Erdoğan should fold, but he isn’t playing poker
It looks, on the face of it, that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempt to raise the stakes against the United States has failed spectacularly. Erdoğan’s strategy for years – it would seem – has been to escalate at every opportunity and pick up loose diplomatic change from relatively unconcerned foreign powers. Pretending to run to China or Russia, or else threatening to end security co-operation or send over a few million refugees usually got him what he wanted.
But when Erdoğan made a deal with U.S. President Donald Trump for the release of a Protestant minister held hostage in Turkey, then later sent his foreign minister to retroactively improve the terms he had got, Trump decided to call his bluff, placing limited sanctions on two Erdoğan administration officials as a warning shot.
With the lira plunging, Erdoğan decided against backing down. Now it was the U.S.’s turn to up the ante, increasing its demands from just the release of the pastor to a total of 15 individuals including two detained Turkish-origin U.S. embassy employees and cancelling a group of special import tax breaks.
Those who know how Erdoğan works expected him to throw in his hand at this point. After all, in the past he has negotiated domestic turmoil and overcome innumerable obstacles through an odd form of pragmatism – that of knowing which battles to fight again later. If his stubbornness and pride had been untempered by this characteristic, he would likely have been knocked off his perch by the military or judiciary in the early days of his rule, just as happened to his Islamist predecessor Necmettin Erbakan in 1997.
Moreover, it could hardly be denied that the United States had the stronger hand: even the first hints of sanctions had dealt serious damage to the Turkish economy. So why is Erdoğan still in the game?
The reason seems to be that he does not believe he is playing poker. The United States has long accepted that Turkey is a prickly ally, more likely to respond to sticks or carrots than to co-operate out of any sense of duty. The last few years of dealing with Erdoğan have left Washington officials, no matter which department or institution they work for, with a universally unpleasant taste in the mouth. But they still see the relationship as a necessary one to achieve their foreign policy aims and believe that Erdoğan will realise he has nothing to lose by bidding higher.
Erdoğan’s perspective, however, marries some of the strongest elements of Turkish nationalist and Islamist anti-Americanism. Many Turkish nationalists see the U.S. as having turned from an ally against the Russian imperialists, who enslaved the Turkic peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia, to having adopted the old European imperialist cause of dividing up Anatolia into fiefdoms following the collapse of Communism. Turkey took a big economic hit in allowing the United States to prosecute the First Gulf War, and subsequent U.S. support to Kurdish militants in Iraq against Saddam Hussein suggested to critics of the U.S. that Turkey itself was America’s target. America’s recent renewal of support to Kurdish militias – this time in Syria – at a time of heightened conflict with their sister-groups inside Turkey has been read by the political mainstream of the country as a direct threat to the Turkish nation as a whole.
Meanwhile, Islamists have seen America’s hand behind every military coup in the 20th century – from the 1960 removal of Adnan Menderes, who went some way towards rolling back secular restrictions on religious practice in Turkey, to the 1997 military memorandum that led to Erbakan’s resignation. Some round this out by seeing the United States’s malign influence in every setback for the Sunni Islamic cause in recent history from Bosnia to Syria.
Now, many believe, the United States has made it its goal to get rid of Erdoğan as well. Thus, they see America as responsible for the Gezi protests of 2013, which saw Turkish urbanites come out onto the streets to protest a variety of illiberal policy initiatives, a 2013 attempt to prosecute Erdoğan and his close circle for corruption by a group of followers of Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based exile preacher, and the 2016 failed coup attempt, led by a group of soldiers including some who followed Gülen.
Unlike some of his ministers, Erdoğan is diplomatic enough not to directly blame the United States for these incidents. But he appears to truly believe that it was the United States which sent a brigade of soldiers to assassinate him in his hotel room in Marmaris two years ago. In this case, he is not playing a game of poker badly, but trying to double-guess America’s true game – one that, from his point of view, could cost him both his hard-won empire and his life.