Capstones: Failed Coups and Failed Policies

By Alan W. Dowd, 8.8.16

The failed coup against Turkey’s popularly-elected government—and the abuses by that very government leading up to the putsch and following it—force Americans to revisit a question that has challenged our republic for more than a century: Should we stand up for democratic values or stand by allies that are less than democratic? This is one of the great tests of American statecraft. Regrettably, it’s a test the current administration has failed more than once.

Test #1
The first test for President Barack Obama came in September 2009, when Manuel Zelaya returned to Honduras to try to retake the presidency. Zelaya—who, during his time in office, had ordered the country’s radio and TV stations to carry pro-regime propaganda; attempted to circumvent the Honduran constitution’s clear and strict prohibition against presidents serving more than one term; and organized mass-protests to override the constitution—had been found guilty of violating the constitution by the country’s highest court.

As The Wall Street Journal reported at the time, “On multiple occasions he was warned to desist, and on June 28 the Supreme Court ordered his arrest. Every major Honduran institution supported the move, even members in Congress of his own political party, the Catholic Church and the country’s human rights ombudsman. To avoid violence, the Honduran military escorted Mr. Zelaya out of the country… His removal from office was legal and constitutional.”

When the opposition party won the 2009 elections, Zelaya continued to push for his reinstatement. But again, the Honduran Congress rejected Zelaya’s unconstitutional claim on the presidency.

What Washington should have done was applaud Honduran institutions for upholding the rule of law and preventing the country from sliding into Chavez-style authoritarianism. Instead, the Obama administration publicly scolded Honduras, cut off aid and demanded that Zelaya be allowed to run in elections for which he was constitutionally ineligible.

Test #2
The next test came in 2011. As the Arab Spring swept into Egypt, Vice President Joe Biden called Egypt’s longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak an “ally” and said, “I would not refer to him as a dictator.” Then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton defended Mubarak as “a partner in trying to stabilize a region that is subject to a lot of challenges” and warned that revolutions can be “hijacked by new autocrats.”

This pragmatic approach was understandable. Mubarak was a moderating influence in the Arab world. He kept peace with Israel, kept the Suez open, kept extremist elements like the Muslim Brotherhood at bay, and kept problem states like Iraq and Iran on the margins of Mideast politics. Indeed, Obama called Mubarak “very helpful on a range of tough issues” and asked Mubarak “to be careful about not resorting to violence.” But just 14 days after those remarks, Obama cut Mubarak loose. After demanding that Mubarak “put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy,” an impatient Obama called on Mubarak “to step down immediately.” 

Mubarak was arrested and tried, and Egypt began its experiment in “genuine democracy.” Unbound by the rule of law, the government of Mohamed Morsi trampled minority rights; rammed through an illiberal constitution; rigged parliamentary districts; allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to use violence against the opposition; intimidated independent media; and granted itself the power to overrule judicial decisions.

But then, Egypt’s once-fractured opposition came together, united by just one thing: They all loathed Morsi. So they rallied in the streets by the millions and demanded Morsi’s resignation. When Gen. Abdel Sisi gave Morsi an ultimatum to set a date for early elections or else, all Obama could muster was a statement that “No transition to democracy comes without difficulty.”

Sisi couldn’t have asked for a greener light. In a four-day span, his troops killed at least 900 people—so much for “not resorting to violence.”

Test #3
Obama mishandled and misread Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan from the very beginning. As The Politico details, “Soon after his 2008 election, Obama began to court Erdogan, whom he saw as a moderate Muslim democrat who could help him stabilize the Middle East…Some observers had qualms about Erdogan’s commitment to democracy and civil society. But Obama, eager to make the U.S. less responsible for the Middle East’s problems, was all in.” Obama believed Erdogan’s Turkey “would step in and take on the role of a strong power in the Middle East” and “allow the U.S. to step back,” Blaise Misztal of the Bipartisan Policy Center told Politico.

That’s a crucial point. We cannot understand Obama’s coddling of Erdogan separate from Obama’s eagerness to disengage from Iraq. For Obama, U.S. involvement in Iraq was always a mistake to be corrected, not a commitment to be sustained. Turkey, in Obama’s view, offered a pathway to the exit.

In hindsight and foresight, the idea that Erdogan could be entrusted with shouldering the role of regional stabilizer was naïve. After all, while serving as Istanbul mayor in the 1990s, Erdogan was arrested for fomenting religious hatred after reciting these words: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” It was an early indication of his bent toward Islamist governance—something America should not want promoted in the Middle East. As Tony Blair observes, while the West should “help the reform process…we have to be clear we will not support systems or governments based on sectarian religious politics.”

By 2010, Erdogan’s party was using brute political force to weaken the judiciary and shut down newspapers. As the Politico notes, Erdogan had taken “a dark turn toward authoritarianism.”

Had he not been pressing so hard for U.S. withdrawal from the region—had he not conflated liberal democracy and democracy—Obama would have realized that Erdogan was not a partner, but rather an Islamist with authoritarian tendencies.

