Opinion by Endy Zemenides
Fans of diplomatic history realize the importance of dates: They mark milestones, turning points, make-or-break moments. Those who follow Turkey are keenly aware that a new era in the country’s diplomatic history is taking shape before us. March 4 and 5, 2019 are sure to become important dates in this new diplomatic history.
This past Monday, reversing a trend of handling issues with Ankara quietly and in private, US President Donald Trump sent a letter to Congress calling for the termination of preferential trade treatment for Turkey. Most of Turkey’s exports to the US have enjoyed duty-free treatment since 1975.
Then on Tuesday, General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, responded to an inquiry from the Senate Armed Services Committee as to what he would advise if Turkey went ahead with its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system: “My best military advice would be that we don’t follow through with the F-35, flying it or working with an ally that’s working with Russian systems, particularly air defense systems.”
The administration seems to have finally caught up with Congress when it comes to questioning Turkey’s status as an ally. US Senator Chris Van Hollen – the leader of recent congressional efforts to prevent the transfer of F-35 fighter jets if Turkey acquires the Russian S-400 – noted the significance of this week’s developments. “I don’t think Turkey doubted the resolve of Congress [to force it to abandon the S-400],” said Van Hollen, but Ankara attached more significance to “the ambiguity from the Trump administration.” According to the senator, the testimony of General Scaparrotti and Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan removed all ambiguity: “The US government is unified in our position” regarding expectations of Turkey, and all stakeholders in Washington are “losing patience” with Ankara.
This lack of ambiguity and open frustration is particularly noteworthy because successive administrations adopted the habit of papering over Turkey’s constant transgressions and overvaluing Turkey’s contributions as an ally. “The only point of consistency in US policy on Turkey has been wishful thinking,” says Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. Today, a more realistic – and pessimistic – view on Turkey has replaced the longtime Washington consensus. Rubin notes the change over the last few years: The US Congress, the Pentagon and the free press have all become “hostile” toward Turkey and it has become “increasingly tenuous” even for officials in the State Department to be pro-Turkey. A former Pentagon official, Rubin sees significance in the dwindling number of Turkey appeasers in the US government: “If there is an upside in General [James] Mattis leaving, it is that he was too status quo with regard to Turkey and blocked more punitive measures.”
Mattis wasn’t unique in giving Turkey the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, given that Turkey had achieved a type of “favored nation” status during Barack Obama’s first term in office, the fall from favor during that same administration and the failure to regain that favor during the Trump administration must have been particularly shocking for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The unjustified elevation and exultation of Turkey may be in part responsible for the present crisis in the bilateral relationship. “Washington has sent too many mixed signals to Erdogan – like dropping the charges against the Sheridan Circle assailants,” according to Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish Parliament. Erdemir contends that this has allowed Erdogan to believe that “Turkey is too big to fail” in the US’s estimation and that he can get away with taking delivery of the S-400 system.
The debate over the S-400 seems to be provoking a 180-degree turn when it comes to the Washington consensus on Turkey, whose reliability and indispensability are openly and constantly questioned. “Turkey’s purchase of S-400s betrays secrets and intelligence,” says Rubin, who argues that this weapons system is potentially a Trojan horse that makes NATO’s air defenses and other assets (like the F-35) more vulnerable to Russia.
There is an emerging consensus in Congress that there is no universe in which Turkey can be allowed to have both S-400s and F-35s. Senator Van Hollen believes that this would “put American F-35 pilots at risk” and that “it is unacceptable to have a NATO ally compromising the security of other NATO forces.” Van Hollen is presently leading a group of senators in readying new legislation that would prohibit the F-35 transfers to Turkey if it does not give up the S-400s.
There still remains a “don’t lose Turkey” crowd in Washington – and it is no coincidence that they have the closest financial ties with Turkey. But their rhetoric masks the fact that Turkey could already be lost. Erdemir argues that “Erdogan’s heart is with Russia,” and worries that radical changes in the military since the 2016 coup attempt – with Eurasianists on the ascent and Transatlanticists marginalized – may have sealed Turkey’s turn away from the West. The delivery of the S-400s and the resulting plans to train Turkish officers in Russia could make that turn permanent, and Erdemir warns that Turkey’s “NATO military culture could be gradually replaced by a Russian military culture.”
After decades of using honey to attract Turkey toward the West proved insufficient, the Trump administration and Congress are turning to vinegar. Clarifying the consequences – on the trade front, on the security relationship – that Turkey will suffer should it continue to pivot away from the West might convince Erdogan that Washington’s bite will finally be worse than its bark. But as of right now, Erdogan is betting that Washington will blink first.
Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.