WASHINGTON, DC – Mere days after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s trip to Washington, DC, in November, Steven Cook, Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, published his annual Thanksgiving article, a piece in Politico titled “Why I’m Sick of Turkey.” Thus began the end of a tumultuous year for Turkey in the United States.
The Washington consensus on Turkey began showing serious fissures in the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, especially as differences over how to battle ISIS in Syria put Washington and Ankara at odds over an issue that received widespread public attention. Added to American reactions to Turkey’s crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters and its press, its continuing hostility toward Armenia, Cyprus, Greece and Israel (and as a result the Armenian, Hellenic, and pro-Israel lobbies), and the aftermath of the failed Turkish coup in 2016, Turkey quickly lost its “golden child” status. The change in perceptions about Turkey were perhaps best captured in President Obama’s noted interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine.” Goldberg noted the early faith President Obama had in Recep Tayyip Erdogan, only to consider “him a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria” by the end of his presidency.
The Erdogan regime, perhaps seeking a reset and certainly with the intention of halting the increasing cooperation between the US and the Kurds in Syria, began aggressively reaching out to the incoming administration of Donald Trump – including allegedly bribing the new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to arrange the kidnapping of Fethullah Gulen.
Turkey’s focus on Gulen led to perhaps its biggest sin (pun intended) in the eyes of the Trump administration: the arrest and extended detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson. An issue that carried over from the Obama years, the situation boiled over when Erdogan retreated on a promise to President Trump to release Brunson. The president lambasted Turkey on Twitter, the administration imposed sanctions on Turkish officials and Congressional efforts to tie weapons transfers to Brunson’s release picked up steam.
The Brunson case also put a spotlight on Turkey’s practice of hostage diplomacy. Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish Parliament, considers the Brunson case a tipping point. “Since Turkey’s failed coup attempt in July 2016, Erdogan has pursued a reckless policy of taking over 50 Western nationals and permanent residents hostage to extract concessions from his NATO allies,” says Erdemir. “Ankara’s imprisonment of US Pastor Andrew Brunson without an indictment for 17 months, and on farcical charges of espionage, terrorism, and coup plotting, has finally drawn global attention to Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy. The US government’s subsequent imposition of Global Magnitsky sanctions against two Turkish ministers in August 2018, the first such designations against officials of a NATO ally, is a sign of the growing wedge the Brunson case has driven between Washington and Ankara. Erdogan’s rogue tactics have not only drifted Turkey from the transatlantic alliance and its values, but also fueled Turkey skepticism on both sides of the US Congress. It will take future Turkish governments years, if not decades, to undo the damage from Erdogan’s anti-Western policies.”
The damage is obvious. The criticism of Turkey has gone from sporadic – every year around the commemoration of either the Armenian Genocide or the invasion of Cyprus – to constant. The American government has abandoned its habit of handling its issues with Turkey privately, and now resorts to increasingly blunt and sometimes harsh rhetoric. Coalitions lobbying Washington to hold Turkey accountable, like the #NoJetsForTurkey initiative started by the Hellenic American Leadership Council, the Armenian National Committee of America and In Defense of Christians and later expanded to include the pro-Israel community, are broader than ever before. And this time, there are serious consequences for Turkey.
Turkey’s close security relationship with Washington is at risk. During the Brunson case, members of Congress tried to make the transfer of F-35 jets to Turkey conditional on the pastor’s release. This past summer, Congress advanced several pieces of legislation that at the very least restrict – and could potentially eliminate – Turkey’s chances of finalizing its acquisition of the F-35s, especially if it goes ahead with its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system. In a new report spearheaded by Cook (“Neither Friend nor Foe: The Future of US-Turkey Relations”), the Council on Foreign Relations recommends that “the United States should end its cooperation with Turkey on the F-35 program.” Turkey’s open undermining of US interests and policies cannot continue to go unchecked while Turkey enjoys “the benefits of America’s most advanced military aircraft.” One final dilemma – that Turkey’s participation in the F-35 production process made it impossible to kick it out of the F-35 program – was removed when the US Air Force’s outgoing deputy undersecretary for international affairs declared there would be no “devastating impact” on the F-35 industrial base if Turkey is removed from the program. Ankara is going to have to change course if it wants these jets.
So, is the US really sick of Turkey? Cook casts doubt on whether there is a new conventional wisdom in Washington. “There is a consensus and not a consensus all at the same time,” notes Cook, who has notably changed his outlook on Turkey over the last few years. “Gone are the days when most people thought of Turkey as a reliable ally, but there does seem to be a fair number of people in Washington – mostly in the bureaucracy – who want to ‘save’ the relationship. That said, the bureaucracy is divided on the issue, but the people who are inclined to overlook Turkey’s bad behavior in the service of some aspirational future cooperation seem to win the argument.” The tide may be turning, but quite a long road still needs to be traveled before Washington adopts a new Turkey policy.
Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.