The Turks thought the president would be their friend. Instead, ties with Washington have only gotten worse.
What can be said about the bird called turkey is also true of the country with the same name. Through a toxic brew of conspiracy mongering, thuggery and rage—at Kurds, the European Union, the United States and others—Turkish political leaders have seemingly fried the brains of pro-government journalists, editors, academics, diplomats and average Turks, and crippled their capacity to reason. Since the failed coup d’etat attempt in Turkey last year, many of these people, whether out of true belief or in the service of self-preservation, have ceaselessly repeated the conspiracies propagated by the Turkish government, sowing an atmosphere of fear and paranoia in Turkey. At the center of this is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who—unlike Uncle Earl on the back porch hoping to avoid cataclysmic poultry ignition—seems to benefit from a country on the verge of explosion.
The United States figures prominently in Turkey’s panicked discourse. The Turks had high hopes for Donald Trump’s presidency, given his hostility to an American “establishment” that Ankara regards as irredeemably hostile to Turkey, and his almost automatic rejection of the policies of his predecessor. There was also hope among Turkish officials that Trump would be more sympathetic to their vilification of the cleric Fethullah Gulen—Turkey’s public enemy No. 1—who lives in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania and whom the Turks badly want to be extradited; Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn was cozy with the Turks and even allegedly discussed a plan last December to help them remove Gulen (though his lawyer denies this). But this optimism seems to have been misplaced: The Trump White House has not deviated from its predecessor’s refusal to send Gulen back to Turkey without adhering to a formal extradition process, or other Obama-era policies toward Turkey. In fact, since Trump took office, conspiracy theories involving prominent Americans are only intensifying in Turkey, making an already explosive situation there—and U.S.-Turkey relations generally—all the more combustible.
Erdogan has pursued a policy of polarization for the past decade, delegitimizing his critics, jailing journalists, packing the courts with supporters and reversing his promise to peacefully resolve the “Kurdish question,” concerning the rights, cultural claims and political status of 20 percent of the population that is not ethnically Turkish. But only recently has the combination of Erdogan’s populism and personal political needs produced an all-out reign of terror. Since the failed coup in July 2016, more than 200,000 people have been jailed, detained or fired from their jobs. This purge, the roots of which can be traced back to early 2014, ostensibly targets followers of Gulen, whom the Turkish government alleges to be behind the coup. But just about anyone risks being tarnished by Erdogan’s government for allegedly being a “Gulenist,” which can be defined as anything from having written a single column in a Gulen-affiliated newspaper to being an active supporter, financially or otherwise, of the Gulen movement, which runs private schools and business and media networks that propagate Gulen’s spiritual message.
Turks have suffered the most, but the melting of the Turkish mind has also touched Americans. Not long after the attempted coup, the pro-Erdogan press accused General Joseph Votel—the commander of J.S. Central Command—and other U.S. officials of being part of the plot. According to the Turkish news media, central to the conspiracy was professor Henri J. Barkey of Lehigh University, a veteran of the Clinton administration’s State Department policy planning staff. A variety of Turkey’s leading Islamist, anti-Semitic and nationalist newspapers have charged in one sensational, fact-challenged article after another that Barkey orchestrated the coup from Buyukada—an island in the Sea of Marmara. In the reality-based community, Barkey was on the island at the time of the attempted coup to convene an academic conference about the Middle East and Iran one year after the Iran nuclear deal. The only thing he was capable of orchestrating that night, he has told me, was a good bottle of wine and an interesting discussion about Turkish politics. Evidence and reason do not matter in Erdogan’s addled Turkey, however. The Turkish press reported two weeks ago that prosecutors had issued a warrant for Barkey’s arrest, though as long as he remains in the United States, he is not in jeopardy.
Then there is the case involving Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Richard Berman, a federal district court judge—all of whom Turkish authorities have claimed, implausibly, to be supporters of Gulen.
Bharara is responsible for bringing federal charges against an Iranian-Turkish businessman named Reza Zarrab for allegedly evading sanctions against Iran. Given Zarrab’s connections to senior members of the government in Turkey, this, in and of itself, is the reason to arouse official Turkish ire toward Bharara. But the fact that Bharara also previously worked for Schumer, as his chief counsel, is, for Erdogan’s ludicrous mouthpieces like Sabah and its English version, Daily Sabah, irrefutable evidence of a tainted, Gulen-inspired prosecution. Schumer, who broke bread with Erdogan at a private dinner that the late founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertugun, hosted in the mid-2000s, gave a speech before the Gulen-affiliated Turkic American Alliance in March 2016, and Turkish media reports claim, without evidence, that he has received some donations from Gulenists (as many Turks believe about members of Congress generally). Meanwhile, the Turkish press claims that Berman, who is presiding over the Zarrab case, criticized the Turkish government’s attacks on judicial independence during a visit to the country a few years ago at the invitation of an allegedly Gulen-linked law firm.
Neither Schumer nor Berman has denied these claims, yet it is very possible that neither was aware that they were dealing with Gulenists, who tend to use innocuous sounding names for their organizations, like the Turkic American Alliance. I have little doubt that Gulen’s followers were trying to influence Schumer, Bharara and Berman, but neither is there evidence that they were successful. After all, it would hardly be necessary for a Gulenist to whisper in Berman’s ear that Erdogan was engaged in an assault on Turkey’s judiciary; it is plain to anyone with even a passing interest in Turkey, and it is hardly out of the norm for a judge to comment on the issue. Likewise, it is absurd to believe that Bharara pursued charges against Zarrab because he was under a Gulenist spell; Zarrab, Bharara argued, was breaking the law with the help of Turkish officials.This does not matter for Turkish officialdom, which has created an environment where its supporters see Gulenist conspiracies everywhere. As Zarrab’s trial approaches—it is scheduled to begin on November 27—Turkey’s foreign minister last week declared, apparently in an effort to insulate Erdogan and the Turkish government from any fallout from the trial, that Gulen’s network had infiltrated the American political system. In response, Bharara called Turkey’s chief diplomat a liar.
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