Four takeaways from the Turkey parts of Bolton's book

A book written by John Bolton, Trump’s third national security adviser, has taken the news cycle by storm even before it was published. Ahval is the first and only news outlet in the world to cover the book’s Turkey connection, and you can view find all five pieces’ links here, and here

So, what have we learned from this book?

1. Our assumptions about the relationship between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and especially about Erdogan’s priorities have been vindicated. It is clear from the book that Trump and Erdoğan got even closer after Erdogan finally agreed to release Evangelical Pastor Andrew Brunson in October of 2018. 

We have seen Erdogan’s priorities with the United States in 2016 were changing. The Turkish president’s last face-to-face meeting with the Obama administration had been in September 2016, when Erdoğan met the then-Vice President Joe Biden in the United Nations. Everybody had assumed that Erdoğan brought up the extradition of Gülenists, particularly Fethullah Gülen himself, as the meeting took place a mere two months after the July 15 coup attempt.

Exactly 13 months after that U.N. meeting, we learned more about the content of the meeting from David Ignatius’ article for the Washington Post that the Turkish authorities did not deny that half of the 90-minute meeting actually had been dedicated to discussing Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, who was arrested in Miami in March 2016 and had a sealed indictment for his role in circumventing the sanctions on Iran between 2010-2016. Zarrab had close ties with the Erdoğan family, friends and allies, and that apparently had Erdoğan worrying about his own future.

According to the same Ignatius article, even Erdoğan’s wife, Emine Erdoğan, pleaded for help from Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, over the same matter. In the remaining 45 minutes of the meeting, Erdoğan presumably discussed matters that did pertain to the rest of Turkey’s 80-million-strong population, if he found the time considering the U.S. side also had matters to discuss with Turkey.

Now, from the pages of Bolton’s book, nearly two and a half years after Ignatius’ column, we learned that Erdoğan, during his phone calls to Trump and face-to-face meetings, continued to bring up the Halkbank issue as the first item on the agenda, asking the U.S. president to get things resolved – in other words, drop the charges against the majority state-owned Turkish lender. Erdoğan's most important meeting was with Trump, the leader of the free world, in a G20 meeting in Argentina. According to Bolton’s first-hand witness account, the meeting was once again primarily dedicated to what essentially was a sanction-busting corruption case tied to Turkey’s First Family. 

On multiple accounts throughout, Bolton’s book gives us a very detailed account of the priorities of Erdoğan’s government, which is the save the Erdogan circles from the wrath of US prosecutors first, and the foremost.

2. The book also shows us how effective Erdoğan has been on Trump’s policy-making in regards to Turkey. When Trump is capable of making decisions by himself – without needing Congressional approval or tied to the Judiciary decision – we have seen that he went along with what Erdoğan’s requests, such as withdrawing U.S. soldiers from northeastern Syria. Bolton provides a detailed account of how the senior staff from the U.S. government tried very hard to stop Trump’s Syria withdrawal decision, with the notable exception of Ambassador James Jeffrey and his team, with no avail. 

Surely, Trump did not withdraw from Syria’s northeast region just because Erdoğan asked him to, as it also fit nicely in his campaign promise of bringing the troops back. In the book, we see that prior to his visit to Ankara, Bolton received a short call from Trump, who repeatedly told the national security adviser that his voter base wants troops home. 

However, there are instances which have appeared to be great gestures by Trump to Erdoğan, such as spending his political capital to halt U.S. sanction packages from hitting the Turkish economy despite Ankara’s Russian S-400 air defense system purchase. In return, Erdoğan has avoided activating his deployed S-400s thus far, as Turkey’s economy rebounds. Also his efforts to get the Halkbank charges dropped, released Reza Zarrab or Mehmet Hakan Atilla with the help of his personal attorney Rudy Guiliani. 

Meanwhile, the AKP government officials who claimed that the S-400s will be an important factor for Turkey to claim its sovereignty (whatever that means) have now quieted down again, despite the announcement that the S-400s would be online by April. 

Former State Department career diplomat and Ahval contributor Ed Stafford pointed out that if Erdoğan wants Trump to get reelected, he would delay activating the systems until at least the upcoming November elections. This is a good point since after all of Trump’s efforts to accommodate Erdoğan, if Turkey goes ahead with activating the Russian system, it will mark another failure for Trump in another foreign policy front, the other of which being unable to stop Erdoğan distancing from the NATO umbrella despite all of warnings.

3 – We have also seen a brief but detailed account of U.S. Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey’s role in the relationship between America’s Syria policy and Turkey in Bolton’s book. Jeffrey had been already known for his “pro-Turkish government” profile in Washington for a number of years, after serving as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010. In Bolton’s book, Jeffrey also is portrayed as pro-Erdoğan and anti-Kurdish official. Due to extensive details on Jeffrey in the book, this part will be a separate piece.

4 - Fourth takeaway from the book is the comparison between the U.S. and Turkish political cultures. It is impossible to imagine that a Turkish official, who was holding one of the highest-ranking posts only a few months ago, would reminisce about his experiences in office. 

There is no one who has worked with Erdoğan and wrote a book on their experiences, or even shared any recollections, without establishing an opposition party.

Although books that are written as accounts based on daily encounters are viewed as partisan by those who see them against their interests, they are very important for U.S. history and politics. U.S. society puts their elected representatives under the spotlight, reads and sees what their leaders did, thus revealing the truth through the 'collision of ideas'.

So there is no need for a study called 'Kremlinology' for Washington. Everything is often in the limelight. The situation is completely the opposite with anything related to Erdoğan's palace, which is kept under wraps. Analysts are trying to explain the puzzles in Ankara by interpreting Erdoğan's choice of words or his gestures, which are often vague and unhelpful indicators.

We know that no serious issues are discussed in the Turkish parliament, and decisions about life or death, including war and cross border operations, are taken by a very small and narrow circle around Erdoğan. This narrow circle lives in a loyalist environment, and people are only informed about the decisions after they have already been made behind closed doors. 

Will Turkey wage a war on Greece or launch a cross-border operation into northern Iraq? Will Turkish warships resist Italian research ships in the eastern Mediterranean? Is Turkey heading for war with Russia in Syria's Idlib or with Egypt in Libya? What is next, Libya or the N.Iraq?

It is quite difficult to predict which of these war zones will be prioritised or be put on the backburner because there is a shadowy government which only talks to pro-government media and that leaves even parliamentary questions unanswered. They have zero transparency.

May those who are portrayed badly in Bolton's book attack the work. