- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had a pretty good year — consolidating his executive powers, purging Turkey of pesky encumbrances like a free press and hundreds of thousands of civil servants, and getting through a press briefing with President Donald Trump unscathed.
But on the PR front he’s hurting — and a violent brawl started by his supporters and guards during his visit to Washington probably didn’t help.
A short time after Trump lavished praise on Erdogan at the White House Tuesday, Erdogan’s presidential guard and other supporters tore into a crowd of protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence. Nine people were injured as Washington police officers fought the security services and pro-Erdogan thugs off.
They put Erdogan’s authoritarian bent on full display:
— Amerika'nın Sesi (@VOATurkish) May 17, 2017
In the video, captured by Voice of America Turkish, what appears to be several official members of the President’s security detail kick protesters in the face repeatedly after they’ve already been beaten to the ground.
“I think it serves as a sign of Turkey’s dangerous, and increasingly violent, political polarization,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a new book on Erdogan.
Erdogan drew international condemnation for his authoritarian crackdowns after a botched coup attempt in Turkey last July. Since then, he’s grabbed more power, sacked hundreds of thousands of civil servants, police officers, and soldiers, and jailed scores of journalists. That has aggravated tensions with Europe in recent months and alienated a powerful bloc of NATO allies.
But Europe needs Erdogan’s cooperation to address its refugee crisis, and Trump appears more than willing to overlook his authoritarian tendencies as long as Ankara remains a viable partner in the fight against the Islamic State.
The brawl had diplomatic blowback however, eventually. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert condemned the incident on Wednesday in a statement. “We are communicating our concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms,” she said.
At least two top GOP lawmakers, Sens. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and Ben Sasse (R.-Neb.) piled on as well:
This is the United States of America. We do not do this here. There is no excuse for this kind of thuggish behavior. https://t.co/WsIln8gOX5
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) May 17, 2017
President Erdogan, you would do well to remember that this country is built on free speech, free religion, free press, & freedom to protest.
— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) May 17, 2017
D.C. cops were livid, too. In a statement released Wednesday, the D.C. Police Department condemned the street brawl, saying it “stand[s] in contrast to the First Amendment rights and principles we work tirelessly to protect each and every day.”
Police say they arrested two people after the altercation. They said they would work with the State Department and Secret Service “to identify and hold all subjects accountable for their involvement.” Many witnesses praised how DC police handled the situation.
The Turkish Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment.
Despite all the outrage, it’s hardly the first time Erdogan’s delegation got violent in Washington. Last April, the Brookings Institution, one of the world’s most renowned think tanks, threatened to cancel a speech by Erdogan after his security personnel tried to forcibly boot Turkish and Western journalists from the premises.
The incident “undoubtedly casts a shadow over Erdogan’s visit,” said Amanda Sloat, a former senior State Department official who handled U.S.-Turkey relations.
“While the press conference [with Trump] featured warm words that sought to cover up significant policy differences, the image of Turkish security personnel kicking protesters will be the lasting image of this trip,” she said.
Photo credit: Voice of America Turkey