Analysis

With Erdogan and Trump Everything Is Personal, Even a Fall in the Turkish Lira

A raft of disputes are festering as both leaders eschew diplomacy, but it’s hard to negotiate when one side portrays an economic crisis as a national threat posed by an enemy state

Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Nato summit in Brussels, July 11, 2018.
Presidency Press Service via AP, Pool

Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was criticized by Turkish media last week for Qatar’s “silence” in the face of Turkey’s distress. “Turkey rushed to Qatar’s aid when Saudi Arabia imposed a boycott on it, sending hundreds of cargo planes,” the Turkish paper Takvim wrote. “Now Qatar is closing its eyes and not giving Turkey diplomatic and humanitarian support. Is that the face of a friend?”

The emir didn’t ignore this criticism, which reflected the mood in Turkey’s presidential palace. His trip to Turkey this week wasn’t just a show of support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; he also pledged to invest $15 billion. That helped boost the Turkish lira, and perhaps also public faith in Erdogan’s ability to end the crisis.

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Qatar’s move didn’t increase Turkey’s foreign-currency reserves, but it did provide a kind of financial guarantee. It might spare Turkey from having to ask the International Monetary Fund for a loan, or at least postpone the evil day. An IMF loan requires American approval, and given the bilateral crisis, the last thing Erdogan wants is to give Donald Trump more ammunition for forcing him to capitulate.

But Turkey’s close relationship with Qatar – Ankara helped the emirate circumvent sanctions by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and even built a military base there – drives it even further from the pro-American Arab coalition. It even brands it part of the Iranian one, which includes Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Qatar. Those countries have said they won’t join U.S. sanctions on Iran, and they’re all in the same boat regarding Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Erdogan, who a decade ago adopted “zero problems with neighbors” as his foreign-policy motto, now has many problems with many neighbors – and not for the first time. But aside from affecting world markets and regional and international relationships, Turkey’s crisis also attests to Washington’s directionless foreign policy.

The Turkish-American relationship now revolves around deep disagreements rather than common denominators. Turkey is angry about four things: America’s failure to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the cleric Erdogan accuses of plotting a failed coup in 2016; America’s support for Kurdish militias in Syria; its delay in supplying Turkey with F-35 fighter planes; and its conviction of Mehmet Attila, vice president of Turkey’s Halkbank, for violating sanctions on Iran. This last affair is expected to result in the bank paying billions of dollars in fines.

Washington's list of irritants

America is angry, first, about Turkey’s failure to release pastor Andrew Brunson, who was arrested two years ago on suspicion of taking part in the coup attempt and “supporting a terrorist organization.” Turkey did transfer him to house arrest, but a court refused to release him this week.

Turkey’s decision to buy S-400 missiles from Russia also infuriated the United States and other NATO countries, who fear that the Russian system will be incompatible with NATO’s systems. Other irritants include Turkey’s refusal to cooperate with sanctions on Iran and its partnership with Russia and Iran in finding a diplomatic solution for Syria’s civil war, which further reduced Washington’s influence in the Mideast.

>> Turkey opts for economic warfare over economic policies | Opinion 

But all these disputes are festering in large part because both Trump and Erdogan failed to resolve each one individually through diplomacy. They’ve now become one big mess, each dispute entangled with the others, and all steeped in a poisonous broth of ego and prestige that further impedes any improvement in the relationship.

Erdogan has trouble separating personal relations from policy. He doesn’t understand why Washington won’t extradite Gulen in exchange for Brunson; he thinks such things should be settled in a phone call between friends. And if America cites its legal system’s independence as grounds for not extraditing Gulen, why does it think the independence of Turkey’s legal system is any less sacred?

Similarly, Erdogan argues, if the United States values democracy, it can’t let people who plotted to bring down a democratically elected government remain out of jail. Of course, the firing of 150,000 civil servants and the arrest of tens of thousands of bureaucrats, officers, teachers, judges, journalists and academics isn’t really aimed at the coup plotters; it’s mainly a witch hunt against Erdogan’s critics. But Erdogan doesn’t accept this distinction.

He expects friendly leaders to adopt his viewpoint. When instead they criticize him for doing mortal damage to human rights, they become his personal enemies – and therefore Turkey’s enemies.

Erdogan also doesn’t accept America’s alliance with the Kurds in Syria against the Islamic State. He offered to send Turkish troops against the organization instead, and even to put them under U.S. command. Washington rightly rejected this offer, fearing Erdogan would exploit the war on Islamic State to overrun Kurdish areas. But Erdogan views America’s continued military cooperation with the Kurds not just as undermining Turkish national security, but as a personal insult.

Consequently, Turkey invaded Syria’s Afrin province and expelled tens of thousands of Kurds. Washington was furious but did nothing. It even reached an agreement with Ankara on control of the Syrian city of Manbij, which, at Ankara’s insistence, including ousting the Kurdish militias that conquered it.

'We'll look for new friends'

Whether or not this was smart, it shows that Ankara and Washington can agree on strategic issues as long as each recognizes the other’s interests. But when one leader views the other’s strategy as malicious acts aimed at him personally, disputes become unresolvable.

Instead of talking about American and Turkish interests, the discussion becomes personal – Trump versus Erdogan. That creates the misleading impression that the two leaders are on a par, despite the enormous differences in the strength of their countries. It also intensifies the bilateral crisis, especially on Erdogan’s part.

Judging by Erdogan’s rhetoric in recent weeks – and especially since Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey’s justice and interior ministers and doubled customs on Turkish steel and aluminum – Ankara has no more dangerous enemy than Washington.

“The U.S. prefers a priest to its NATO partner,” Erdogan said in a speech last Saturday. “We’ll look for new friends,” he threatened after the American sanctions were imposed. “The U.S. is waging economic war on the whole world, and the goal of the sanctions is to make us surrender on every front, economic and political,” he added this week.

Blaming the United States for Turkey’s economic crisis serves Erdogan’s interests because it obscures his own responsibility for the economic policies that produced the crisis. He has thereby turned the economic crisis into a national threat posed by an enemy state, which, just like a war, requires loyal citizens to support their leader.

Turkey responded by imposing sanctions on American electronics (except cellphones) and doubling customs duties on American cars, alcohol and cosmetics. He won’t let Trump humiliate him without a suitable Turkish response, even if he has to shoot himself in the foot.

But he has thereby backed Trump into a corner in which the U.S. president has to respond to “Turkey’s gall.” And since this is Trump, who knows where his Turkish policy is headed?

In July, when NATO leaders met in London, Trump raged about Europe’s unwillingness to spend more on defense. Then he added, “Except for Erdogan over here. He does things the right way.” He even gave the Turkish leader a fist bump.

One month later, the fist bump has become a kick in the rear. Apparently that’s how things go between friends.