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
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