Bolton Reveals the Beautiful One-sided Friendship Between Trump and Erdogan

In new book, former U.S. national security adviser describes the chaos behind closed doors of the White House, and how Erdogan can take advantage of it ■ This offers important lesson for Israel’s decision makers

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Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Watford, U.K., December 4, 2019
U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Watford, U.K., December 4, 2019Credit: Peter Nicholls/ Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Last Saturday, U.S. President Donald Trump fired federal prosecutor Geoffrey Berman, who has been viewed as Trump’s nemesis for a long time. He is the prosecutor who arrested and prosecuted Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen. He later started to investigate Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer.

In between, he also prosecuted Halkbank, a Turkish bank convicted of laundering some $20 million for Iranian companies and thereby helping Iran circumvent sanctions. Two days after Berman left office, the Turkish bank’s shares jumped eight percent.

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This seems like further indisputable proof of the butterfly effect. A prosecutor was fired in Washington and a bank’s shares soared in Turkey. But the butterfly in this case has big, clumsy wings, and he sits in the White House.

The connection between Trump and the bank’s case was evident even without the book recently published by John Bolton, the former national security adviser who Trump fired. But Bolton’s revelations give this story extra force.

Geoffrey Berman arrives to his office in New York, June 20, 2020Credit: Kevin Hagen/ AP

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Trump, Bolton wrote, asked him to call Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general at that time, and request that he cancel the indictment against the bank, which served ‒ and still serves the interests of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Bolton said he didn’t carry out the president’s order, but he confirmed that Trump promised Erdogan that he would intervene directly in the case, and even promised to fire some of the people in Berman’s office.

The State Department was also mobilized for the operation to rescue the bank and Erdogan by trying to reach a deal with the Justice Department and the prosecutor. But this effort failed in October 2019, when Berman decided to file the indictment.

That put an end to Erdogan’s massive, years-long effort to lobby the White House and other U.S. government departments. But now, following Berman’s dismissal, the Turkish bank might get a special deal.

Trump’s intervention in the Halkbank case wasn’t just another chapter in the “great friendship” he developed with Erdogan following the nadir their relationship hit due to Turkey’s arrest of pastor Andrew Brunson and the sanctions Trump imposed on Turkey in the summer of 2018. This friendship grew quickly after the pastor’s release.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a meeting in Beijing Thursday, August 17, 2017.Credit: Wang Zhao/ AP

The case also gave Trump a possible lever with which to pry Turkey out of invading Syria, especially after he announced, in December 2018, that he planned to withdraw American forces from Syria. But this lever was evidently made of cardboard. Bolton revealed in his book that because Trump thought Turkey intended to invade Syria, he wanted to withdraw American forces so the Turks wouldn’t be attacking the Kurds while U.S. troops were still present.

Turkey’s top brass apparently also opposed the invasion. Bolton quoted Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying that senior officers were “a lot less interested in going into Syria than Erdogan and were looking for reasons they could use to avoid conducting military operations south of their border.”

Bolton, who was visiting Israel at the time, was given the job of informing Erdogan about Washington’s objections to his invasion plans and the necessity of protecting the Syrian Kurds. Erdogan was predictably furious and decided to cancel his meeting with Bolton.

When he arrived in Ankara, Bolton wrote, James Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Syria, “Circulated a color-coded map of northeast Syria, showing which parts of north-eastern Syria he proposed to allow Turkey to take over and which the Kurds could retain.” This was in defiance of a previously agreed upon statement of principles.

James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria, outside the Boynuyogun refugee camp near Hatay, Turkey, March 3, 2020Credit: MEHMET CALISKAN/ REUTERS

Jeffrey, who was the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010 and is considered a close friend of Erdogan’s, evidently wasn’t impressed by that statement of principles. Like U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, he has his own position.

Dunford, who was part of Bolton’s delegation, “Didn’t like what the map showed at all,” Bolton wrote. He told Bolton it was “certainly his position” to “keep the Turks entirely on their side of the border with Syria east of the Euphrates River,” as Bolton had proposed.

Bolton’s own view, he wrote, was that he "wanted to see northeastern Syria look much as it did now, but without U.S. troops being present.”

In response to this position, Erdogan canceled his meeting with Bolton. Instead, he gave an aggressive speech in which he rejected any concession or compromise. Bolton termed him a dictator in his book and compared his speech to ones given by Mussolini.

Erdogan continued this aggressive line in his telephone calls with Trump. In the end, Trump ordered Bolton to draft a statement saying the United States would withdraw from Syria because the Islamic State was “finished.”

The Islamic State wasn’t finished at that time, but Trump didn’t want to hear that. He even belittled French President Emmanuel Macron’s warnings that withdrawing would be a big mistake.

