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If the Turkish Coup Had Succeeded, Would Washington Have Played Along?

The United States has a bad record on supporting democracy in Turkey — but it’s never too late to change.

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Faced with a fast-moving crisis as an attempted coup roiled Turkey over the weekend, U.S. officials were commendably firm in their rejection of the plotters’ anti-democratic methods. Asked late Friday about the coup as it was unfolding, Secretary of State John Kerry first offered vague support for “stability and peace and continuity.” But shortly afterward, with the situation — and thus the likely winners — still uncertain, President Barack Obama issued a clear call for all parties to support the “democratically elected government of Turkey.” After the coup had failed, Kerry went further on Monday, warning that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown could itself pose a threat to Turkish democracy. “NATO also has a requirement with respect to democracy,” he warned his Turkish counterpart.

Obama’s response was prompt and admirable, and Kerry’s comments on NATO were far more forceful than most observers had expected. But America’s past actions will likely speak louder than its present-day words. A look back at the United States’ relationship with Turkey over the last half-century makes it clear that democracy is most definitely not a requirement for NATO membership. Whatever Obama said Friday night, history suggests that, come Saturday morning, Washington would have found a way to work with whoever emerged the winner in Ankara. With a vengeful Erdogan now once again at the helm, a stormy period in U.S.-Turkish relations is almost certain. But history gives Turkey’s president little reason to fear that Washington will take a firm stand on democracy so long as U.S. interests in the region remain dependent on his country’s cooperation.

America’s alliance with Turkey began in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when Washington extended military and economic support to guard against the threat of Soviet invasion. Turkey was not a democracy at the time, but U.S. statesmen weren’t terribly worried so long as the Turkish president remained a “strongman of the right sort.” In a telling conversation in 1948, one U.S. official asked the head of Turkey’s National Security Service whether he thought that the country’s undemocratic behavior might endanger continued U.S. support. The Turkish official’s response, as reported back to Washington, “was to laugh and say that since aid is still coming in, the U.S. evidently is convinced that Turkey is democratic.”

Turkey held its first free elections in 1950 — and in a move that surprised U.S. officials no less than many coups, the government peacefully stepped down after losing. As a result, Turkey joined NATO in 1952 at a moment when its future as a democracy looked bright, inspiring a flurry of rhetoric about the alliance’s democratic character in Washington and Ankara alike.

But things quickly took a turn for the worse as Turkey’s new government, not unlike Erdogan’s, sought to consolidate its democratic mandate through undemocratic means. By the mid-1950s, the New York Times found itself “disturb[ed] to read about an increasing curtailment of the freedom of the Turkish press,” and U.S. diplomats concluded that the country was “far from being an operating democracy in our sense of the word.” But, even as it grew ever more authoritarian throughout the 1950s, Turkey’s government remained firmly anti-communist and pro-American — which was enough for Washington to excuse its other faults. Its eligibility to remain a member of NATO was never questioned.

Against this backdrop, the colonels who led Turkey’s first coup in 1960 were worried that they would face opposition from the United States on political, rather than principled, grounds. To try to preempt any problems, they announced, in their first statement after taking power, just how firmly committed they were to NATO. When the U.S. ambassador met with Turkey’s new military leader shortly afterward, he began by praising him for pulling off “by far [the] most precise, most efficient and most rapid coup” he had ever seen.

The leaders of Turkey’s subsequent military coups had little reason to worry they would be firmly rebuked by the United States. And, indeed, they never were. The next coup, in 1971, was both far less dramatic and couched in anti-communist terms, making Washington even less likely to object.

Turkey’s next coup after that, in 1980, also enjoyed widespread support from the Turkish population, making Washington’s tolerant response more understandable. The country had become increasingly polarized, leading to political paralysis and ongoing street battles between left- and right-wing groups. When the military stepped in to end the chaos, anxious U.S. observers — and many Turks — breathed a sigh of relief. Afterward, however, the United States continued to support the Turkish military as it tortured dissidents and waged a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against Kurdish rebels.

Ironically, considering Kerry’s insistence that NATO membership requires democracy, it was the very importance of Turkey’s continued NATO membership that required Washington to set its preference for democracy aside. As long as Ankara remained a committed NATO ally in a strategically vital part of the globe, it met the one requirement that mattered.

History is not destiny, though, and there is every reason to hope that the U.S. government will take a firmer stand in defense of Turkish democracy in the future. Kerry’s statement about democracy and NATO is certainly encouraging, if historically dubious. The Soviet Union is gone, of course, but the United States has now come to depend on Turkey, and its Incirlik Air Base, in the war against the Islamic State. This reliance made it difficult to oppose Erdogan’s undemocratic behavior before the coup and will continue to constrain Washington’s ability to criticize Ankara as long as the threat remains.

So what should Washington do if, as most observers expect, Erdogan becomes increasingly heavy-handed in cracking down on his real and imagined opponents? The first step is to recognize that any gains in the fight against the Islamic State will be short-term and tactical at best if they come at the expense of Turkey’s long-term stability. In a series of bombings over the past year, the Islamic State has done its best to destabilize Turkey, recognizing that this will vastly increase its freedom of maneuver in the region. The more aggressively Erdogan pursues his political enemies, the more fractured Turkish society will become — and the more opportunities the Islamic State will have to step in and wreak further havoc.

More practically, U.S. policymakers can increase their leverage over Ankara by looking more seriously at alternatives to the Incirlik Air Base. Tensions between the two countries are expected to mount in the coming months — most notably over Turkey’s demand that the United States extradite the Pennsylvania-based cleric it accuses of masterminding the coup. That being the case, it would be better for Washington to rethink its relationship with Ankara on its own terms — not on Turkey’s.

Turkey will, and should, remain a NATO member; the alliance has played an important role in preserving stability in the world, and it continues to do so. But this need not require, as it so often has in the past, turning a blind eye to undemocratic and destabilizing governments that go against the spirit, if not the letter, of the alliance.

In the photo, people try to take over a tank in Ankara, Turkey, during a protest against the military coup on July 16.

Photo credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Nicholas Danforth has been a Senior Analyst in the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Program since January 2016.

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