Turkey's President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, fresh off putting down an inept military coup, looks set to accelerate his already speedy run toward autocratic control. Given Turkey's strategic geopolitical position, there's nothing the Obama Administration, entangled as it is with Turkey as an ally, will do about it.
And Erdogan knows that.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not generally in favor of military putsches. But turning back one set of anti-democratic bullies doesn't set Turkey on a path to expanded democracy. On the contrary, seeing as how Erdogan is seizing the opportunity throw a prosecutorial net over wide swathes of his opponents-something he was good at long before the coup-it looks like Turkey is soon to be run by a strongman of the non-military type. He is currently purging the education community of thousands of employees, all supposedly coup backers. You know, those math teachers who manned tanks during the coup attempt.
Maybe Erdogan is simply reaching for added presidential power. Or maybe he needs to clear the decks of opponents in order to resolve Turkey's long-running ethnic conflict with Kurdish citizens by re-imposing the old Ottoman Empire-style appeal to the country's common Islamic identity. IN short, a new sultan will reign in Istanbul.
No matter. The Obama Administration would prefer a less authoritarian atmosphere in Turkey, but is in a bind. Military bases that date from the Cold War persist in Turkey, a NATO ally. The US uses one in particular, at Incirlik, to launch its air attacks on the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. Is Obama likely to put this at risk by insisting Erdogan stop his drive to marginalize the opposition? Unlikely. He will give Erdogan a pass.
Obama faces the same conundrum with Egypt's President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, a onetime general who rose to power through a successful coup against an elected, if unpopular Islamist government, three years ago.
Unlike Erdogan, Sisi upended the drive toward Islamic political control. Like Erdogan, Sisi has Obama over a barrel. The White House is unlikely to come down hard on the Sisi regime out and risk free maritime passage through the Suez Canal for warships, the use of Egypt air space for military over-flights, not to mention Egypt's peace with Israel out of concern for a few thousand political prisoners, hundreds of Egyptians who have disappeared without a trace, continuous use of torture and persecution of journalists.
Back in 2013, the Obama Administration groused briefly about the Sisi coup but soon thereafter, Secretary of State John Kerry praised Egypt for being on the "road to democracy." Rocky road.
And then there's Qatar, well known for financing the Islamic State in Syria, arch-enemy of the US. No Obama complaints there-after all, the US has a major naval base in Qatar.
Similar inhibitions inhabit policies toward governments which Obama extolled as presentable no matter their evident faults and on board with US interests.
Take Iraq, for instance. Obama has repeatedly said, against all evidence, that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is reaching out to the restive minority Sunni Muslim population in order to draw it away from supporting the Islamic State. That has not happened. Moreover, Iranian-trained Shiite militias that have been involved in a government counteroffensive against ISIS and the rebels have terrorized Sunni civilians in towns that have been reconquered. Obama has been all but silent on militia atrocities.
Much the same goes for Iran. It is perhaps a tribute to Iran's negotiating skills and indicative of its long-term strategy that the nuclear proliferation deal freed up the Islamic Republic to carry on, and even intensify, its military interventions in the Middle East. Tehran no longer needs to worry about any kind of (Israeli?) attack on its suspected atomic weapons program at home. Iran's support of its cruel client militias and atrocious pro-government forces in Syria are especially destructive and has gone full speed ahead since the nuclear agreement. Obama has criticized Russian intervention in Syria, but not Iran's.
And Cuba? The Administration is more eager to present the reopening of relations with the island as a major diplomatic achievement than to complain about continued repression.
Getting back to Erdogan. He also has Europe under his diplomatic thumb because he can turn off and on the flow of refugees who want to get into Europe. European leaders have clucked-cluck at human rights abuses in Turkey but are not going to do anything about them. Erdogan has already shaken down the European Union for 3 billion euros and a pledge of visa free travel in the EU in return for keeping the refugees away.
Perhaps Erdogan simply reads geopolitical reality well. The US and Europe seem to be returning to practices reminiscent of the Cold War, when they routinely overlooked the foibles of allied governments, however heinous, just because they were allies. In Erdogan's case, as well a Iraq's, are they really very good allies? Has everyone forgotten that Turkey facilitated the passage of Islamic State volunteers through its borders into Syria? And that Iraq is more beholden to Iran as to Washington?
Obama will leave office with such contradictions firmly in place. His successor will have to decide whether the price of maintaining unreliable allies is worth paying.