“Trump brushed him aside, saying we were finished with ISIS, and that Turkey and Syria would take care of any remnants,” Bolton wrote. “Macron replied that Turkey was focused on attacking the Kurds, and would compromise with ISIS.”

Former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, April 9, 2018Credit: Kevin Lamarque/ Reuters

This, incidentally, was also U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s view. According to Bolton, Pompeo said Erdogan didn’t care a whit about the Islamic State.

Erdogan tried to reassure Trump regarding the Kurds, Bolton wrote. “Erdogan took pains to say he loved the Kurds and vice versa, but added that the YPG-PYD-PKK (three Kurdish groups in Turkey and Syria, the nine initials of which Erdogan rattled off as if spelling his own name) were manipulating the Kurds, and did not represent them.”

“We had heard all this before, and it was standard Erdogan regime propaganda,” Bolton added.

Moments before Trump promised Erdogan that America would withdraw from Syria, the two had a lengthy conversation on the Halkbank case, about which Erdogan was very upset. “Trump started by saying we were getting very close to a resolution on Halkbank,” Bolton wrote. “He had just spoken to [Secretary of the Treasury Steven] Mnuchin and Pompeo, and said we would be dealing with Erdogan’s great son-in-law,” ‒ Berat Albayrak, who later became Turkey’s finance minister ‒ “to get it off his shoulders.”

Did Trump’s willingness to help out in the bank case influence Erdogan’s policy? Erdogan still invaded northern Syria, but he didn’t carry out his entire plan, which was to take over a belt of territory 30 kilometers long. Nor did he expel most of the Syrian Kurds from their homes.

Trump, for his part, didn’t withdraw the U.S. forces. He also didn’t prevent the Turkish invasion and still views Erdogan as a close friend whom he can count on. So close that to date, he hasn’t imposed sanctions on Turkey over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, even though the purchase was fiercely opposed by other NATO members.

Erdogan repaid Trump by deciding not to put these systems into operation, for now. But he has already signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to purchase additional S-400 batteries, as well as Sukhoi Su-35 planes. Perhaps Trump accepted Turkey’s “concession” because he hoped it would help him in November’s election, in which he could depict the freeze in activating the systems as an achievement of his foreign policy.

Now, Washington is observing from a distance as Turkey also entrenches itself in Libya. It is also a mere bystander to an agreement the two countries signed that divvied up their exclusive economic zones in a way that could significantly hinder Egypt, and possibly Israel too, from selling natural gas to Europe. Meanwhile, the conflict between Turkey and Greece puts Trump to sleep, despite its potential for deteriorating into a military clash.

Thus, Erdogan will apparently be able to keep doing as a he pleases in the Mediterranean basin and beyond it as long as Trump is in power.

This offers an important lesson for Israel’s decision makers, who believe that Washington conducts policy regarding Israel on a logical, judicious, principled basis which stems from viewing Israel as an ally with a shared right-wing ideology. But they need to recognize that Trump’s lexicon doesn’t include the words “ideology” or “logic.”

For Trump, everything is personal, and his base is more important to him than American or international interests. It’s also important to remember that quite a few members of his base are antisemites.

Israel was ecstatic when Bolton was appointed national security adviser, seeing him as an ally in the struggle against Iran. It was also certain that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would be putty in its hands.

But Bolton is now gone, together with many other cabinet members and aides who annoyed Trump or criticized his policies. Kushner has lost his halo; U.S. special envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt has left; and if annexation turns out to be a hindrance in Trump’s campaign, he is likely to ditch it.

The book’s detailed portrayal of Bolton as a voice of reason in the U.S. administration ‒ someone who was concerned about the fate of the Kurds, viewed Erdogan as a dictator and depicted decision-making processes in the Trump administration as utter chaos, with no consistency, no method and no plan ‒ is obviously one-sided. We’ll evidently have to wait for Pompeo, Kushner and Trump himself to publish their books to fully grasp Bolton’s role in shaping U.S. policy.

Veteran Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir offered a fascinating view of this practice in an article published recently on the Ahval news website. He was impressed by America’s political culture, in which a senior administration official can reveal details from decision makers’ private discussions as part of the country’s culture of transparency. Such a culture, he said, requires an administration to explain its policies, plans and reasoning to the citizens.

In Turkey, in contrast, “We know that no serious matter is discussed in parliament. Decisions of life and death, including wars beyond our borders, are made by a small group of people in Erdogan’s circle ... The public learns about them only after they have been made behind closed doors,” he wrote.

Granted, books have been written about Erdogan in recent years. But no former senior Turkish official, even among those who were his rivals, has yet dared to publish a political biography or memoir from his time in office.

This isn’t due solely to the culture of secrecy that characterizes Erdogan’s government. Fear of the law and harassment is also preventing any revelations.

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