Istanbul. Photo by Anthony G. Reyes.
Running American foreign policy is always an exercise in triage, so it is not surprising that the deteriorating situation in Turkey – a strategically vital NATO member – has gotten relatively little press in this country.
Our attention has been focused on more pressing global matters, such as the situations in North Korea, Iran specifically and the Middle East generally, as well as the state of international trade. NATO countries are supposed to be places we really don’t need to worry about very much.
So let me call your attention to the official advice of the U.S. State Department to “reconsider” travel anywhere in Turkey, and to just plain stay out of the most violent districts in the eastern part of the country. And now let me amplify this with the advice I would give anyone I know personally: Find someplace else to vacation or do business, until further notice.
The State Department advisory highlights the twin risks of terrorism, which can affect anyone, and of arbitrary detention and trumped-up criminal charges against Westerners, which has primarily been directed at dual citizens or others with Turkish backgrounds whom the increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his regime perceive as enemies. As the advisory states, “security forces have detained tens of thousands of individuals, including U.S. citizens, suspected of affiliation with alleged terrorist organizations based on scant or secret evidence and grounds that appear to be politically motivated.”
To be blunt, Turkey now has more in common with the governments of Russia and Iran – the key adversaries against which NATO should be focused – than with the liberal, secular democracies of the West. And in lockstep with the devolution of Turkish freedom, the country’s tourism has increasingly catered to travelers from those two neighboring not-very-free countries, as well as some others in the region.
While official figures show the country’s tourism rebounding sharply from a trough two years ago in the aftermath of a failed coup against Erdogan, the government’s official count may not be particularly credible; this is not a regime that currently brooks bad news. The government has imprisoned many local journalists and blocked sites run by expatriate reporters and editors inside the country. Even assuming that the actual visitor count is indeed rising, tourist spending is not likely to keep pace. Russians, Iranians, Bulgarians and Georgians do not have the disposable income of American, Canadian and British travelers. While Germany remains a key source of Western visitors to Turkey despite a marked decline in its tourist numbers, that country is home to a long-established Turkish diaspora. Those Germans who continue visiting are apt to be more interested in seeing family than spending money on tickets to historic sites or stays at beachfront hotels.
It is strange, and more than a little disturbing, to have to warn people away from visiting an allied country in peacetime. Turkey is critical to NATO because it controls access to the Mediterranean, and thus the world’s oceans, from southern Russia and from Crimea, the region which Russia forcibly annexed four years ago. Turkey also borders Iran, providing a crucial outlet for Iran’s oil when it is not under sanctions, as well as important levers for imposing those sanctions when they exist. Turkish officials have already said, however, that they will disregard U.S. sanctions scheduled to be reimposed in November to avoid harming a “brother country.”
It is increasingly difficult to assume that Turkey would even honor the invocation of NATO’s Article 5, which treats an attack against one member nation as an attack against all, if honoring that invocation meant aligning itself against Russia or Iran. A non-NATO country behaving as Turkey currently does might even find itself a target for sanctions. We shouldn’t rule out measures against members of the Erdogan regime, as a matter of fact, particularly if American detentions continue.
It looks more and more as though some of those detentions are actually aimed at getting Washington to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a cleric residing in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan accuses of fomenting the 2016 coup, despite what our government considers a lack of evidence. Arguably the highest-profile American hostage is Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina native who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades. Turkish authorities arrested him in October 2016, claiming he was a spy. Despite expectations for a mid-July release, Brunson remains under house arrests and faces life in prison.
In addition to Brunson, NASA scientist Serkan Golge was convicted of terrorism charges that the U.S. says lacked credible evidence. Golge, a dual U.S.-Turkish citizen, was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison. Ismail Kul, a Turkish-American chemistry professor, was arrested after the attempted coup while visiting Turkey on vacation; he was released in January, but still cannot leave the country. Taking hostages for foreign policy advantages is a time-tested Iranian tactic that seems to have crossed the border, along with oil and tourists.
Much as I would like to visit Turkey’s historic sites and scenic wonders, I will not travel there anytime soon, and I will urge friends and family members against it too. There are better places to spend a holiday or make a sale right now.