Predicting the course of the coming Trump presidency could be an Olympic sport. The president-elect evidences strong opinions but little knowledge of many issues. Moreover, he usually was short on specifics: for instance, what would it mean to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS?
Thus, personnel are likely to be policy in many cases. While candidate Donald Trump hasn’t said much about Turkey—other than generally backing foreign strongmen and dismissing human rights concerns—his designated National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, has. And what the latter opined is not good, at least for approaching a nominal ally which is steadily moving toward authoritarianism and actively impeding U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria.
Flynn, a retired general who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency, appears to share the military’s traditional institutional deference toward Ankara. Turkey’s critics long pointed to the army’s outsize, undemocratic role; government’s routine violations of human rights; military’s invasion and continued occupation of a large portion of the Republic of Cyprus; and regime’s brutal campaign against Kurdish separatists. However, the Pentagon always came to Ankara’s defense: the country, with its military bases, was seen as a bulwark against Soviet expansion and model of moderate Islamic democracy.
But the end of the Cold War eliminated Ankara’s claim to anchor Europe’s security. In fact, Turkey has become a liability for NATO. Last fall President Recep Tayyip Erdogan risked dragging the entire continent into a full-scale war by shooting down a Russian aircraft for a 17-second violation of Turkish airspace.
Then Erdogan made a dramatic volte face, staging a rapprochement with Moscow. Turkey’s evident dissatisfaction with U.S. and European criticism raised questions whether his government could be trusted in a confrontation between NATO and Russia.
Moreover, Turkey lost its democratic status when Erdogan dropped his liberal feint which had won support from secular Turks and foreign observers alike. His government arrested critics, tried opponents in bizarre conspiracy trials, jailed scores of journalists, seized private media enterprises, threatened business critics, and advanced Islamist values. The country became a scary place even before the failed July coup.
Since then the regime has used the attempted putsch as an excuse to arrest opposition legislators and punish any and all opponents, including those who had opposed the military plot. More than 100,000 people have been imprisoned, lost their jobs, or been otherwise penalized. Erdogan now is planning to revive his stalled push for an authoritarian, Putin-like presidency.
So much for the traditional arguments for embracing Ankara. The rise of the Islamic State offers new reasons to doubt the bilateral relationship.
Turkey increasingly thwarts U.S. policy in the Middle East. Ankara rejected an American request to launch a second front from the north against Iraq in 2003. Only after extended negotiations did Turkey agree to American use of Incirlik air base against the Islamic State. Once an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, President Erdogan flipped to seek the former’s ouster; unwilling to commit Turkish troops and wealth, he insisted that Washington pursue his objective, in which the U.S. had no compelling interest. At the same time, the Erdogan government accommodated the Islamic State, allowing passage of men and materiel into Syria and facilitating the sale of oil seized by the violent jihadists. Indeed, Erdogan’s son may have profited from the illicit trade.
The Erdogan government abandoned the much-praised ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to raise domestic political tensions and regain the Islamic party’s parliamentary majority. Now Ankara is more active attacking Kurdish insurgents—the Kurdish Democratic Union Party/People’s Protection Units (PYD/YPG)—in Syria who have been America’s strongest ally against the Islamic State.
In fact, the U.S. was forced to halt its support for Turkish operations since Ankara refused to coordinate its operations with U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Moreover, Erdogan has insisted on his nation’s participation in operations inside Iraq, including against ISIS-held Mosul against the wishes of the Iraqi government, which fears he plans to annex long-claimed territory. Erdogan explained: “We did not voluntarily accept the borders of our country.”
Of course, Washington would gain nothing by treating Turkey as an enemy. But the U.S. should stop treating Ankara as an ally. American officials should have no illusions about what to expect when dealing with Turkey.
Yet Flynn apparently would base U.S. policy upon the mirage of a friendly Turkey. For instance, only four months ago Flynn backed the coup against Erdogan, who has been increasingly criticized by conservative friends of Turkey for his Islamist leanings and taming of the military, once entrusted with enforcing the Turkish secular state. Flynn had earlier blamed Ankara for not halting the movement of foreign fighters and materiel into Syria.
However, since last month, at least, Flynn has unflinchingly embraced the Erdogan government. On Election Day The Hill published his article entitled “Our Ally Turkey is in Crisis and Needs Our Support.” Argued Flynn: “Turkey is vital to U.S. interests. Turkey is really our strongest ally against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as a source of stability in the region. It provides badly needed cooperation with U.S. military operations.” He complained that “the Obama administration is keeping Erdogan’s government at arm’s length—an unwise policy that threatens our long-standing alliance.”
