By Barbara Slavin
In these nail-biting days until U.S. presidential elections next week, it is easy to fall into despair about the state of American democracy.
Following disclosure that the FBI is taking a renewed look at emails possibly connected to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s private server, polls have narrowed, suggesting a still-plausible path to victory for Republican Donald Trump.
To many Americans and people around the world, the prospect of a Trump presidency is terrifying for myriad reasons. The mere fact of his nomination as the candidate of one of the two major political parties raises questions about the future of U.S. global leadership and makes it harder for the U.S. government to criticize others who have demonstrated authoritarian tendencies and disregard for truth.
Perhaps not coincidentally, such figures appear to be on the rise during the U.S. campaign season. They are taking advantage of U.S. election uncertainty to commit new abuses without fear of retribution from Washington.
Among the most egregious examples is the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In just the last few days, his government has closed another dozen newspapers and fired another 10,000 civil servants. Since a failed coup attempt in July, more than 150 media outlets have been shut, 40,000 people have been arrested and at least 100,000 fired from the military, judiciary and other government bodies. More than 100 Turkish journalists are currently in jail, more than the total detained in Russia, China and Iran.
The latest target is Turkey’s oldest secular newspaper, Cumhuriyet (Republic). The Erdogan government on Monday arrested the paper’s editor-in-chief, its editorial cartoonist and a number of prominent columnists and reporters on grounds of supporting Kurdish militants and Fetullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish spiritual leader who has been charged with masterminding the failed coup. No evidence was provided to back up any of these new charges and it appears that Erdogan is simply continuing his campaign to try to silence all political opposition so he can change Turkey’s constitution next year and further augment his already massive presidential powers.
The Barack Obama administration responded with a tough statement read at the beginning of Monday’s State Department’s daily briefing. “The United States is deeply concerned by what appears to be an increase in official pressure on opposition media outlets in Turkey,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby. While the U.S. Government supports Turkey’s efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the coup attempt, “as Turkey’s ally and friend, we encourage the Government of Turkey to ensure that the rule of law and fundamental freedoms are protected,” Kirby said. “Suppressing speech and opinion and the press does not support the fight against terrorism and only encroaches on the fundamental freedoms that help ensure democracies remain strong.”
It is doubtful that Erdogan was listening.
Even though Turkey is a long-standing NATO ally, relations with the United States have become increasingly strained by Erdogan’s domestic crackdown and erratic regional policies. Things have only gotten worse in the past few months.
After insisting for years that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must go, Turkey intervened militarily in Syria this summer less to combat Assad or the group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS) than to attack ethnic Kurds who have taken advantage of the Syrian civil war to expand their area of control in northern Syria. This has put the Obama administration into a quandary since it is relying on the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, to help retake the ISIS-held city of Raqqa.
Erdogan has also sent troops into Iraq and is insisting they take part in the campaign to recapture Mosul despite the vocal opposition of the Iraqi government. Erdogan has been asserting Ottoman-like claims to parts of northern Iraq as a defender of Sunni Muslim and ethnic Turkic interests.
At the same time, Turkey has drawn increasingly close to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, patching up a year-long diplomatic rift.
Apologizing for Turkish forces shooting down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border last year, Erdogan hosted Putin in Ankara and renewed a plan for Russia to ship natural gas to Turkey under the Black Sea. The project, known as Turkish Stream, could allow Russia to send gas on to Europe and bypass Ukraine, whose pro-Western government is at odds with Moscow.
At an event in Washington on Tuesday on global gas markets, Amos Hochstein, the State Department’s Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs, said the Turkish Stream project, if completed, could lead to the “potential collapse of Ukraine,” which would lose $2 billion a year in gas transit revenues.
The mere prospect of such an outcome gives Putin more leverage to press Ukraine for political concessions in the country’s disputed eastern territory.
All of this is unnerving to most policymakers in Washington. If the victor in next week’s U.S. election is Trump, however, U.S. leverage around the world will almost certainly continue to decline.
Trump has expressed admiration for Putin, ignorance of Russian aggression in Ukraine and misgivings about the value and continued relevance of the NATO alliance.
Clinton is far from perfect and there are legitimate fears that if elected, she will fail to restrain her inner hawk. But she would continue the tradition of strong U.S. engagement in the world and stand up to bullies like Erdogan and Putin. She will only get that chance if she defeats another bully named Trump.