By Howard Eissenstat
The crisis between the United States and Turkey, a NATO ally and traditional bulwark of American policy in the Middle East, is serious. While the relationship between them has often been fraught, the two countries have generally managed to keep difficulties within acceptable limits. No longer.
Most of the blame lays at the feet of Turkey’s irascible President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has led a lurching foreign policy that has estranged all of Turkey’s traditional allies and most of its neighbors. In a recent New York Times column, Erdoğan offered a long list of grievances his country has against the United States. The American list of grievances is equally long.
Erdoğan is not simply an autocrat at home; he is one who has taken on an international role that often challenges U.S. interests. Ankara has growing ties with Iran that includes help with busting U.S. sanctions against Tehran; supported Jihadist movements in Syria, including some affiliated with al Qaeda; enjoys a close relationship with Hamas in the Palestinian territories, supports Islamist extremists in Libya and, perhaps most importantly, is developing an entente with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. To all of this, add Erdoğan’s practice of arresting foreign citizens and consular staff as political leverage, something many call “hostage diplomacy.” Allies can – and do – sometimes have differences and work at odds. These issues speak of something entirely different: an ally that is also a strategic rival.
There are nonetheless good reasons why the United States should be working hard to right this relationship. There is no reason to believe that a clear break with the United States would improve any of these behaviors. Moreover, Turkey’s continued role in NATO – it cannot be kicked out of the treaty organization, though it may leave of its own accord – will continue to be a point of difficulty. This, presumably, is why Putin has worked so hard to coax Turkey away from Washington; he is less interested in creating a happy union with Turkey than in poisoning NATO itself. Moreover, Turkey continues to play a significant operational role in many NATO activities and is a partner in important weapons programs. On a more basic level, it is a large country in an important region. A stable, economically successful Turkey is in everyone’s interest.
In the face of these realities, the U.S. officials have attempted to paper over differences and win Turkey back to the fold almost entirely through warm words and quiet engagement. The Trump administration’s “get tough” policy, initiated this month, is a welcome change. Unfortunately, however, the policy has been late in coming and clumsily implemented.
Strategic issues might have been easier to resolve if the United States had taken a stronger stand on clear infringements of the norms of international relations. When Erdoğan’s security staff roughed up journalists and peaceful protestors in Washington in 2016, there was barely a ripple of protest. In 2017, his security detail did it again, in a far bloodier attack. This time, at least, Congress took some symbolic action and the State Department protested. Charges were levied against several, but dropped in March, in advance of then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey.
This decision highlights a failed policy of appeasement undertaken by both the Obama and Trump administrations. In particular, the American response to detained U.S. citizens and consular staff has ranged from passive to vacillating. The U.S. decision in October 2017 to suspend visa services at its diplomatic posts in Turkey was too late in coming (more than a year after some of the detentions), but was at least a step in the right direction. Only two months later, however, the State Department suddenly reversed course and ended the visa suspension without its demands being met. Turkey could be forgiven for believing that the United States was simply incapable of hard ball.
Donald Trump’s frequent and public embrace of Erdoğan were taken by many in Turkey as a signal that the two leaders could bond and create a new, warmer relationship.
But those hopes came apart after Turkey’s detention of Andrew Brunson, the U.S. evangelical pastor now facing terrorism charges. Trump has made Brunson the focus of his negotiations with Erdogan, pushing hard for the pastor’s release.
The singling out of Brunson is not surprising, given that his case received considerable attention from American evangelicals – an important part of Trump’s base – and was seen as reinforcing a broad concern for Christians in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, this focus undermined the U.S. position in three ways. First, it seemed to ignore other equally deserving American prisoners. Second, it reinforced Erdoğan’s belief that the United States was not particularly interested in the rule of law and that its Middle East policies are shaped by a disdain for Muslims. Thirdly, and most importantly, it suggested to Erdoğan that he had, in Brunson, a hostage of tremendous value, who would be only “given back” in return for something of similar high value.
The Trump administration compounded these errors by attempting to negotiate a trade to free Brunson. The details of these negotiations are still murky, but it appears that White House officials hoped that, by helping to free a Turkish national held in Israel and offering early release for Hakan Atilla, a banker jailed in the United for Iran sanctions busting, and possibly lowering potential fines in a related case against Turkey’s Halkbank. The deal apparently fell through because Trump balked after Erdoğan pushed to get even more out of Washington. The U.S. response has been less standing on principle than outrage that a shady deal fell through.
Trump’s decision to put teeth to concerns about Turkey’s hostage was done so suddenly in response to the failed negotiations that it gave Erdoğan little time and little public cover for a retreat. In particular, the choice of tariffs as the primary means of sanctioning Turkey was poorly thought through. Turkey’s economy is teetering on the edge of crisis; Trump’s sanctions may well tip it over the edge – allowing Erdoğan to blame the United States for Turkey’s economic turbulence rather than having to address his own government’s bad practices. Indeed, maximizing the cost to the Turkish economy seems to have been Trump’s intent: he announced the tariffs in a tweet which came out just as Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s minister of finance (and Erdoğan’s son-in-law), was making a speech aimed at calming markets.
Further damage to Turkey’s economy is not in the interest of the United States or America’s allies in Europe. And because Trump has used tariffs so gratuitously against so many different countries, including China, Mexico, and Canada, Turkey has garnered rather more sympathy than it might otherwise have.
A “get tough” policy with Turkey was long overdue. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has botched the job. In diplomacy, sticks, as much as carrots, can be a useful tool, if they bring about behaviors that are favorable to your country. The White House took an unhappy marriage and steered it towards an angry – and equally unhappy – divorce.
Howard Eissenstat is an Associate Professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Project for Middle East Democracy (POMED)