During US President Joe Biden's speech at the Munich Security Conference there was an emphasis on "democracy" as an important value for the US. Democracy is essential for dealing with today's challenges, the American leader said. This is part of the "America is back" approach that the Biden administration has preached. However, in Turkey a mass roundup of opposition politicians, jailing of journalists and incendiary rhetoric by the authoritarian ruling party has been met by silence from the US.
The contrast is strong between US rhetoric and how the US pushes democracy in some countries but not others. Since the Biden administration came to office there has been a major change in tone from the White House and US foreign policy teams. Instead of embracing the transactional policies of the Trump administration, which tended to result in fueling authoritarianism around the world, the new US administration has sent signals to Cairo, Riyadh and some other countries that America is "back" in speaking up for democracy.
So far the US administration has paid lip service to this cause in some places, such as Myanmar and Russia. However across the board it is not clear how this policy will play out. When it comes to Iran and Turkey it appears the US is still silent on issues relating to democracy and human rights. Biden said at the important Munich event that
Historians are going to examine and write about this moment as an inflection point, as I said. And I believe that — every ounce of my being — that democracy will and must prevail. We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission.
Democracy does not happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it. We have to prove that our model isn't a relic of our history; it's the single best way to revitalize America's network of alliances and partnerships.
However, in Hakkari province a mayor from an opposition party who had been arrested by Turkey's authoritarian government appeared in court with a black eye. According to Ahval media, the woman, Dilek Hatipoglu, said she had been beaten and subjected to strip searches by Turkish authorities. Turkey's ruling AK Party and its extremist leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has consolidated power in recent years, banning almost all independent and critical media, making the country the largest jailer of journalists in the world. It has dismissed 60 of the 65 mayors from the opposition HDP party. Turkey recently launched a botched military raid into Iraq and then arrested HDP and other critics at home to distract from its failure. Turkish media regularly calls everyone arrested in Turkey "terrorists" even though there is no evidence of any recent terror against Turkey.
However, despite the Ankara regime's constant attacks on media and opposition politicians, and incitement against students at Bogazici University, there has been no criticism from Washington. The silence greeting Turkey's attacks on the media, opposition politicians and students, is part of a pattern of US support for Turkey's authoritarian ruling party. US ambassadors and diplomats refer to Turkey as a "NATO ally" as if being a member of NATO means impunity to arrest, imprison and attack protesters.
In Turkey, US diplomats never tweet about detentions.
The disparate messages for Turkey can be seen in how US diplomatic posts tweet messages relating to freedom and democracy and rights of the press. For instance in Cairo the US embassy tweeted about the release of an Egyptian journalist who was detained for years. The US Consulate in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, tweeted about following closely the detention of journalists and activists. For some reason a few hundred kilometers north, in Turkey, US consulates and diplomats never tweet about the detention of activists, journalists, students, and people imprisoned for tweets or beaten and assaulted for any critique of the ruling party. In Haiti on February 19 the US "affirmed" its support for an independent judiciary. In Turkey, no such support for an independent judiciary. The US Embassy in Kiev tweeted about social justice on February 20. In Ankara, no tweets for social justice. In Myanmar the US is disturbed about the detention of politician Aung San Suu Kyi. In Turkey there seems to never be concern over opposition politicians being jailed.
The mixed messages from Washington appear to convey that some US partners and allies are welcome to be authoritarians and arrest media, and beat and abuse opposition politicians and incite against gay rights and against student protesters. It's unclear how Washington comes up with this policy, whether Ankara appears to be one of the few regimes in the world that is never subjected to criticism. It may be that US diplomats posted to Ankara simply are part of a long tradition of US support for authoritarianism in Turkey. Some US state department officials have appeared in the past to put Turkey's interests first before the US. It's also unclear in the Middle East how the US chooses which authoritarian regimes it embraces and which it tends to keep at arm's length. For instance the Biden administration has appeared to want to reconsider the past close relations with Riyadh and is deeply concerned about the Yemen war. When it comes to Turkey's occupation and ethnic cleansing of northern Syria the same US policy seems less critical.
Mixed messaging on democracy has tended to erode support for the US in the region.
It's difficult for the US to embrace democracy in one place and not another, or to tell the Munich conference that it believes democratic partners and allies are important, while also appearing to give a blank check to some authoritarian allies to do as they please. This mixed messaging has tended to erode support for the US in the region and made many wonder if Washington is consistent, reliable or will change its tune when a new administration arrives.
Many governments in the region tend to see US support for "democracy" as primarily virtue signaling. For instance, they know the US doesn't support democratic reform in Qatar, Jordan or some places. The US talks about freedom of the press in areas that are already more democratic, such as Israel or the Kurdistan region, but attacks on the press in Baghdad or Beirut, seem to get a pass. In some areas the US is willing to appear sympathetic to opposition parties, in others it doesn't want to appear to be meddling in the sovereignty of countries. It sometimes appears as if the countries and areas that are the most pro-Washington tend to come in for the most critique from the US, whereas the areas that are the most hostile receive the most outreach and engagement. Whether the US administration will follow through with its new messaging on democracy will be judged by the consistency with which the US embraces the right of people to be critical of various regimes in the region, or whether this messaging means most authoritarians will get a pass.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.