It’s time for the Congressional Turkey Caucus to get wise and stop being used

It’s time for the Congressional Turkey Caucus to get wise and stop being used
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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is making his first visit to New York since winning sweeping powers in an election which independent monitors deemed neither free nor fair. While he will not meet with President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants MORE on his visit, he will make the rounds of New York think tanks and financial firms to try to reassure analysts and investors that Turkey remains committed to rule-of-law and is open for business.

Increasingly, that’s a hard sell: Erdoğan’s hostage diplomacy has plunged U.S.-Turkey ties to their lowest point in more than 50 years.

During his visit last May, Erdoğan’s body guards confused Washington for Ankara and began beating peaceful demonstrators in the street. His visit last September was also marked by violence. Since the abortive 2016 coup which Erdoğan called a “gift from God,” the Turkish government has imprisoned more than 60,000 citizens for alleged complicity. (Full disclosure: they have issued an arrest warrant for me as well, equating my history of criticism of Erdoğan with involvement in the coup.)


Even before the coup plot, however, Erdoğan’s repression was severe. In 2012, Reporters Without Border labeled Turkey the “world’s biggest prison for journalists.” And, according to Turkey’s own interior ministry, the murder rate of women inside Turkey increased 1,400 percent between 2002 and 2009.

It is ironic, then, that Erdoğan believes the U.S. Congress has his back.

The problem is the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans or, as it is often called, the Congressional Turkey Caucus. The Turkish government uses the caucus’s 136 members as an endorsement of Erdoğan and his program. Namik Tan, for example, while Turkey’s ambassador to the United States tweeted about caucus membership number relative to other national and ethnic caucuses to dismiss growing concerns about the state of relations.

In truth, most senators and representatives think little about such caucuses. When asked to join, it is easier to say yes than no. Often, such membership brings little commitment but can bolster the image of national security expertise and open the door to international travel on bipartisan delegations during recesses. Who would turn down boat trips on the Bosporus or a stroll through the Grand Bazaar?

When it comes to caucus membership, it is easy to dismiss concerns about any leader’s behavior by embracing the idea that caucuses transcend governments but instead endorse the idea of strong relationships between countries. Still, few if any congressmen would sign up either for a Hamas or Iran caucus, although Turkey embraces the former and increasingly mirrors the same hostage-taking and terrorism support as the latter.

If the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus wish to embrace a return to the bilateral partnership that Washington-Ankara ties once represented without allowing their good names to be used to imply endorsement of an unprecedented purge and a media atmosphere more restrictive than Russia’s, perhaps it is time, then, to found on Capitol Hill a “Turkey democracy caucus.”

Such a body would deny Erdoğan the power to claim endorsement where none exists. Its very existence would emphasize that Erdoğan and Turkey are not synonymous. After all, Erdoğan barely surpassed 50 percent in the most recent elections. Turks say that absent fraud, his real total was closer to 46 percent. A “Turkey democracy caucus” would underscore the notion that bilateral ties must also be based on the idea that only a democratic Turkey that respects minority and women’s rights, embraces open debate and a free media, and upholds liberal values at home and abroad can provide the quality of ties congressmen seek to endorse with their membership. Rather than antagonize Turks, such a move would embolden the almost half who continue to support opposition parties at considerable risk to the property, freedom, and even life.

Turkey has changed, but the institutions which for decades have encouraged U.S.-Turkey relations have not. It is time for congressmen who have passively allowed their good names to endorse an increasingly odious regime to recognize that, in Turkey, democracy still matters.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, he teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion and history for U.S. and NATO military units. He has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University.