With flair but scant success, Turkey aims to repair image
Posted March 10
ANKARA, Turkey — On a mission to rehabilitate its image, Turkey is instead inching closer to being an outcast among Western nations that seem to understand their NATO ally less and less each day.
Eight months after a failed coup shattered its delicate status quo, Turkey is mounting a concerted but thus far futile campaign to convince the outside world that the horrors of that day justify both its post-coup crackdown and a referendum on strengthening presidential powers. So too has Turkey been unable to convince the U.S. that the shadowy, exiled cleric it blames for the coup attempt is culpable and must be extradited.
Squeezed between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has sought to project an image of a modern democracy that serves as a bulwark against the extremism menacing so many of its Mideast neighbors. Yet a series of self-defeating steps are telling reminders of how wide a gulf still separates Turkey from the Western world.
"I'm not saying that we're perfect. We're not. I'm not saying that mistakes aren't being made," said Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek. But he said the outside world must "at least try to understand the traumatic experience that Turkey has been going through."
This week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to stoke tensions further when he accused Germany of "Nazi practices" after Turkish leaders had been prevented from rallying expats in several Germany cities in support of the referendum. Many in Europe worry that Erdogan is capitalizing on post-coup fears to push through a more authoritarian system with few checks on his power.
For the West, there are real risks if Turkey feels estranged and mistreated. The country is pivotal to resolving the unrelenting civil war in neighboring Syria, where Turkey and the U.S. are at a logjam over Turkey's distrust of the Syrian Kurdish fighters the U.S. is relying on to fight the Islamic State group. And though Turkey's bid to join the European Union has lost momentum, Turkey holds major leverage by way of its deal with the EU to stem the flow of refugees into Europe, which Turkey has threatened to scuttle.
Turkey's inability to make its case to the West effectively was displayed this week in the capital, Ankara, whose mayor invited a group of American journalists to interview Erdogan and other top officials, including Turkey's foreign minister, intelligence chief and military commander.
After flying to Turkey, the journalists discovered there were no interviews arranged with those officials. Instead, they spoke with other officials, including the mayor, Melih Gokcek, a member of Erdogan's party. He screened graphic videos aiming to reinforce how traumatic the coup attempt had been. Then he offered unfounded conspiracy theories that the U.S. created the Islamic State group and that the U.S. and Israel colluded to artificially trigger an earthquake in Turkey so they could capture energy from the fault line.
Underlying Turkey's strategy to explain itself to the West is an apparent belief that its case is most convincing when couched in bedrock Western principles, regardless of whether the appeals to those principles seem credible.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, who also met with the visiting group, claimed no journalists in Turkey are in prison for doing journalism, even though scores have been arrested. Since the failed coup, at least 100 news outlets have been forcibly closed in a clampdown Human Rights Watch says has "all but silenced independent media." Yet Bozdag insisted any journalists in prison were there for drugs, trespassing or for "propagandizing for terrorist organizations."
Turkish leaders have expressed exasperation that they are lambasted for the steps they took after the coup while France gets a "pass" for the state of emergency imposed after the 2015 Paris attacks. But France — unlike Turkey — didn't arrest 41,000 people and purge 100,000 from its civil service.
Likewise, Turkey has sought to appeal to Americans' own experiences with terrorism by repeatedly comparing 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden to Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric Turkey says plotted the coup. Gulen, living in exile in Pennsylvania, denies involvement.
Although Turkey says it has provided roughly a half million pieces of evidence to support its extradition request, the U.S. remains unconvinced. What little evidence Turkey has made public has been mostly anecdotes about arrested military members confessing loyalty to Gulen's movement.
Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkey's parliament, said there are frequent and ineffective efforts taking place in Western cities and in Turkey to burnish Turkey's image, often comprising poorly planned presentations alleging Gulen's guilt. But Erdermir said the West isn't the only intended audience.
Because Erdogan's Justice and Development Party once had close ties to Gulen's group, the party's leaders are vulnerable to being implicated if the post-coup crackdown moves higher up the power structure, Erdemir said.
"A lot of people are trying to prove to Erdogan they are holier than thou, that they are fighting the anti-Gulen crusade at least as enthusiastically," said Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "One of the best defenses is doing such stunts. It really is a paranoid moment in Turkish political history."
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