Riot police use teargas to disperse the crowd during an anti-government protest at Taksim Square in central Istanbul May 31, 2013. (REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
Turkish citizens rising up to protest the policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government have faced arrests, water hoses, tear gas and in some cases have even been detained for using social media to discuss the demonstrations. And while attention has turned to Turkey’s media establishment, which has refused to cover much of the protests, another influential group has sat largely on the sidelines: American elected officials.
While Vice President Joe Biden and some administration officials have criticized Turkey’s government and its response to the protests, few lawmakers are raising alarm. A ProQuest news search of the last five days fails to turn up a single story quoting a member of Congress criticizing Erdogan, or his increasingly authoritarian reaction to the protests. Part of the reason might relate to the fact that Turkey is a strong US ally in the region, and lawmakers are hesitant to disturb US-Turkish relations. But the self-imposed silence from American politicians could also be seen as a result of aggressive outreach from the Turkish government, which, since 2007, has retained at least six lobbying firms to shape public opinion and court elected officials.
Turkey maintains an active effort to fly lawmakers to visit the country. Though Congress banned foreign-funded travel in years past, many foreign entities set up nonprofit organizations to organize “Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act” (MECEA) trips for elected officials to legally visit foreign destinations on the nonprofit’s dime. Lawmakers and officials of both parties regularly attend events organized by Turkey’s government.
The website LegiStorm, which collects congressional data, shows that in the last twelve months, Representatives Henry Cuellar, Aaron Schock, Mo Brooks and Jan Scharkowsky, along with dozens of staff, have visited Istanbul through trips sponsored by Turkish MECEA groups. The visits to Turkey are so routine that last weekend, a delegation of state-level lawmakers from New Mexico even witnessed some of the demonstrations. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, have been featured at press events with Turkish government officials in Washington DC this year.
The MECEA trips and congressional ceremonies have been organized by staffers from Turkey’s various lobbying firms, according to filing with the Department of Justice’s FARA website. Turkey’s government pays two former Democratic Congressmen, Dick Gephardt (through his corporate lobbying firm, the Gephardt Group) and Al Wynn (through his law firm, Dickstein Shapiro), to influence Washington. Others on the payroll include David Mercer, a prominent Democratic aide, a team of about twenty from the firm PR giant Fleischman-Hillard, 30 Point Strategies and the Caspian Group. Some of the MECEA-organizing nonprofits also retain influential lobbying consultants, like the firm Brown, Lloyd and James (known for previously representing Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad’s wife).
The ties between US corporations and the Turkish government are another potential reason lawmakers have been slow to show solidarity with the protesters. Business and diplomacy are on display at the American Turkish Council, one of the most influential Turkish nonprofits geared toward congressional outreach. The council is funded by the Turkish government’s investment agency and a number of corporations with economic interests in Turkey, including Lockheed Martin (makers of the F-35, which is partially assembled in Turkey), TUSKON (a Turkish business lobby group) and Chevron (which maintains major drillings interests in the Black Sea).
At its annual conference this week at the Washington DC Ritz-Carlton, the American Turkish Council discussed US-Turkish relations with corporate executives and political leaders from the two countries. Biden received an award, as did House Homeland Security Committee Chair Representative Mike Rogers, according to a schedule posted online.
Read Allison Kilkenny on the groups showing solidarity with #OccupyGezi.