“Turkey is at a crossroads!” has become the rallying cry for commentators as the country grapples with terrorism, a coup attempt, and a reshaping of its domestic and international stances. The cliché has long described Turkey as a country straddling two continents, torn between East and West – its imperial history tied to the Muslim world, but with a republican vision wedded to European ideas.
But metaphors aside, Turkey can be a conundrum to US foreign policy experts: it’s not quite Europe, but not quite the Middle East. There are far fewer students studying Turkish than Arabic in the United States, and although the country is uniquely positioned in a tumultuous region, Turkey is not even one of the top 10 beneficiaries of US economic, development, and security assistance.
During the Cold War, Turkey – which was on the front lines of the US-Soviet rivalry – joined major Western economic, political and military initiatives, including the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But in recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shifted Turkey away from the West, souring ties with the European Union, bolstering military cooperation with Russia despite notable flare-ups over Moscow’s deployment in Syria, and bidding to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Erdoğan’s turn from the West accelerated after a coup attempt in Turkey this July. The US refuses to extradite Fethullah Gülen, the man who has been accused – thus far without evidence – of orchestrating the failed plot. The United States’ two major-party presidential candidates reacted differently to the coup attempt. Clinton, though stating that the democratically elected Turkish government should be supported, added that “basic human rights and freedoms” should be respected in the country. The following week, Trump declined to condemn Erdoğan’s crackdown on thousands of alleged coup supporters, and said the United States is not a good messenger for “talk about civil liberties.”
Meanwhile, the US government has supported Syrian Kurdish groups that Turkey classifies as a threat to its national security. Hillary Clinton, after voicing support for arming these groups, was dismissed by Erdogan as a “political novice.”
“The Turkish government used to support Hillary Clinton, as Clinton was more in line with Turkey’s Syria policy,” said Cenk Sidar of Sidar Global Advisors, a Washington-based strategic advisory and risk assessment firm, in an exclusive interview with the Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy. “However, the situation changed following the coup attempt on July 15. The AKP government is suspicious of Clinton’s relationship with the Gülenist movement, as Gülen seems to be funding Clinton’s campaign via Turkish-American constituencies. Even though the Turkish government refrains from openly commenting on the American presidential race, it is evident that Trump is preferable to the ruling party in Turkey. It essentially boils down to AKP officials believing they can make a deal with Trump on the Gülen issue.”
Sidar added that he does not hold the same view as the AKP government, as he believes “a Clinton presidency would be the ideal scenario for Turkey and the region.”
Since the coup attempt, many Turkish media outlets have grown more negative in their coverage of Hillary Clinton, and more favorable towards Donald Trump. Some pundits supportive of Clinton have grown subdued in their criticisms of Trump, while others express displeasure with both candidates. Here are a few notable headlines from the past year:
“Racist Billionaire Businessman Donald Trump”
Liberal Diken columnist Ali Abaday wrote in April “racist billionaire businessman Donald Trump” would cinch the Republican nomination. In June, Diken echoed his opinion, warning that, “The Republican Party will be left to the racist agenda of […] Donald Trump.”
Trump’s discriminatory comments against American Muslims and Islam in particular have been widely circulated in Turkey. Deutsche Welle Türkçe noted in February that “Trump attracts attention, especially with his heavy criticisms aimed at Muslims.”
Adnan Salih wrote in Borsa Gündem, “Trump and Hillary are indisputably the least popular US presidential candidates in history.” After mentioning that opinion polls in the UK failed to predict the outcome of the Brexit referendum, Salih said he was worried that “a similar situation is now happening in America,” with potentially dire consequences for the world economy. He added: “Our columnists, who are supportive of financial market freedoms, are almost entirely anti-Trump. Everyone [here] wants Hillary.”
Alleged Clinton-Gülen links
After the failed coup, the narrative in the Turkish media swiftly pivoted from anti-Trump to vehemently anti-Clinton rhetoric. Clinton’s reputation in Turkey has plummeted as stories circulated in the US and Turkish media alleging that she has ties to Fethullah Gülen.
HaberTürk cited comments made by Trump political adviser Peter Navarro on the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization [FETÖ]’s financial support of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. [It was reported] FETÖ put forward a $1 million donation to Clinton’s campaign in January. Navarro said, ‘Hillary’s coup in Turkey [i.e. the July 15 coup attempt] is tied to her support from and mysterious ties with the Islamic cleric. If we believe Gülenists are against us, with Gülen creating hidden threats and a cultural jihad from the United States, against democracy and stability in Turkey, [he is] an external threat. Therefore, Hillary’s potential financial connection to Gülen is quite appalling.’”
CNN Türk echoed Navarro’s comments: “If it is true FETÖ financially supported the Clinton campaign, would Clinton actually return Gülen to Turkey? If Gülen is trying to subvert the Turkish government, then isn’t Hillary Clinton, as a key member of NATO, subverting the Turkish government?”
Mahmut Övür of Sabah, a newspaper that was seized by Turkish authorities earlier this year, added his thoughts on claimed US ties to the coup attempt. “The Clinton-FETÖ relationship is not only limited to financial support; [FETÖ] fills the capillaries of Clinton’s blood. This is of course not only concerning to AKP, but has everyone in Turkey worried.
“The growing sympathy of Turks [in Turkey] for Donald Trump is interesting to note, as are his comments regarding President Erdoğan and the July 15 coup attempt: ‘CIA agents were there that night.’”
Meanwhile, on July 16, OdaTV highlighted Trump’s fondness of Turkey. “According to the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the ‘rebellion’ in Turkey was the result of failed Obama administration policy. Donald Trump said, ‘I have many friends in Turkey. Wonderful people, wonderful people. We offer our best wishes to all. They are trying to overcome a great difficulty, we offer them our best wishes.'”
Voice of America Türkiye also noted what it described as Trump’s fondness of Erdoğan. “Praise for President Erdoğan from Donald Trump! In an interview with The New York Times, presidential candidate Donald Trump praised President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the suppression of the coup that took place last week in Turkey. Trump declared, ‘I give credit to [Erdoğan], for his ability to reverse the coup attempt itself.’ Trump also noted, ‘Some would argue that the coup was fabricated, but I do not believe these allegations.’”
“No One Trusts Hillary”
An anonymously written opinion article for Güneş was published alongside an insulting, Photoshopped image of Hillary Clinton, putting forth unsubstantiated rumors that the candidate has neurological problems.
“The candidate of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, holds neither the trust of US voters nor the world. The American media is discussing the potential that Clinton has Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, and is also circulating reports she received election campaign donations from the terrorist organization FETÖ.
“Her doctor announced the Democratic candidate, Clinton, had fallen ill to pneumonia, but that is not convincing anyone. Journalists asked Clinton, ‘Will you take tests for dementia, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s?’ But Hillary Clinton snapped, ‘There’s no need, it was only pneumonia, and I’m fine now.’
“Clinton was also displaying involuntary eye movements during her campaign. Some experts evaluating the images began to connect them to others in 2012, saying it would be necessary for her to undergo a neurological test. Finally, [the Clinton e-mail scandal] was pointed out as a potential symptom of ‘Alzheimer’s disease.’ […] It’s also been noticed Hillary Clinton constantly has a nurse at her side, Lisa Bardack.
“[Also], letters revealing close ties to the terrorist organization leader Fethullah Gülen have been brought to light; through companies he founded in the US, it is clear he has been financially supporting Clinton with donations during her entire political life.”
“Trump or Clinton…F*** Them!”
Yeni Akit columnist Abdurrahman Dilipak compared Clinton and Trump to a “carrot versus a stick”: neither one a desired option for Turkey, which does not want to be baited or coerced into changing its regional policy. He argued that “[the coup attempt on] July 15 was a turning point, literally.”
“The coup was not enough; [the United States] continue[s] to provide sanctuary to the terrorists of the Gülen movement … So we have the freedom to choose our executioner. It was not enough to give years of support to the PKK; now they also support the PYG. They show us death and are trying to persuade us of the disease. If we support the madame, she will support the PYG! […] F*** them!”
“Trump and Clinton, According to Numerology”
In a humorous aside from factually-based journalism, Milliyet astrologist R. Hakan Kırkoğlu attempted to sneak an intimate glimpse into the minds of each candidate by using numerology. According to this star-gazer, Trump’s number is associated with, “Mercury; witty and moving, cunning, intelligent, flexible and sometimes unreliable. For people born under this number…the ability to influence people [with] demagoguery [in] the media is high.”
On Clinton: “[Her] number 8 is directly related to Saturn and generally correlates to Clinton’s personality; patient, disciplined … [but] those born under this number are clearly hedging their feelings. Naturally this explains […] Bill Clinton. Sometimes relationships can work to the detriment of people.”