Turkish protests test Obama's close friendship with Erdogan

World leaders don't always have the liberty of choosing their allies, but they do get to pick their friends. And while Barack Obama has been criticized for his Vulcan-style diplomacy, the U.S. president has made a few buddies in office. Now, as anti-government protests grip Turkey, one of them is embarrassing him.

In an interview with Fareed Zakaria in January 2012, Obama spoke candidly about the world leaders he had befriended, as The Cable reported at the time (emphasis ours):

Obama replied that he couldn't compare his relationships to those of past presidents, but "the friendships and the bonds of trust that I've been able to forge with a whole range of leaders is precisely -- or is a big part of what has allowed us to execute effective diplomacy."

Obama then went on name the five world leaders he feels especially close to and explained that he isn't exactly shooting hoops with them, but they at least have good working relationships.

"I mean, I think that if you ask them -- Angela Merkel, or Prime Minister Singh, or President Lee, or Prime Minister Erdogan, or David Cameron would say, we have a lot of trust and confidence in the President. We believe what he says. We believe that he'll follow through on his commitments. We think he's paying attention to our concerns and our interests," Obama said. And that's part of the reason why we've been able to forge these close working relationships and gotten a whole bunch of stuff done."

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington last month, Obama mentioned that, in addition to discussing developments in Syria and peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the leaders had also exchanged parenting tips.  An administration official told Politico that Obama and Erdogan's friendship has helped them weather a series of diplomatic challenges in Obama's first term -- though a New Yorker profile of Erdogan chalked that cooperation up to American desperation to maintain allies in the Middle East as much as to Obama and Erdogan's personal relationship:

President Barack Obama has developed a close relationship with Erdogan, whom he regards as a dynamic and democratically minded leader. A White House official told me that Obama has regularly voiced his concerns about the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities. On the rare occasion that an American official has made his criticisms public, Erdogan has easily dismissed them....

One explanation for American passivity, repeated by a number of Turks, is that Obama is desperate for allies in the Muslim world and is determined to hold on to Erdogan as a friend in an increasingly combustible region. When I mentioned this to a Western diplomat, he said that Erdogan had proved to be a positive leader for Turkey. As the diplomat told me, "Turkey is Muslim, prosperous, and democratic. There isn't another country like that." And yet some Turks compare Erdogan's Turkey less to the democracies of the West than to the Russian and Chinese models, in which free-market economics are championed and domestic dissent is repressed.

Obama speaks to Erdogan frequently (in 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that the president had placed more calls to Turkey's prime minister than to any world leader except British Prime Minister David Cameron) -- enough for Mark Kennedy, writing for FP's Shadow Government blog today, to suggest Obama ring him up again to discuss the recent unrest in Turkey.

So far, though, Obama has left discussion of the protests to the State Department. "I have no calls to report," Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday, in explaining the administration's assessment of the protests. "Turkey is a very important ally. And look, all democracies have issues that they need to work through and we would expect the government to work through this in a way that respects the rights of their citizens." Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters yesterday that the State Department has been working through the U.S. ambassador to Turkey to communicate the administration's position to Turkish officials. It's a roundabout way for the president to send a message to one of his closest friends on the world stage.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Umbrellas and renovations: The not-so-subtle ways Chinese officials keep people from commemorating Tiananmen

On June 4, 1990, one year after Chinese soldiers massacred protesters in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government dispatched a police convoy to pacify hundreds of demonstrators at Peking University in northwest Beijing. Instead of directly criticizing Deng Xiaoping, the students smashed little bottles intended to symbolize the Chinese leader (in Chinese, the pronunciation of Xiaoping sounds the same as the words for "little bottle").

Over the last several years, commemorations of June 4, 1989 in China have been much smaller in scale, but the oblique forms of protest remain: a newspaper publishes a cartoon that looks suspiciously like the famous photo of Tank Man, for example, or a netizen makes jokes about May 35 -- the date that's four days after May 31 if you don't skip to June. This year, one popular Weibo post shows four giant inflatable yellow ducks (the original is an art project sitting in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor) in place of tanks in the Tank Man photo. And some are drawing renewed attention to the 1989 photo that surfaced in March (and was quickly censored) of President Xi Jinping's wife Peng Liyuan singing for troops in the square after the crackdown. The Shenzhen-based blogger William Long tweeted a screen grab of the Sina Weibo social network blocking the search for the word "today," noting drily that "today is a big day." (China Digital Times has a good roundup of the mini-protests.) 

The Chinese government, which no longer needs to seal off an entire district, as it did in 1990, has also used more subtle (OK, not always so subtle) methods to prevent the anniversary from being observed.

This year, for instance, Chairman Mao's Memorial Hall, which sits near the center of the square, just happens to be closed for construction from June 2 to June 5, according to ABC News -- presumably to reduce foot traffic to the popular memorial. And the popular Weibo candle function, often used to commemorate death, has been quietly disabled.

In 2012, the Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index -- China's most-watched stock index -- fell 64.89 points (a number that could also be read as 6/4/89). Coincidence? Probably, as manipulating it would have been "exceedingly difficult," according to Reuters. Whatever the cause, Chinese censors blocked searches for "stock market" on Sina Weibo.

In 2010, the culprit was Foursquare, the popular location-based social network, which Chinese authorities reportedly blocked on June 4 because people were using it to "check in" to Tiananmen Square.

The most creative example I've come across dates back to 2009, when Chinese security officials tried to prevent a BBC correspondent from reporting on the square by opening umbrellas and obstructing camera shots. You can watch the charade below: