Sassounian: Despite Lavish Public Praise, US Deeply Troubled by Erdogan

Some months ago I wrote a column titled, “Obama Is Exploiting Turkish Leaders’ Craving for Flattery,” explaining that the U.S. president is able to persuade Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to do his bidding by taking advantage of his weakness for lavish praise!

Those aware of Erdogan’s authoritarian streak—on full display during the recent brutal attacks on protesters in Istanbul and other Turkish cities—have been deeply troubled by U.S. officials’ repeated mischaracterization of the prime minister’s dictatorial regime as “a role model for the Islamic world.”

The insincerity of such assessments was exposed when WikiLeaks made public thousands of confidential diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, indicating that American officials’ real opinion about Erdogan is the exact opposite of what they have been stating in public.

The embassy dispatches, published by the German magazine Der Spiegel, described the Turkish prime minister “as a power-hungry Islamist surrounded by corrupt and incompetent ministers.” In a May 2005 cable, the U.S. Embassy surmised that Erdogan never had a realistic view of the world and believes he was chosen by God to lead Turkey. A knowledgeable source told American officials that “Tayyip believes in God…but does not trust him.”

U.S. diplomats report that the prime minister gets almost all his information from Islamist-leaning newspapers, ignoring the input of his own ministers. The Turkish military and intelligence services no longer share with him some of their reports. He trusts no one completely, surrounding himself with “an iron ring of sycophantic (but contemptuous) advisors.” Despite Erdogan’s macho behavior, he is reportedly terrified of losing his grip on power.

Although the Turkish leader declared war on corruption when he first assumed office, informants told U.S. Embassy officials that corruption exists at all levels, even within the Erdogan family. A senior government advisor confidentially told a journalist that the prime minister enriched himself from the privatization of a state oil refinery. An Energy Ministry official alleged that Erdogan asked Iranians to sign a gas pipeline deal with a Turkish company owned by an old schoolmate. Furthermore, two American sources claimed that the prime minister had eight Swiss bank accounts. Erdogan has denied all such allegations, insisting that his wealth is mostly derived from gifts received at his son’s wedding, and acknowledging that an anonymous Turkish businessman has been paying the expenses of his four children to study in the United States. Such explanations are viewed by the American Embassy as “lame.”

The embassy’s cables contain many other startling accusations against Erdogan. Informants have told U.S. officials that when his political party’s candidate lost the Trabzon mayoral race, the prime minister allegedly funneled millions of dollars from a secret government account to his close friend Faruk Nafiz Ozak, whom he had named as head of the local Trabzonspor football club. The money was for hiring top players so that the soccer team’s victories would overshadow the accomplishments of the elected mayor.

According to a cable sent by former U.S. Ambassador Eric Edelman, Erdogan’s appointees lacked “technocratic depth.” While some “appear to be capable of learning on the job, others are incompetent or seem to be pursuing private…interests.” High-ranking Turkish officials have informed the American Embassy in Ankara that they are appalled by the prime minister’s staff. Erdogan reportedly appointed as his undersecretary a man exhibiting “incompetence, prejudices, and ignorance.” Women’s Minister Nimet Cubukcu, an advocate of criminalizing adultery, obtained her position because she happened to be a friend of the prime minister’s wife. Another minister is accused of “nepotism, links to heroin smuggling, and a predilection for underage girls.”

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, highly praised by U.S. officials in public, also comes under private scrutiny and criticism. According to confidential American Embassy cables, Davutoglu “understands little about politics outside of Ankara.” In fact, U.S. diplomats are alarmed “by his imperialistic tone…and his neo-Ottoman vision.” In a January 2010 dispatch, the American ambassador reported that Turkey has “Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources.” Former Defense Minister Mehmet Gonul was also critical of the foreign minister, warning American officials about his “Islamist influence on Erdogan,” and calling him “exceptionally dangerous.”

Having spoiled Erdogan through lavish public praise, despite privately acknowledging his character flaws, U.S. officials must now assume full responsibility for the prime minister’s reckless behavior at home and abroad.

Harut Sassounian

Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh one billion dollars of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.


  1. This article is a terrific antidote to the usual pro-Turkish boot-licking and embarrassing Erdogan-worship that we finds in articles and editorials written by the buffoons, lackeys, and incompetents in the slavish mainstream Western media (NY Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, The Economist, TV, Radio, etc.) not to mention their pathetic cohorts in academia and think-tanks.

    I fear, however, that it is just a matter of time until these sickos again start regurgitating their usual pro-Turkish, pro-Erdogan swill.

  2. For decades, the US State Department kept feeding and feeding the wolf (Turkey). Well, now the wolf has grown and is coming back to eat them, or bite them in the vorr. They deserve each other.

    The US SD emboldened Turkey’s belligerence and arrogance, even continues to support Turkey’s re-establishment of Ottoman influence in eastern Europe, middle east, and central asia.

    What happened to “staunch NATO ally”, “secular”, and “mildly Islamic”, “shining example of democracy in the region” ?

  3. Can’t say the US has the best track record with regard to support of foreign leaders. An accurate description of Erdogan, thoroughly enjoy reading article that don’t feed me the “mildly Islamic” bs.
    However, the Trabzon and Trabzonspor thing doesn’t add up. AKP lost the Trabzon mayoral race in 2004 (to 2009), however, Faruk Ozak was the club chairman from 1994-96, before the AKP was formed. Erdogan was only mayor of Istanbul at the time, I doubt he had that kind of power then anyways.

  4. “Erdogan has denied all such allegations, insisting that his wealth is mostly derived from gifts received at his son’s wedding…”
    lol, so funny… this sounds a lot like Aliyev’s daughter when asked how she got all the money to her name, she replied “my husband is in retail”.
    They should also ask Erdogan what he’s doing with his son’s wedding gifts, is that part of being the neo-sultan, or just plain theft?

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