LONDON-In 1941, Uncle Sam made a new friend.
His name was Uncle Joe. Uncle Sam and Uncle Joe shared the same goals. Uncle Sam was determined to beat the Nazis; so was Uncle Joe. Uncle Sam was making huge sacrifices on the battlefields of Europe. So was Uncle Joe. Uncle Sam was powerful enough to define the world order that emerged from World War II. So was Uncle Joe.
There was just one problem: Uncle Joe was Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator whose iron rule led to mass imprisonments and executions at home. But when Stalin joined the Allies to fight against the Nazis, common cause soon led Americans to overlook Stalin’s cruelty and forget his signing of a non-aggression pact with Hitler’s Germany. It was FDR who began to call him“Uncle Joe.” Hollywood churned out pro-Stalin movies. One Department of Defense propaganda poster showed a smiling Russian soldier, captioned: “this man is your friend.”
That spirit of friendship, as we now know well, wouldn’t last. Americans would re-discover the tyranny and aggression that had defined Stalin after the war. It was an important lesson: no good comes from ignoring the evils of a temporary ally because you have a common enemy.
Today, Americans are in grave danger of forgetting that lesson once again. This time, our “Uncle Joe” is Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and our common “enemy” is long-time American ally, Saudi Arabia. Through a combination of tactical press leaks and public posturing, Erdoğan-whose repression of democracy at home has resulted in the imprisonment of more journalists in Turkey than any other country in the world-has managed to position himself as the leading champion of justice for murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The persistent critic of the Saudi regime was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month while picking up wedding papers while his fiancé waited, in vain, outside-a murder that U.S. intelligence officials have determined with “high confidence” was directed by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. While President Donald Trump continues to ignore the Central Intelligence Agency findings while shifting blame away from the crown prince, even Republican senators this week, after a closed-door CIA briefing, put the blame squarely on Mohammed. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said you’d have to be “willfully blind” to look to anyone but the crown prince, and Tennessean Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that a jury would convict him in 30 minutes. The tough talk followed an op-ed Erdoğan wrote for The Washington Post last month, in which he declared, “No one should dare to commit such acts on the soil of a NATO ally again. If anyone chooses to ignore that warning, they will face severe consequences.”
Truth is, Erdoğan’s approach to the Khashoggi case is a classic move he has deployed many times over throughout his political career: exploit an outside actor to undermine his enemies and strengthen his own position. He is what I have long called a “brilliant fraud,” a master shapeshifter who has deftly maneuvered to increase his power, all while deflecting from his true identity: an Islamist autocrat who has dramatically-perhaps fatally-weakened Turkey’s democracy. As Americans rightly focus on punishing Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder, we must not let Erdoğan’s public advocacy for justice distract from how dangerous Erdoğan has become. This man is not our friend.
Turkey’s secular democracy, once hailed as a model for the Muslim world, had lasted for nearly ninety years by the time Erdoğan first took power as prime minister in 2003. But it suffered from two major weaknesses. First, it was guaranteed by Turkey’s military, which had conducted four political coupsthroughout the 20th century to enforce stability and protect Turkey’s secularism. Second, there was a growing disconnect between Turkey’s political elite-which strongly defended separation between mosque and state-and the lower classes and religious conservatives who felt ignored and left behind.
Erdoğan made these disenchanted voters into a fervent political base that distrusted Turkey’s key democratic institutions and eagerly supported him as he chipped away at them.
He started by using negotiations over Turkey’s supposed desire to join the European Union to implement reforms that curtailed the power of the military, a requirement of EU accession. Then, Erdoğan went after a group in the military he alleged was part of a secret “deep state” network focused on bringing him down, purging hundreds of military and civilian officials.
With the help of his base, which voted for constitutional amendments giving Erdoğan greater control over appointments, he began to pack the judiciary with Islamist supporters. Finally, Erdoğan loudly and continually discredited the press in public by reinforcing the idea that opposing narratives reflected an elite conspiracy, giving him a mandate to impose fines on unfriendly media organizations while replacing their owners with loyalists.
In short, what Trump has openly dreamed about in his most autocratic tweets, Erdoğan has actually done. His moves culminated last year in his victory in a constitutional referendum that gave him broad new powers as Turkey’s first “executive president.”
Over fifteen years in power, Erdoğan has managed to do what no modern Turkish leader has done: transform Turkey from a secular democracy into an Islamist autocracy by turning its own democratic processes against itself. Throughout, Erdoğan has made an art form out of picking fights with bogeymen from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to American philanthropist George Soros to maintain the popular support he needs.
Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing is just his latest use of manufactured moral outrage. It accomplishes three key goals for Erdoğan. It weakens and isolates the Saudi crown prince. It improves his own image in the U.S. after relations hit a low point this summer over Turkey’s detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson. And, it helps him gain leverage over the pro-Saudi Trump administration. Already, reports indicate White House officials have explored whether the U.S. could extradite Fethullah Gulen, the exiled moderate cleric Erdoğan blames for everything from a 2016 military coup to inciting terrorism, back to Turkey in return for Erdoğan easing pressure on Riyadh.
It would be a huge mistake for those of us who have been appalled by the actions of Saudi Arabia and the crown prince to consider Erdoğan an ally-and give him a platform in publications like The Washington Post for his opportunistic posturing. Saudi Arabia must be punished and condemned-but we cannot give Erdoğan a pass in the process.
It is in our character to want to see the best in people-especially those who join the causes we support. But Stalin the dictator didn’t become less of a dictator when he fought the Nazis. Erdoğan won’t become any less of a brilliant fraud because he shares our outrage over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
This man is not our friend.