At first glance, the U.S. response to the attempted coup in Turkey against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — after a brief period of hesitation — was correct: Washington should endorse no military coup against an elected president anywhere in the world. This has been the official U.S. policy for a number of years with perhaps the controversial exceptions of Venezuela (2002) and Egypt (2013).
However, the Turkish coup and its aftermath raise greater questions about how the Obama administration should deal with a populist president who has already shown a penchant for authoritarianism. In the months, if not the years, leading to the coup, President Erdoğan concentrated greater power in the executive branch, went after the media and the opposition.
In the context of terrorist attacks by the pro-Kurdish PKK and the Islamic State, the Turkish president has constantly fanned the flames of polarization with his majoritarian understanding of democracy and divisive rhetoric.
The government has blamed Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric residing in Pennsylvania, as the leader of this military coup attempt. He has also been accused of heading a larger conspiracy that established a parallel structure within the Turkish state for decades. In fact, Turkey was already pushing hard for Gülen’s extradition and this coup attempt brings it to the top of the U.S.-Turkish agenda.
Signs are already quite clear that President Erdoğan is cracking down severely on those who are aligned with the coup and Gülen’s parallel structure. Initial reports suggest that the government has dismissed and detained thousands of people in the military, the judiciary, and several branches of the bureaucracy.
At this juncture, the official U.S. response is critical, as the Obama administration needs to deal with the Gülen problem without giving a blank check to Erdoğan, who seems to be turning the situation into a witch-hunt for soldiers, police officers, judges, civil servants, journalists and academics.
So what should the United States do? If it extradites Gülen, it would allow Erdoğan to further monopolize the political environment and to essentially wipe out any ostensible opposition to his regime in the name of fighting the parallel structure.
Keeping the cultural and contextual differences in mind, the similarities to the 2002 coup against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez are worth noting. The controversial role played by the United States — Washington condemned the coup but was accused of masterminding it — contributed enormously to the consolidation of the Chávez’s rule and the problematic pattern of human rights abuses and concentration of power in the executive branch.
One key difference is that Turkey is a major NATO ally and as such is vital to U.S. security interests, especially given the war against the Islamic State. In contrast to Venezuela, which does not pose any threat or signify any vital U.S. interest, not supporting Erdoğan’s demand for Gülen’s extradition could seriously damage bilateral relations at a critical moment in the war against Islamic terrorists.
The United States must remain committed to democracy in Turkey. However, it should also emphasize that democracy is not all about elections, but also about rule of law and human rights — especially of those people involved in the coup against a democratically elected parliament and government.
Only if the Turkish government improves its record of respecting basic rights and guarantees a fair trial process for everybody should the United States consider extraditing Gülen. Even so, the government of Turkey must demonstrate that Gülen’s parallel structure was indeed behind the bloody coup attempt rather than choosing him as a scapegoat to further consolidate its power at the expense of the democratic opposition.
Eduardo A. Gamarra is professor of politics and international relations at FIU. Orçun Selçuk, a native of Turkey, is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at FIU.