On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s planned speech at the Brookings Institution was the scene of loud protests and scuffles between demonstrators and Turkish Security. Inside the event, Turkish Security attempted to remove several journalists they considered unfriendly. Erdogan was in DC to attend the Nuclear Security Summit.
Brookings’ staff were forced to intervene. Strobe Talbott, Brookings President, even threatened to cancel the event if Turkish Security didn’t back off. This included ceasing their attempts to forcibly remove the journalists they didn’t like. Had the event been cancelled, it would have been embarrassing for both Brookings and Erdogan, who was there to give a speech on the future of Turkey. Even though the Turkish security backed off, tensions remained high, especially outside the event.
The kerfuffle comes on the heels of Erdogan’s recent attempts to muzzle the press in Turkey. In early March, Zaman, the largest Turkish daily, also close to a US-based foe of Erdogan, was handed over to state control by a judge. Several journalists, over the past few years, have been jailed on what some would call trumped up terrorism-related charges.
Thomas Burr, President of the National Press Club, condemned actions by Erdogan’s security personnel. “Turkey’s leader and his security team are guests in the United States. They have no right to put their hands on reporters or protesters or anyone else for that matter…,” Burr said in a statement released by the National Press Club on Thursday.
Erdogan is under increasing pressure domestically and internationally. He faces several crises ranging from the civil war in Syria to the renewed PKK-related violence. In an effort to gain a stranglehold on the problems, he’s cracked down on basic freedoms–speech, assembly, press.
While the public–and international audiences–can understand the desire to limit basic freedoms in a crisis, Erdogan has gone too far. Bringing the crackdown within a few blocks of the White House, the Turkish President hasn’t done himself any favors. If his goal in giving a speech at Brookings was to project a positive future for Turkey (and to show that he isn’t a tyrant), he’s failed…miserably. Instead he’s brought his tyranny to the doorstep of American freedom–a place where he needs friends, especially if he’s ever going to conquer the crises he’s facing.
How he rebounds from this misstep is beyond me. It’s highly likely he’ll double down, regardless of the bad PR. Maybe he’s hoping we’ll all forget. We might, but what it really says is that he’s afraid of losing control in a chaotic situation. He has a right to be, but responding they way he has been is counter-productive. Or maybe he thinks that we need him more than he needs us. Regardless, if he wants the world to help alleviate his problems, he’ll have to stop cracking down on basic freedoms.