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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

The Wrong Messengers for Erdogan

A recent "open-letter" to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and signed by a diverse group of U.S. foreign policy figures highlights neoconservative efforts to gain respectability within the foreign-policy establishment by persuading prominent experts to sign on to letters they circulate around Washington on specific issues of concern to them.


One of my great frustrations in watching the neoconservatives for so much time has been the willingness of so many sensible and truly liberal (in the best sense of the world) individuals to give them a legitimacy and respectability that they clearly don’t deserve, especially after the Iraq invasion. Among the worst examples has been the partnership between the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the staunchly neocon American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that has held a series of jointly sponsored public programs on foreign policy since 2012. I’m all for public foreign-policy programs, but why has CAP, a de facto Democratic Party institution that has compiled a pretty reasonable foreign-policy record since 9/11, felt compelled to provide AEI’s “scholars,” who bear so much responsibility for the worst U.S. foreign-policy disaster since at least the Vietnam War, with a platform to help with their “rehabilitation,” if I can put it that way? 

Another, much more common way in which neoconservatives regain or affirm their respectability within the foreign-policy establishment is by persuading prominent and well-established experts and analysts to sign on to letters they circulate around Washington on specific issues of concern to them. An example I cited previously on this site was a 2009 open letter to Obama released by the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI)—the successor organization of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC)—urging him to “make democracy and human rights a priority in his upcoming summit meetings” in his meetings with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The 39 signers were dominated overwhelmingly by the same neo-conservative crowd  (Bill KristolJames WoolseyJoshua MuravchikDanielle PletkaMax BootGary Schmitt, etc.) that used to sign PNAC letters about Iraq.

But in addition to the AEI-PNAC crowd, several bona fide human-rights activists—Larry Cox, the then-executive director of Amnesty International’s U.S. chapter; Mort Halperin, senior adviser of the Open Society Institute (OSI); and Stephen Rickard, OSI’s Washington director—signed the letter. As I asked in a subsequent post about another FPI letter on China, why would serious human rights groups (or serious foreign-policy analysts for that matter) lend their hard-earned credibility, even if they agreed with the letter’s content, to an initiative authored and promoted by organizations that have championed aggressive U.S. unilateralism and disregard for international law. And, by signing such letters, didn’t they risk giving ammunition to those governments who see the human-rights movement as a handmaiden of U.S. or western imperialism?

Letter to Erdogan

It’s in this context that I read an open letter released Wednesday to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is participating in this week’s Nuclear Security Summit here in Washington this week. Unlike the other two letters cited above, this letter is not formally sponsored by FPI or any other specific organization. But the strong majority of the nearly 50 signatories are well-known neocons—many of them past signers of PNAC letters, no less—and/or former Bush administration officials who held positions of varying degrees of responsibility for the invasion and totally botched occupation of Iraq. The signatories include…(drum roll, please) Paul Wolfowitz (now with AEI); Douglas Feith (now with the Hudson Institute) and his successor at the Pentagon, former Amb. (to Turkey) Eric Edelman(now a director of FPI); former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief L. Paul Bremer; former Cheney national security adviser John Hannah (now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, or FDD); former CPA officials and/or consultants Michael Rubin (AEI), Dan Senor (another FPI director), and Michael Makovsky (currently head of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, or JINSA), as well as Bush’s top Middle East and “democracy” adviser, Elliott Abrams.

And it’s not just former officials who bear such heavy responsibility for how badly Iraq was handled. Signatories also include the familiar clutch of hawks who signed all those PNAC letters that urged us into war in the first place: Boot, Muravchik, Pletka, Schmitt, Bob Kagan (another FPI director), Robert LieberCliff May (FDD), Hillel Fradkin (Hudson), Marty Peretz, and Randy Scheunemann (PNAC and head of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq). Oh, and Joe Lieberman, who is running something called the American Internationalism Project at AEI, and Dennis Ross also signed.

But there’s also a sprinkling—and I mean a sprinkling—of non-neocons and Bush Iraq veterans who signed the letter. In a few cases these are genuine liberal internationalists and/or human rights activists, including former Amb. (to Turkey) Morton Abramowitz, Tom Carothers (Carnegie Endowment), Susan Corke (Human Rights First), Stephen McInerny (Project on Middle East Democracy, or POMED), Amb. Robert Ford, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. But that’s typical: since Iraq, neocons hope that the credibility of a few respected non-neocons will somehow rub off on them.

Now, the saddest part is that I agree with the contents of the letter, which raise extremely important and increasingly urgent questions about the increasingly authoritarian direction Erdogan is taking Turkey with respect to freedom of the press, speech, and other basic rights and the resurgent Kurdish conflict and the government’s efforts to outlaw the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). These are issues on which Erdogan should be pressed hard not only while he’s here in Washington, but back at home as well.

