Since the nation’s founding, America has been isolationist and interventionist, pacifist and aggressive, a mortal enemy of Great Britain and the closest of allies. Yet one thing has remained consistent: Americans don’t tolerate foreign nations wantonly violating the rights of our citizens.
A dramatic video surfaced of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bodyguards violently assaulting protestors outside Turkey’s embassy in Washington DC. Another, more recent video appeared to show Erdogan speaking to his bodyguards just before the attack took place and watching as the scene unfolded. This kind of incident has become all too common in Turkey, but was a shocking sight in the United States.
In its official response, the Turkish embassy denied wrongdoing, called the bodyguards’ obviously aggressive actions (which included kicking a woman curled up on the ground) “self-defense,” and insinuated that the protestors were aligned with terrorists. The D.C. Metropolitan Police harshly condemned the attack, saying in a statement: “The actions seen outside the Turkish embassy yesterday in Washington, D.C. stand in contrast to the First Amendment rights and principles we work tirelessly to protect each and every day.”
This isn’t the first incident between the Turkish Presidential Protection Department and Americans in Washington. Just last year, they accosted journalists outside the Brookings Institution and have had numerous run-ins with the U.S. Secret Service. While these improprieties have mostly met little practical response, the latest incident was far more egregious and public. The Turkish response so far has been dismissive and unapologetic although Americans are appalled by the video.
To remind the democratically challenged Turks, the American electorate’s mood, and therefore its leaders, can become hostile when U.S. citizens are routinely attacked or threatened.
‘A Good Thrashing’
In one of the earliest examples of American intervention overseas, President Thomas Jefferson deployed the infant U.S. Navy to attack Barbary pirates on the North African coast. While most nations simply bribed the pirates to stop harassing their ships, Americans found the continual capture and imprisonment of our citizens on the high seas to be intolerable. Jefferson’s intervention led to a short, violent conflict in which several Barbary leaders were toppled and their gangster regimes reduced to vassal states of more powerful neighbors.
It wasn’t only small powers that the United States was willing to tangle with when American rights and sovereignty were violated. The United States went to war with Britain, then a towering global power, after repeated British impressment of American sailors and an infamous incident in which the British Navy attacked an American warship because it refused inspection just off the coast of Virginia.
What followed was a brutal three-year struggle in which the far weaker United States battled with the British Empire at great cost. The United States proved to be more trouble than the fight was worth, so the two sides worked out a status quo treaty.
In another case, President Andrew Jackson, to whom President Donald Trump has drawn a connection, took immediate military action in response to a Malaysian nabbing of an American cargo ship. He deployed U.S. warships to the area, and his navy secretary simply told the dispatch to give the Malaysians “a good thrashing.”
The American warships sailed into the offending Malaysian port and laid waste to it. Its disproportionate use of force was shocking to many, but the American people generally accepted it as comeuppance for the outrages against U.S. sovereignty. These are just some of the numerous incidents in American history in which even seemingly small infractions of citizens’ rights have led to foreign conflict.
An Alliance in Decline?
No actions have been taken against participants in the Turkish attack, and so far the State Department has cautiously danced around the issue. Several Republican senators have condemned the incident and asked for an apology from Turkey, but it remains to be seen what the Trump administration will do in response.
The spontaneous brawl was a reckless move for a regime that depends so much on its partnership with the United States, and a show of disrespect not only to American law, but to America’s most deeply cherished beliefs and customs. While the United States has built a long-term relationship with Turkey—first to counter the Soviet threat in the Cold War, and now to counter the Islamist terrorist threat in the Middle East—there is now less certainty that the two countries truly have aligned interests.
Despite Turkey’s inclusion in NATO as an important member, the U.S.-Turkey alliance is under strain. While U.S. presidents have bitten their tongues on Turkish human rights abuses and, of course, the Armenian genocide (which the Turkish government still denies), the two nations have become increasingly at odds in regard to Syria. It’s also unclear how committed Turkey is to destroying the Islamic State—a top U.S. foreign policy goal.
While this story may soon get buried by the news cycle, it could signal a long-term fracture in this important relationship. American history is full of “bend but don’t break” incidents in which foreign regimes have treated Americans badly. But when the American people see violations of American rights go unpunished, in the past it has rapidly changed the electorate’s mood and led to violent conflicts.
While Turkey and the United States are unlikely to go to war, public reaction to the flagrant abuse of American citizens by Erdogan’s delegation could exacerbate the long-term decline of the two countries’ relations. If the Turkish government continues to let these incidents fester without apology or control, the American people will push their leaders to rupture the long-standing alliance.
Erdogan and the Turkish embassy would be wise to remember that when the patience of the American people snaps, it breaks savagely and unpredictably.