‘My dear friend’: Why Trump-Erdoğan ties endure

Why We Wrote This

A White House meeting this week featured President Trump’s relish for meeting foreign leaders, but also the long-standing challenge of diplomacy with a nation closely tied to both NATO and Russia.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks at a news conference alongside President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 13, 2019, in Washington.

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President Donald Trump’s affinity for strongmen is well documented, from Vladimir Putin of Russia to Kim Jong Un of North Korea. But the president’s relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – whom he hosted in a controversial White House visit Wednesday – may be the most complicated. 

As a member of NATO, Turkey is an ally. And yet it is cozying up to Russia in ways that have antagonized the U.S. Congress. Top concerns include Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria targeting U.S.-allied Syrian Kurds and its purchase of Russian weapons systems.

President Trump used Wednesday’s Oval Office meeting to convey the concerns of some of his closest allies on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas, by inviting them to speak directly with President Erdoğan. By bringing key senators “inside the tent” – an unusual move – Mr. Trump was both managing internal GOP dissent and delivering a message to a miscreant ally. 

“It was a smart strategic step by Trump,” says Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He knows there’s massive anger against Turkey on the Hill, and the only way he can control it is by letting some steam to vent.”

At almost any other time, a warm White House welcome by an American president to an authoritarian world leader would dominate the news. But falling as it did on the opening day of historic impeachment hearings into President Donald Trump, the visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed almost an afterthought.

The timing, in fact, may have served President Trump well. He was able to carry out Wednesday’s controversial visit with less public attention than it might otherwise have received. Several hundred chanting protesters crammed Lafayette Park outside the White House, but heightened security prevented a repeat of the violence that accompanied President Erdoğan’s visit in 2017. 

Perhaps most important, Mr. Trump used the Oval Office meeting to convey the concerns of some of his closest allies on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas, inviting them to attend the meeting and speak directly with Mr. Erdoğan. 

Top concerns include Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria targeting U.S.-allied Syrian Kurds and its purchase of Russian weapons systems, despite Turkey’s membership in NATO. Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who also attended the Oval Office meeting, has been drafting bipartisan legislation that would sanction Turkey for its Russian weapons purchase. 

By bringing key senators “inside the tent” at the meeting with Mr. Erdoğan – an unusual move – Mr. Trump was both managing internal GOP dissent and delivering a message to a miscreant ally. 

“It was a smart strategic step by Trump,” says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He knows there’s massive anger against Turkey on the Hill, and the only way he can control it is by letting some steam to vent.”

For Mr. Erdoğan, the main goal in coming to Washington was to return a sense of normalcy to U.S.-Turkish relations, which would benefit the stalled Turkish economy. 

“There is pretty severe anti-Turkish sentiment in the U.S. capital, at a level I have not witnessed in nearly two decades of observing the relationship,” says Mr. Cagaptay, author of the book “Erdoğan’s Empire.”

The day of meetings, capped by a press conference, ended without any major announcements. Still on the table are a possible $100 billion trade deal and a proposal for Turkey to keep its Russian S-400 missile defense system in storage, as a way to avoid U.S. sanctions. 

The photo op of the two leaders in the Oval Office and then holding court with the press in the East Room of the White House may have been the biggest reward for Mr. Erdoğan. The cherry on top was Mr. Trump saying “I’m a big fan” of the Turkish president. Mr. Erdoğan repeatedly called Mr. Trump “my dear friend.” 

“He does not want to be seen as an international pariah, and particularly he does not want to be seen as on the U.S.’s list of bad leaders,” says Jordan Tama, an assistant professor of international relations at American University. 

Still, there was a moment of discord when Mr. Erdoğan said he had returned the recent letter Mr. Trump had sent imploring him not to be a “tough guy” or a “fool” as he launched the invasion into Syria.

For Mr. Trump, the benefit may have been the ceremony of receiving a major world leader, albeit a controversial one – a reminder to the public that he’s still president, with all the power that entails, even as Democrats a few miles away were launching the public phase of their impeachment effort. 

“He likes to be seen speaking with world leaders,” says Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “He likes the drama, he likes getting his way.” 

Mr. Trump’s affinity for strongmen is well documented, from Vladimir Putin of Russia to Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Kim Jong Un of North Korea. But within that club, the president’s relationship with Turkey and Mr. Erdoğan may be the most complicated. 

As a member of NATO, Turkey is an ally. And yet it is cozying up to Russia in ways that antagonize the West and the U.S. Congress. But if the U.S. were to distance itself from Turkey, that would only push the country further into Russia’s arms, analysts say. 

“Turkey under Erdoğan sees itself playing a much more independent role for itself in the Middle East,” says Ms. Hintz, a specialist on Turkey. “It’s important not to be seen being told what to do by the US.”

A sign of the increasingly complex U.S.-Turkish relationship is the U.S. House resolution that passed Oct. 29 recognizing the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks. In the past, such resolutions have failed, as House members didn’t want to antagonize Turkey. After recent Turkish military moves against the Kurds, the floodgates opened. The measure passed 405-11. 

In the U.S. domestic political context, relations with Turkey and other authoritarian-ruled countries may seem inconsequential. But Mr. Trump’s affinity for strongmen could matter on the margins in next year’s election, says Mr. Tama of American University. 

“We know that Americans care about democracy and human rights as a part of foreign policy,” says Mr. Tama. 

“So to the extent that Trump is being criticized for sidling up to authoritarian leaders or accommodating authoritarian leaders at the expense of groups or individuals who are trying to defend their rights, then this is not a popular position for Trump to be taking.” 

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