ONE OF the enduring rules of autocracy is that a strongman must not admit something is amiss inside the kingdom. Instead, troubles come from enemies outside. This is often used to distract people from genuine woes at home, and while hardly new, it has been embraced with fresh enthusiasm by the latest generation of political strongmen. It betrays a paranoia and insecurity among those who boast of power and control.
In Turkey over the past few weeks, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reacted to the failed July 15 coup attempt by looking for enemies abroad. He has pinned the revolt on his one-time ally, the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and denies being behind it. Mr. Erdogan has also blamed the CIA and the U.S. government, which deny any role. Nonetheless, Mr. Erdogan has arrested hundreds of journalists, thousands of military officers and others in a massive crackdown that goes well beyond the coup plotters and seems certain to further cement his hold over Turkey's future.
Inspired by Mr. Erdogan, the Turkish media have intensified a hunt for coup plotters. The latest spate of news articles ludicrously pointed the finger at Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Mr. Barkey had organized a small conference at an island near Istanbul on the theme of Iran and the region. The conference invitations went out in the spring, long before the coup attempt, and it brought Turkish and other scholars together at a hotel just as the revolt unfolded. Recently, the Turkish media published wild stories claiming that this meeting was somehow a clandestine command center for the coup attempt. The newspaper Yeni Safak declared that Mr. Barkey "was the second top American figure who orchestrated the coup attempt in Turkey." The other was former commander of the NATO force in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, the paper proclaimed.
These charges are wrong, and ridiculous. They represent a dangerous scapegoating, a practice also favored by Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Mr. Erdogan met this week. In February, Mr. Putin, who on Wednesday seemed to be fomenting more trouble in Ukraine, told his security services that "foes abroad" are "getting prepared" to disrupt the parliamentary elections next month and any attempts "must be upset." Mr. Putin still holds to the fallacy that Hillary Clinton, while secretary of state, sparked the mass street protests against him in 2011 and 2012, conveniently overlooking the fraudulent attempt to steal that election by his party.
In China recently, the human rights lawyer Wang Yu was seen, after being in detention for a year, answering questions in a videotaped "confession." She claims to have been led astray by foreigners whose aim was to attack and smear China. "I won't be used by these people again," she says in the video, which was probably scripted by the authorities.
No doubt, more foreign “enemies” will appear as democracy continues to retreat around the world. There is only one remedy — to call out illiberal strongmen on their fictions and, wherever possible, counter them with the truth.
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