Dan Drezner objects to Trump’s congratulatory call to Erdogan:
No, actually, this is worse than demonstrating indifference: Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome.
I agree that Trump shouldn’t have congratulated Erdogan. For one thing, the extensive irregularities in the referendum strongly suggest that the outcome was rigged from the start and shouldn’t be treated as a legitimate result. Even if the constitutional changes weren’t a fairly naked power-grab by the president and his party, the irregularities in the voting would merit criticism rather than praise. Having said that, I’m not so sure that this is as much of a break with the last few presidents as Drezner suggests.
Most recently, the Obama administration went out of its way to legitimize the 2013 military coup in Egypt. They refused to call the coup what it was, because acknowledging that it was a coup would oblige them to suspend military aid. Then-Secretary of State Kerry even said that the coup was “restoring democracy.” That was laughable on its face, and it signaled that there would be no serious consequences for overthrowing Egypt’s elected president. If Trump were looking for a model for approving of a power-grab by a strongman, he wouldn’t have to look very far back into the past to find one. When the same coup government brutally put down a protest and killed over a thousand people, the Obama administration briefly froze some aid, but it wasn’t long before that was lifted and things went back to the old status quo.
When Yeltsin tried to consolidate power and even ordered the shelling of his country’s parliament to quash resistance to his rule, he had the full and public backing of the Clinton administration. Clinton justified this by saying, “The US supported Yeltsin because he is Russia’s democratically-elected leader.” This is one of the more egregious examples of how leaders in Washington will get behind a country’s “democratic” leader and then make excuses for whatever he does once in power, but it is hardly the only one. The Bush administration promoted Georgia’s Saakashvili as a reforming democratic leader and would-be client, and they did this despite extensive evidence that Saakashvili and his allies were abusing their power and becoming increasingly authoritarian. Once certain leaders win the confidence of our presidents, they tend to be able to do what they like with Washington’s blessing. These are not the only examples, but these are the ones that most readily come to mind.
The point here is not that the errors of previous presidents excuse Trump’s bad decision, but that other post-Cold War presidents have supported similar or worse power-grabs and abuses by semi-authoritarian and authoritarian leaders. Trump may be more enthusiastic in his embrace of dictators and despots than the average president, but in siding with such leaders against their domestic opposition he is unfortunately not so different from his predecessors.