Indeed, Freedom House reported that, since 2011, Erdogan’s Turkey had been falling in its global rankings. According to Freedom House’s 2015 report, “Turkey drifted much further from democratic norms.” Erdogan “waged an increasingly aggressive campaign against democratic pluralism…demanded that media owners censor coverage or fire critical journalists, told the Constitutional Court he does not respect its rulings…[and] formed a ‘shadow cabinet’…to run the country from the presidential palace, circumventing constitutional rules.” By early 2016, Freedom House concluded that Erdogan “exhibited increasingly authoritarian behavior.”

After the coup, the White House released a statement urging “all parties in Turkey to act within the rule of law.” In a State Department response to the coup, Secretary of State John Kerry “urged restraint by the Turkish government and respect for due process” and “the rule of law.”

Too late. Erdogan used the coup as a pretext to purge Turkey’s institutions of anyone daring to deviate from his cult of personality. He suspended 15,000 bureaucrats in Turkey’s Education Ministry and 9,000 in the Interior Ministry; seized control of 1,200 foundations, associations, trade groups and colleges; dismissed 6,000 judges, prosecutors and military officers; fired 1,577 college deans; sacked 492 staff at the country’s Islamic authority; closed 130 media outlets; and detained 47 journalists. Some 60,000 government employees have been fired, detained or suspended. Doubtless, their replacements will have to take oaths of loyalty not to Turkey’s constitution, but to Turkey’s leader.


So what can the next president learn from Obama’s mishandling of these coups?

Be consistent
In a perfect world, U.S. foreign policy would be consistently applied from one nation to the next. Of course, in a perfect world, foreign policy—the sum of the strategies and tactics devised for interacting with other nations and dealing with the problems caused by those interactions—would be unnecessary. Besides, a one-size-fits-all foreign policy is not practical for a great power like the United States.

What I mean by “consistency” is that a president should be consistent in his/her dealings with each nation. Obama’s vacillations in Egypt (and later in Syria) contributed to confusion and uncertainty, when both demanded consistency and clarity.

Obama could have been idealistic, calling for Mubarak to step down from the outset, supporting Morsi and using Washington’s aid leverage to block Sisi. Or he could have been pragmatic, standing with Mubarak, weathering the Arab Spring and choosing stability. Either path would have been defensible and perhaps effective. What proved ineffective and indefensible was Obama’s schizophrenic policy—a policy that left friend and foe uncertain about where America stood. 

Stand by your friends

Obama pulled the rug out from under Mubarak and Morsi, left Poland and the Czech Republic out on a limb by reversing NATO’s missile-defense plans, put a time limit on America’s commitment to NATO operations in Libya, and sent Paris an invoice after the French military requested support in Mali. Similarly, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared he would come to the defense of NATO members under attack—an ironclad requirement of the North Atlantic Treaty—only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.”

America’s word must mean something. When it doesn’t, the world grows less stable.

Reagan offered an example of how America can stay true to its friends and its ideals. It begins with keeping an eye on the big picture. For Reagan, the big picture was defeating Soviet communism. Thus, Reagan backed pro-democracy and anti-communist movements (the two were not always the same) in Poland, Afghanistan, Africa and Central America; supported Turkey and Spain as they transitioned to democracy; and stood by South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, even though they were less than democratic. When Corazon Aquino defeated longtime anti-communist bulwark Ferdinand Marcos at the ballot box, Reagan showed how to stand by a friend and stand up for freedom. Reagan appealed to Marcos to accept the results and refrain from using force—and then provided Marcos a dignified way out: a one-way ticket for Marcos to Hawaii.

For Obama’s successor, the big picture should be defeating jihadism. The question in Egypt in 2011 and Turkey today and perhaps Saudi Arabia tomorrow is: Which partner will help us achieve that objective?

Support liberal democracy

The common strand in Obama’s responses to these crises is how he confused democracy for liberal democracy.

Democracy—a basic form of government in which the majority rules—is preferable to autocracy. But it’s not a guarantee of good government, freedom or stability. And it can, ironically, lead to autocracy. Unchecked by the rule of law, democracy can drift into demagoguery and ultimately cult-of-personality rule. (See Venezuela, Russia and, perhaps soon, Turkey.)

Liberal democracy, on the other hand, is characterized by majority rule with minority rights, limits on government power, individual freedom and the rule of law. The rule of law means just what it says: The law is what rules—not charismatic strongmen, not referendums or mobs, not the law of brute force. The rule of law is what separates a liberal democracy from a country that simply holds and election.

Consider the Zelaya case in the context of our own constitution: Riding a wave of popularity, Reagan could have won a third term in 1988. Amid the tie election of 2000, President Bill Clinton could have extended his second term. But the rule of law—America’s constitution—did not permit those alternatives.

The same principle was at work in Honduras, regardless of Zelaya’s popularity. And the same principle should be applied in Turkey, regardless of Erdogan’s popularity.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose