U.S.-Turkish relations: melting down over the Brunson case

U.S.-Turkey relations have been poor and getting worse for some time.  This is not how it should be between two NATO Allies with a long history of working together for the political stability and national security that forms the basis for prosperity for the people of the Atlantic Alliance.

Certainly Turkey’s economic growth over the last decades owes almost as much to the relatively safe investment environment NATO provides as to the sound economic policies of recent Turkish governments. Investors, not speculators, require stability and predictability to make the investments that will grow an economy for the benefits of all the citizens of a nation. Without it, a nation soon finds itself at the mercy of speculators and con men ready to take advantage of a country’s difficulties. Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe for decades and Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Iran more recently, present case studies in the process. Those countries’ citizens’ suffered as a few well-connected cronies of the political leadership plundered the national resources, driving up the rate of poverty, exacerbating inequality, and accelerating the departure of the brightest and most talented honest entrepreneurs for countries with less corruption. As the economy implodes, the political leadership that facilitated the implosion by incompetence or corruption portrays itself as the victim of outside forces that conspire against it and the people.  One can attribute this process to many factors, but in all cases, the authoritarian nature of the economically imploding regimes depends on the personal hubris and ideological blinders of one person with nearly complete authority. The outcome of the increased tensions between the U.S. and Turkey could well mark the starting point of Turkey’s setting out on this downwardly spiraling path. Can it be prevented?

While the recent actions, or inactions, in the Andrew Brunson case cast U.S. tensions into stark relief given the personal suffering of someone falsely accused (like many others) of involvement in the July 2016 coup attempt, relations have been going from challenging to difficult to poor for  some time.  The litany of areas of tension is well-known: U.S. support for Kurdish fighters, arrest of U.S. citizens on specious grounds, Turkey seeking to buy Russian military hardware, arguments over the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, Halk Bank prosecution, sanctions against Iran, etc. 

Given the Trump’s administrations loudly proclaimed America First policy, the case of an Evangelical Protestant Minister takes on greater significance than it would in most relations between sovereign states, as Trump has made protecting U.S. citizens and U.S. interests paramount in his foreign relations dealings.  Trump considered it a signal victory that three U.S. citizens were released from prison in exchange for his meeting with Kim Jung Un, which was for him a much lower price than Obama had paid for the release of Sgt. Bergdahl by the Taliban.

It seems that Erdoğan and his advisors do not realise the importance Trump attaches to securing the unconditional release of one American he believes has been wrongly imprisoned. And while Brunson’s status as an Evangelical Protestant minister of the same denomination of Pompeo and the same type of church as Pence should not be discounted, Trump has shown, and Erdoğan and his advisors have missed, that gaining the release of an American falsely detained in prison is of paramount importance to Trump, even to the point of making promises of the transfer of convicted criminals and suspending prosecutions (if press reports can be believed).

How can Erdoğan forestall further damage to the fragile Turkish economy?  How can both men be made to realise that each has more to gain than to lose by finding an amicable resolution to the disagreement? Is there a model that might serve their mutual interests?  Certainly not the Bergdahl for Taliban deal, nor any deal that could be construed as one side winning at the expense of the other.  Perhaps the resolution of the Alan Gross case could serve as a model.

Briefly, Alan Gross was sentenced to prison for espionage, charges with no basis in fact and likely engineered by the Cuban authorities to facilitate the swap of Gross for Cubans incarcerated in the U.S. for spying and harassing Cuban-Americans in South Florida.  The resolution of Gross’s status became a stumbling block to the restoration of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, something both countries desired after a break of over fifty years. A swap was impossible, for any suggestion that Gross was being swapped for the Cuban spies would have opened up any U.S. person to being made a hostage of a foreign government as leverage against the U.S. With the help of Vatican officials, in particular then Archbishops Parolin and Becciu, a deal was made in which the Cuban government released a Cuban convicted of spying for the CIA in exchange for the early release of their spies in Miami, and Alan Gross was released as a humanitarian gesture

All this was done with the utmost secrecy. It is a useful model of how, through quiet, confidential negotiations, two countries can resolve impediments to improving their working relations (even two ostensible allies like Turkey and the U.S.) fraught with difficult challenges.  Perhaps the U.S. administration and the Turkish government could avail themselves of the good offices of Cardinal Parolin (in effect the Prime Minister of the Holy See), who recently spoke with Vice-President Pence about Nicaragua, to help pursue a resolution of the Brunson case. This would require Trump and Erdoğan to stop making public threats, forswear bullying tactics, and stop posturing for each man’s respective political base – difficult given their temperaments and aversion to backing down, but necessary to save the relationship.  In sum, a resolution in which each comes out feeling like a winner is needed and a discreet honest broker could be the key to realising that outcome. Otherwise, one must fear that the people of Turkey will face severe economic pain to satisfy Erdoğan and Trump’s personal political agendas.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.