Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn't seem like the kind of guy America deals with.
He is, by all accounts, ruthless in his quest to consolidate power. Like Russia's Vladimir Putin or Venezuela's late Hugo Chavez, Erdogan is apparently Turkey's perpetual leader, regardless of the title he currently holds.
After dominating Turkish politics for more than 10 years, Erdogan ran up against term limits. Publicly, he made a show of stepping aside for a new prime minister, but in reality he simply transferred head-of-state powers to another office -- the country's presidency -- continuing on as Turkey's de facto leader.
Since then, he's grown increasingly paranoid, steering Turkey away from secularism and identifying new enemies to purge with regularity. He's waged a well-publicized war against the press -- journalists in Turkey have "faced growing violence, harassment, and intimidation from both state and nonstate actors during the year," according to Freedom House's 2016 freedom of the press analysis.
When a Turkish newspaper investigated alleged weapons shipments to Syria by Turkish intelligence, Erdogan had the paper's journalists prosecuted as terrorists. Any journalist or author who runs afoul of the Turkish government by reporting critically risks spending years in prison without hope for a fair trial.
And instead of simply punishing journalists, Erdogan's government has augmented its war on the press by taking over formerly independent media outlets and placing them under government oversight, Freedom House says.
Now, after surviving a failed coup, Erdogan wants the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Turkish cleric and leader living in self-exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan, who never misses an opportunity to condemn a new enemy while painting himself as a defender of Turkey, blames Gulen for the coup attempt and says the 75-year-old orchestrated the failed coup from his home in the Poconos.
If it's true that Gulen, who's no angel himself, was the mastermind of the incompetent coup attempt, then the U.S. will hand him over, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
"We're not holding back from doing anything, nor have we ever been," Kerry said, reports Politico. "We've always said, 'Look, if you have evidence of X, Y or Z, please present it to us.' Turkey is a friend. Turkey is an ally."
The U.S. should hand him over if he's proven guilty. Kerry has made that part clear several times, saying the U.S. will honor an extradition request from its "ally" Turkey if the Turkish government makes a compelling cause for Gulen's guilt and presents real evidence.
That's almost certainly not going to happen, and Erdogan knows it, which is why senior officials in his government have already begun to blame the U.S. for allegedly having a hand in the coup attempt.
But the U.S. government has to play along to preserve its nominal alliance with an increasingly Islamic country and its quasi-dictatorial leader, because the U.S. needs Turkish air bases to operate effectively in the Middle East.
And if Gulen, who is reportedly closely watched by American intelligence services, had orchestrated the coup attempt, the U.S. would know it, Middle East energy and geopolitics expert Justin Dargin told RT.
“The U.S. government has repeatedly rebuffed Turkey’s efforts to have Mr. Gulen extradited to Turkey," Dargin said. "The U.S .government would be quite aware if something of this nature were to transpire in the U.S."
As much as the U.S. needs those Turkish air bases, the government isn't going to hand over Gulen without clear evidence he was involved.
But if Erdogan surprises everyone and hands over irrefutable proof that an elderly man in the Poconos masterminded a military coup halfway around the world, it'll just be a homecoming for Gulen. The moderate Islamic cleric says he's exiled himself to the U.S. because he enjoys freedoms here that he didn't enjoy in Turkey.
Gulen told reporters on July 17 that he believes Erdogan himself staged the coup to look like a triumphant and resilient hero, giving him more support to consolidate power. He's been unambiguously critical of the Turkish president.
But it wasn't always that way. Until a well-publicized falling out between the two men in 2010, Erdogan and Gulen were close buddies. For all Gulen's talk of freedom, he had no qualms about backing Erdogan until the latter began cracking down on Gulen's network of schools and supporters in Turkey. For all his criticism of Erdogan, he was content to let the wannabe strong-man consolidate his grip on power until the moment Erdogan turned on him.
So while Gulen isn't going anywhere, it wouldn't be a big loss if he does get shipped out in the face of overwhelming evidence. He can reunite with his good friend Erdogan, and if he doesn't spend his remaining days in a prison cell, he can help his old pal destroy what's left of freedom in their home country.