Visiting heads of state frequently make time in their Washington itineraries to deliver speeches on key issues. But as the Brookings Institution hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, events outside the venue took an ugly turn.
Cell phone cameras caught Erdogan's security detail manhandling reporters and protestors, with local police reportedly trying to intervene. The events were reminiscent of the kind of heavy-handed intolerance that is also increasingly being shown back home for journalists, critics and regular citizens. Indeed, Erdogan's tactics are turning Turkey into a pressure cooker, paving a dangerous path of unchecked personal power that is undermining the country's institutions and further polarizing society.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Back in the early 2000s, Turkey was seen as a model Muslim-majority country with a constitutional democracy, reforming itself for prospective membership in the European Union.
In 2009, President Barack Obama, addressing the Turkish Parliament, praised the country's democratic reforms, opposition to extremism and embrace of core freedoms, including those of its Kurdish citizens. He also touted the U.S.-Turkish relationship and endorsed Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union.
But, after his party won its third term in 2011, Erdogan appeared to make a U-turn, shutting down or taking over much of the independent media, purging the government bureaucracy of those deemed not loyal and placing the judiciary under political control.
After the state's brutal crackdown on Gezi Park protesters in 2013, holding public protests became a life-risking activity. Dozens of journalists have been jailed and hundreds fired -- including editors of major opposition papers and magazines -- while the outlets themselves have been placed under the control of pro-Erdogan trustees.
Meanwhile, the government's negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers' Party ended abruptly after the pro-Kurdish rights party HDP opposed Erdogan's bid for a more powerful "executive presidency." Now, state security forces are waging urban operations to clear weapons and ammunition that were hidden by the PKK during its negotiations with the government. Kurdish civilians, meanwhile, are suffering as their towns remain under curfew and as police and military use heavy weaponry to combat the PKK.
Sadly, nearly every Turkish government policy that was praised by Obama in 2009 has been reversed, destroying Turkey's once-positive reputation.
Western policymakers need only read recent reports by Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, to understand the myriad ways in which Erdogan is moving Turkey closer to one-man rule.
Citing the "intense harassment of opposition members and media outlets by the government and its supporters," Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2016 report gives Turkey a "downward arrow." Similarly, Human Rights Watch's World Report 2015 warns, "Over the past year, the government has taken unprecedented steps to exert executive control over Turkey's judiciary, to muzzle social media, increase media and Internet censorship, and prosecute journalists."
Erdogan's move toward autocracy accelerated after a corruption probe of members of Erdogan's Cabinet by Turkish law enforcement agencies surfaced in December 2013.
Instead of letting the judicial process take its course, Erdogan sought to muzzle the media and judiciary by claiming that an international conspiracy, backed by domestic collaborators, sought to overthrow his administration.
His leading scapegoat is the Hizmet movement, a global initiative founded in Turkey and inspired by the scholar and religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who espouses what The New York Times has described as "a moderate, pro-Western brand of Sunni Islam that appeals to many well-educated and professional Turks." In fact, NGOs founded by the Hizmet movement, including hundreds of secular co-ed schools, free tutoring centers, hospitals and relief agencies, have addressed Turkey's social problems.
Not satisfied with winning the presidency in 2014, Erdogan sought to change the constitution to create an all-powerful, executive-style presidency. As Erdogan continued to suppress free expression, Human Rights Watch reported, "Turkish authorities were responsible for almost three-quarters of requests to Twitter worldwide for removal of tweets and locking of accounts."
Controlled by Erdogan's party, parliament passed legislation in March 2015 allowing the government to impose arbitrary bans on public assemblies and to use violence to disperse peaceful demonstrations.
Meanwhile, the newly politicized courts have ordered the takeover of media outlets, including Turkey's biggest-selling newspaper, Zaman, turning it into a pro-Erdogan mouthpiece. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Turkey 149 out of 180 countries on its 2015 World Press Freedom Index, calling it "the biggest prison for journalists in the world."
I was a middle school student in the 1970s during another period of instability, when armed groups thrived and thousands of young people were killed. I'm even more worried for Turkey now. President Erdogan not only exacerbated the existing social fault lines within the society, but also added one of his own: Pro-Erdogan vs. against. The result is a recipe for instability.
Bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran, an unstable Turkey would be a security nightmare, not the ally the United States and the world need in the fight against violent extremism. It's time to tell Erdogan to turn back from his authoritarian drift before it's too late.
Published on CNN, 7 April 2016, Thursday