Alas, argued Michael Rubin of American Enterprise Institute: “Flynn gets Erdogan wrong, whitewashes recent Turkish behavior, fails the logic test, and proposes a policy prescription that would make matters worse.” To start, Flynn offers a misleading description of the current administration’s policy. Although post-coup Washington indicated concern with the massive purge of Erdogan’s opponents, Vice President Joe Biden staged a make-up visit, during which Erdogan humiliated both Biden and America. Despite Ankara’s extensive misbehavior, the administration has done little in response.
Of equal concern is Flynn’s position on the extradition of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Once an ally of Erdogan, Gulen turned on his patron three years ago. The former retaliated with a full-scale state assault on Gulen-affiliated schools and people, which accelerated after the failed coup. Erdogan blamed Gulen for the putsch even before it had been suppressed, and demanded the cleric’s extradition from America without offering evidence of his involvement. While Gulen’s participation is plausible, the movement’s influence in the military always was small and many of the apparent plotters had no connection to Gulen. In fact, Erdogan treated the attempted coup like Hitler responded to the Reichstag Fire: an excuse to purge any opponent, even with no connection to the incident.
Yet Flynn appeared to ignore the requirements of U.S. law in demanding Gulen’s extradition, which requires a legal showing of culpability. Flynn argued: “Gulen portrays himself as a moderate, but he is in fact a radical Islamist. He has publicly boasted about his ‘soldiers’ waiting for his orders to do whatever he directs them to do. If he were in reality a moderate, he would not be in exile, nor would he excite the animus of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government.” Indeed, argued Flynn, “Gulen’s vast global network has all the right markings to fit the description of a dangerous sleeper terror network.”
Observers offer conflicting assessments of Gulen, but whatever his exact theological views, there’s a major difference between being a “radical Islamist” in the abstract and threatening others in practice. So far there is no evidence that Gulen fits the latter. He arrived in the U.S. in 1999, well before Erdogan took power and the U.S. was drawn into the war on terror. His exile began under the repressive secular nationalist regime which Erdogan later dismantled—with Gulen’s assistance. And most any critic seems to “excite the animus of Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” religious or secular, peaceful or not.
As for connections with radical Islam, Erdogan has worked with Islamist and aggressive regimes, such as Sudan and Iran. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) has roots similar to those attacked by Flynn; Erdogan’s government has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, which Flynn criticized and claimed to be the “tradition” of Gulen’s teaching. Finally, as noted earlier, Erdogan initially aided the Islamic State’s rise in Syria.
Although Turks have reason to be concerned by Donald Trump’s opposition to Muslim immigration, the Erdogan government appears ready to embrace the new administration. If Flynn’s views prevail, on most issues America will be doing Ankara’s bidding.
Why did Flynn become a Turcophile? Some have argued that it arises from his lobbying activities, something denied by the client involved. Bloomberg’s Eli Lake raised the possibility that Flynn believes that he is offering a “diplomatic overture” or “reset” in relations which “could entice Erdogan to give more troops, allow more coalition flights and provide more aid to Syrian rebels.” This would provide the Trump administration an option to not work with Syria and Russia against ISIS.
There is logic to the latter argument though, if true, is badly misguided. Flynn would have the U.S. pay a high price in a dubious attempt to gain inconstant support from a government no longer aligned with America’s interests. Washington would abandon its best regional allies, the Kurds, and make Ankara’s problems in Syria America’s own. Moreover, the U.S. would sacrifice its legal and moral principles to accept unproven allegations from an increasingly authoritarian regime as a basis for handing over a political opponent of an aspiring dictator who had sought sanctuary in America. The victim would be sent to a government which has dismantled the remnants of the rule of law and used torture against many of those arrested.
“We need to see the world from Turkey’s perspective,” argued Flynn, and “recognize Turkey as a priority.” But Erdogan’s perspective does not well represent the Turkish people. Making that country a priority does not mean subjugating America’s interests to those of the Erdogan regime.
Others surrounding Trump appear to share Flynn’s bias in favor of the dictator-wannabe. For instance, Vice President-elect Mike Pence long was a strong supporter of Turkey, only criticizing it a few years ago for breaking relations with Israel and moving toward Iran. Policy adviser Walid Phares, working at Bahçeşehir University’s Washington campus, suggested that the incoming administration would review both the Gulen case and U.S. cooperation with the YPG. Another Trump adviser, former CIA director Jim Woolsey, said after the coup: “we have real reason to want things to go well for the Turks” since “We need them in that part of the world.” He argued they were helpful in Iraq and Syria: “We need the stability they can bring,” despite the growing repression.
Ankara once was a strong U.S. ally. Maybe it will become such an ally again. But not likely under President Erdogan. He has chosen to take a difference course. The incoming Trump administration should adapt its policy accordingly.