Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Turkish Delight

Speaker McCarthy uses the State of the Union to indulge in some idle provocation against a NATO ally, raising the age-old question: Is our political class more vicious or more short-sighted?

President Biden Delivers State Of The Union Address
(Photo by Julia Nikhinson/Getty Images)

You see the strangest things on Twitter. After Saturday’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake in the vicinity of Gaziantep in Turkey, some accounts posted what they claimed to be video proof that that the disaster was the result of a NATO-controlled superweapon, deployed in retribution against Turkey for obstructing Sweden and Finland’s accession to the alliance.

Unlikely. But it is true that relations between the archetypal NATO expansion nation—hustled through admission and under the American nuclear umbrella in 1952 before swarms of Ivans overran the Anatolian plateau—and the alliance’s major partner are shaky. A typical provocation: Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House, had as his very special guest at Tuesday’s State of the Union address Enes Freedom, ne Kanter, a basketball center most recently of the Boston Celtics.


Freedom, a Turk by birth and recently naturalized American, rose to prominence in conservative media 2019 for his outspoken criticism of China’s sinification program in Xinjiang, where the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghur minority faces cultural and political repression and alleged genocide. A worthy cause—his implication of Western-based corporations in China’s less savory activities is particularly welcome. (We will turn a blind eye to the fact that he has used his media attention to sell shoes, in classic social justice grifter style.)

Closer to home, in his native Turkey, Freedom is sanctioned—in fact, is on the country’s “Most Wanted” list—for his affiliation with the moderate Islamist Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gulen, which has been tied to the attempt to overthrow the elected government at Ankara in 2016. Gulen, an erstwhile political ally of Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania. Yes, Freedom’s presence with McCarthy pokes our main rival in China, but it also pokes a government with which we have a formal alliance, and which we hope will bolster us against said rival.

This is typical of the incoherent attitude the American foreign policy establishment and the American public bear toward Turkey. In 2019, the House and the Senate almost unanimously passed purely symbolic resolutions “recognizing the Armenian genocide,” drawing squawks of displeasure from Ankara. (Both the American measure and the Turkish response neglect the fact that the newly formed Republic of Turkey kicked off with the exile of the primary authors of the genocide, the Sultan and the clique surrounding the Ottoman statesman Enver Pasha.)

A more serious and less clearly well-intentioned antagonism is found in the American approach to the post-Assad Syrian basket case. The U.S. threw its support behind the Stalinist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a separatist movement that has been designated a terrorist group for its attacks on civilians by Turkey, the E.U., and—talk about incoherent—the U.S. The cause of Kurdish nationalism may or may not be worthy, but the PKK’s means leave something to be desired—and, most importantly, the matter is not something in which Americans need to be involved.

This situation would be comparable to a putative American ally supporting a Tejano separatist movement on the southern border in order to fight the cartels. It’s a classic American foreign policy move that Graham Greene could already parody in 1955’s The Quiet American: trying to split the difference between two unpleasant agonists (in this case, the Assadists and ISIS) by introducing a third party, who is often equally unpleasant. Add the American love for a plucky underdog independence movement and it is an irresistible occasion for some imperial tampering.


When Turkey took military action against the PKK-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria in 2019, the U.S. levied sanctions against the country’s ministries of defense and energy. Yet the American government’s support for a group that Uncle Sam himself condemns for terrorism is insufficient for the armchair warriors in the press, who scribble out headlines like “Eight Times the U.S. Has Betrayed the Kurds.” No wonder the Turkish interior minister is leery of American involvement in the region.

Erdogan is a nasty customer. His repression of press freedom is, understandably, the item most fixed on by Western journalists; his opening of the Turkish economy to the depredations of foreign capital and his catastrophic monetary policy are probably more responsible for the immiseration of the Turkish people. (For those who have wondered what would happen if you cut interest rates in the face of inflation: Well, now we know.) The 2017 riot that he personally oversaw in Washington, D.C., remains one of the oddest diplomatic episodes in recent American history. He has haled people into court for suggesting that he looks like the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.

Yet the truth is that Erdogan has been a consistently popular leader with his own people, and has come by his power with a democratic mandate (although with the trial and sentencing of Ekrem Imamoglu, the popular Republican mayor of Istanbul, for insulting a public official, perhaps something more malign is coming down the pike). Sam Kriss recently wrote of Israel, “This normal country seems to be lurching towards a new and very normal kind of government: democratic, in a way, but democratic with insistently bad vibes.” The same can be said of Turkey.

Our press is well within its rights to note that Erdogan’s Turkey is a different and worse place than the United States. Yet in our government’s foreign policy, we turn a blind eye to the undemocratic tendencies of other allies—Japan and Singapore come to mind—because it is in our interest to do so.

And interest is what it should come down to. Turkey is treaty-pledged to Atlantic security, and its hesitation to further the bloc’s encroachment on the Russian sphere of influence would have perhaps been a useful hermeneutic for other countries in the years leading up to the war. Its significant mineral wealth, which can be extracted and processed by its own domestic industries, provides a potential strategic counterweight to China. And Turkey, more than any other country, has worked for a swift end to the Russia-Ukraine war, in part out of economic self-interest

There are three large, stable, and well-developed players in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. The former two are far more oppressive and undemocratic than Turkey, and both actively agitate against American interests. Gestures like McCarthy’s invitation to Freedom may be underwritten by good intentions, but they don’t win us any friends with our formal allies—who, we suspect, may be feeling that NATO is less Atlantic and something more Mediterranean, perhaps from the environs of Delos.


Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here