But the problem is with the deeply flawed messengers. The fact is, Erdogan and his loyalists are almost certain to use this letter to bolster his nationalist appeal and his claims that foreign criticism of his rule has far more to do with geopolitics than with genuine concerns about human rights and democracy. He can point to most of the signers as individuals who at one time or another have advocated “regime change” in countries of which they do not approve, thus giving credence to those who believe that he is the target of foreign conspiracies. He may argue—and with some credibility—that some of the signers are motivated by their anger over his difficult relations with Israel or even by revenge for Ankara’s refusal to let its territory be used as a launching pad for the Iraq invasion 13 years ago.

What’s with Wolfowitz?

Exhibit A would be Wolfowitz’s signature on the letter. It was Wolfowitz who was tasked with persuading Turkey to provide that launching pad and who then publicly complained that the Turkish Army had failed to exert pressure on the parliament to approve the request. “I think for whatever reason they did not play the strong leadership role on the issue that we would have expected,” he told CNN Turkey. And when asked whether that would have been appropriate role for the military in a democratic system, he replied:

I think it’s perfectly appropriate, especially in your system to say it was in Turkey’s interest to support the United States in that effort …My impression is they didn’t say it with the kind of strength that would have made a difference.”

Given the historic role that the Turkish military has played in overthrowing democratically elected government, as well as Erdogan’s singular achievement in overcoming that legacy, Wolfowitz should be the last person to lecture the Turkish president on the subject of democracy. That also goes for Edelman, whose overbearing actions as U.S. ambassador in Ankara from 2003 to 2005 prompted one very prominent Turkish columnist, Can Dundar (currently on trial on highly questionable espionage charges), to urge the government to declare him “persona non grata.” “If Turkey today is the leader in the race of ‘America-hating countries,’ Edelman has played a major part in it,” Dundar wrote at the time. (I’m sure Dundar deeply appreciates Edelman’s latest intervention.)

It bears recalling in that context that it was Wolfowitz’s long-time associate and Edelman’s protégé, Richard Perle (at AEI until recently), who strongly suggested in 2007 that a military intervention to prevent Erdogan’s AKP party from taking over the office of the presidency in Turkey would be preferable to the alternative. He even complained at the time that the European Union’s demand for full civilian control over the Turkish military as a condition for admission to the EU was “unhelpful,” given the “extraordinary, unique relationship between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish Republic.” Although Abramowitz accused Perle of not knowing what he was talking about at the time, a number of other neocons, notably Daniel Pipes and, a bit more ambiguously FDD’s May, made clear that the AKP’s Islamist orientation and its support for Hamas were cause for great concern. Another Perle protégé, AEI’s Rubin, has long depicted Erdogan as Public Enemy Number One, right up there with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

The Impact of Israel

Of course, relations between Erdogan and the neocons got much worse after the Turkish president angrily denounced Israeli President Shimon Peres at the January 2009 Davos World Economic Forum for Operation Cast Lead and especially after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens. Although the Wall Street Journal editorial board defended Erdogan in his 2007 confrontation with the military, the virtual break in relations that resulted from the incident produced a torrent of editorials and op-eds denouncing the Turkish leader, accusing his government, among other things, of having “an ingrained hostility toward the Jewish state…” Meanwhile, other hard-line neoconservative, such as JINSA, called for Turkey to be suspended from NATO as a first step toward its eventual expulsion.

(Both Perle and Feith acted as lobbyists for Turkey after their service in the Pentagon in the Reagan administration. In both positions, they worked actively to bolster military-to-military ties between Turkey and Israel. Both also participated in the “study group” that produced the infamous 1996 “Clean Break” paper for incoming Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. It called, among other things, for regime change in Iraq and Syria’s destabilization as part of a strategy to decisively tilt the regional balance of power in favor of an Israel-Turkey-Jordan alliance that would permit Israel to “secure the realm”.)

In light of all this history, any informed Turk could legitimately wonder whether this letter’s perfectly justifiable criticisms of Erdogan’s more recent actions is motivated by issues and interests other than concern about human rights and democracy in Turkey. When the great majority of the signers have been hostile to Erdogan and the AKP since well before his authoritarian turn and for reasons unrelated to human rights—not to mention the fact that most of them were either beating the drums for war with Iraq or were directly involved in its invasion and occupation—what credibility would it have?

And why would respected human rights activists and serious non-neocon former policy-makers associate themselves with an initiative of such dubious provenance and support? Can’t they write their own letters? The message is a good one; the messengers couldn’t be worse.

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