The failed coup against the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan government in Turkey, and the sweeping purges that have followed, are having troubling effects far beyond the borders of our NATO ally. Bringing peace and stability to the Middle East will now be even harder to achieve.
The first job for President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry is to maintain as good relations with the Turkish government as possible under stressful conditions. They are off to a shaky start.
The good news is that Mr. Kerry did not, as erroneously reported, threaten Turkey with expulsion from NATO. But he came perilously close to doing so when he said, “NATO has a requirement with respect to democracy, and NATO will indeed measure very carefully what is happening.”
This statement misjudges U.S. interests in the Middle East, which emphatically include having Turkey as a member of NATO. And it fails to acknowledge the history of Turkey while a member of NATO since 1952. During this period the Turkish military has seized political control, or forced a government to resign, four times (1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997) without jeopardizing its NATO membership. Each time civilian rule was restored after a brief period.
Moreover, the government headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is popularly elected and at least nominally democratic, although before the coup Mr. Erdogan had taken many steps to centralize power and suppress dissent. His reaction to the coup has disappointingly accelerated this trend.
According to The New York Times, long before the attempted coup the Erdogan government had compiled lists of individuals in the military, the courts, the education system and the government that it considered to be hostile.
Since the coup, the government has purged more than 50,000, including judges, prosecutors, members of the military and police, the justice ministry, the education ministry and even in the office of the president.
According to the Erdogan government, the coup was plotted by followers of an exiled cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim accused Mr. Gulen of running a “parallel terrorist organization” with a secret membership deeply entrenched in Turkish institutions. More likely, the coup pitted believers in a traditionally modern Turkish secular state against a government they perceived as moving toward Islamic rule.
Turkey has informally asked the United States to extradite Mr. Gulen and has supplied what it claims is clear evidence of his responsibility for the coup. A formal request for extradition under the terms of a U.S.-Turkey treaty is expected to follow.
Mr. Gulen denies that he is in any way responsible for the coup. He has suggested that President Erdogan provoked it to have an excuse for the current crackdown. Given that Mr. Erdogan narrowly escaped death during the coup, that seems to be highly unlikely.
But the exiled cleric deserves the full protection of U.S. law in any proceeding to extradite him, including a careful review of any evidence supplied by Turkey in support of its case against him.
More serious, and in need of careful resolution, is the series of issues between Turkey and the United States concerning the war in Syria.
In general, President Erdogan has been more hawkish about the Syrian situation than President Obama, and the Turks are rightly alarmed that Mr. Obama in effect invited their traditional enemy Russia to intervene in Syria.
In pursuing peace in Syria, the president and Mr. Kerry must work with the Erdogan government as a long-standing ally and demonstrate respect for Turkey’s security interests.
Indeed, they are bound to do so under the NATO treaty.