Trump-Erdoğan Washington meeting unlikely to benefit either country

Defying outrage over his greenlight for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to attack Kurdish forces in northern Syria and unleash Turkey’s Syrian jihadist proxies on the population there, President Donald Trump will welcome his Turkish counterpart for an official visit on Wednesday. 

To what end? What does he hope to gain from welcoming a foreign leader who shows increasing disdain for the United States and opposition to most of its foreign policy initiatives? 

One can also ask a similar question of Erdoğan. Having succeeded in getting Trump’s acquiescence to his foray into northern Syria, suffering little meaningful consequences thus far for acquiring Russian S400 missiles, and enjoying high approval ratings at home, what does Erdoğan hope to gain from his visit to Washington?

For Erdoğan, perhaps it is nothing more than seeing himself and being seen on a par with the president of the most powerful nation in the world. But given Erdoğan’s success in getting what he wanted from Trump, it is hard to imagine that he feels any need to stand side-by-side with the U.S. president in order to raise his own stature.  

Likewise, Trump has no need to be seen as a friend of Erdoğan. On the contrary, Congress and the foreign policy community in Washington are quite unhappy that Trump is hosting Erdoğan. Even among those who value U.S.-Turkey relations there is little love for Erdoğan. One wonders what favours the White House had to offer Senate leader Mitch McConnell so he would defer action on sanctions against Turkey until after Erdoğan’s visit.  

Trump likes to be liked. He holds rallies across the United States because he likes to hear people cheering him. He remains convinced that withdrawing protection from the Syrian Kurds was the right decision, and though that decision has been roundly condemned by most foreign policy pundits, his supporters who attend his rallies seemed to have accepted that he is fulfilling a promise to end U.S. involvement in never-ending wars.  

Receiving Erdoğan allows Trump to take control of the narrative he tells his supporters that the United States is respected now, as it was not in the Obama years. Given the low-level of attention to foreign affairs among U.S. voters, many Trump supporters will be impressed that Erdoğan came to see their president, that Erdoğan sought the meeting. As always for Trump, the applause of his supporters matters much more than the comments, advice and wise counsel of his staff or long-serving government diplomats.  

He also likes to be seen as a great dealmaker. But in the field of foreign affairs, his deal-making has not lived up to his own rhetoric. North Korea still has a nuclear programme, Iran’s malevolent influence and activities in the Middle East continue, Russia’s neighbours live with anxiety about Moscow’s intentions, and various trade pacts are either pending or muddling along. Trump would like to have a win, a foreign policy success he could point to as he begins his re-election campaign. Hopes of achieving something like a great deal with Erdoğan will play powerfully in his discussions with the Turkish president. One suspects that Trump’s advisors are nervous about what he will concede to Erdoğan in order to be seen as a consummate negotiator.  

It will not be easy. Erdoğan reportedly has a list of issues he wishes to discuss — S-400s, Turkey’s suspension from the programme to build F-35 fighter jets, buying Patriot missile defences, possible U.S. penalties on Turkey’s Halkbank, the extradition of Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, Congress recognition of the Armenian genocide, and a bilateral trade deal of $100 billion. None of these matters are under Trump’s full control, and the House of Representatives’ recent vote on the Armenian genocide illustrates the lack of enthusiasm for accommodating Turkey’s president.

In the past, the White House, Pentagon, the State Department and other U.S. agencies would have strongly lobbied against an Armenian genocide resolution lest it damage relations with Turkey. No such official counter-lobbying took place this time. In other areas, Congress supports Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 programme and sanctions due to the acquisition of S-400s, expresses cautions about Patriots, seeks stiff penalties against Halkbank, and expects due legal process regarding Gülen.  Whether the Senate will take up the Armenian genocide resolution to affirm the House votes will likely wait until after Erdoğan leaves, but Senator Bob Menendez can be counted on to push for such a vote soon. Only in the area of bilateral trade does Trump have much room for manoeuvre without facing a barrage of criticism for working closely with Erdoğan.  

In sum, this visit appears to be an exercise in papering over the profound cleavage between U.S. and Turkish interests in foreign policy. Both national leaders may get some strokes for their respective egos, but it is difficult to see any real benefit to relations between the two nations and their people to come from this show of friendship that Erdoğan and Trump share.