from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

The Muslim Democracy

February 27, 2014

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This article was originally published here on on February 27, 2014, and  in the March/April 2014 issue of Politico on February 28, 2014 .

In early April 2009, President Barack Obama made a high-profile visit to Turkey, where he gave an important, if often overlooked, address to the Turkish parliament. Obama moved the assembly with learned references to Turkey’s glorious Ottoman past and praise for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, since becoming prime minister in 2003, had overseen an array of constitutional reforms strengthening political parties, banning the death penalty, reinforcing personal freedoms and bringing the country’s coup-prone military to heel. Throughout his speech, Obama alluded both to Turkish democracy and the enduring alliance between Washington and Ankara—a friendship that grew so close Obama eventually named Erdogan a rare foreign leader with whom he had forged “bonds of trust.”

The Bush administration had also hailed Erdogan and his party as a pathbreaking answer to the question very much on Western minds in the post-9/11 era: Is Islam compatible with democracy? But Obama seemed to hold Erdogan in special esteem; he essentially became Washington’s Chief Turkey Desk Officer, in a bromance that has fit with the administration’s strategic plans to make Turkey the centerpiece of its Middle East diplomacy.

Erdogan didn’t make it easy for Obama; Turkey often still acted more like a frenemy than a friend. In May 2010, the country teamed up with Brazil to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran—but without approval from Washington, which scuttled the whole agreement. Weeks later, Turkey voted against a new round of United Nations sanctions against Iran.

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