the government. After the paper’s staff was gutted and replaced with Erdogan-friendly editors, State Department spokesman John Kirby called the takeover “troubling.”
Julie Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former Biden adviser on Turkey, said Erdogan was using the meeting to try to improve his standing at a difficult moment in the relationship, but said it might not be enough.
“The president will need more than a few days of targeted engagement if he has hopes of putting the bilateral relationship back on track,” she said. “Washington remains deeply troubled by Erdogan’s actions at home, especially in regards to freedom of the press, and remains concerned by core elements of its foreign policy.”
Though she attended the Tuesday night dinner, she declined to comment on any specifics of the meeting. But according to a source in the room, Erdogan seemed eager to compensate for Obama’s snub by speaking directly to Washington’s thought leaders about why Turkey is crucial to U.S. grand strategy and why the Obama administration is taking it for granted.
“The biggest message I heard from Erdogan was: ‘You need us. You can’t win your war in Syria without us,’” said the attendee. The president also made veiled references to deceitfulness of the U.S. media and his view that some journalists were actively working against Turkish interests.
In a sign of his seriousness, the Turkish leader spent about three hours with the group, opening himself up to a range of questions from different academics.
“He didn’t get any nasty questions, but there were a few that if he were a thin-skinned politician, he would’ve melted down,” said the attendee. “He wanted to speak directly to us and without a filter.”
The fact that not a single official from the Obama administration attended the dinner seemed to indicate a growing distrust between the two powers. Erdogan had wanted Obama to attend the opening of a Turkish-funded mosque in Maryland during his visit. When the White House declined, the Turks sought a formal bilateral meeting, but the White House has refused to commit to that as well.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that Erdogan and Obama are likely to meet informally and “at least have a conversation.” But given that 50 world leaders are in Washington to attend the summit, the president is strapped for time, said Earnest.
Obama once saw Erdogan as a potential bridge between the U.S. and the Muslim world, but those ties have also been put under severe strain because of sharp disagreements about the fight against ISIS.
“Now with terrorism on the top of everyone’s mind, Erdogan seems to be bringing the message that Turkey is on the front-lines and needs to settle its differences for the sake of regional and global stability,” said Joshua Walker, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund who attended the dinner but also declined to discuss specifics of the meeting.
While in town, Erdogan is also meeting with leaders of Jewish organizations, Turkish and American business leaders, holding an event at the Brookings Institution and speaking at a smaller working meal hosted by the Atlantic Council.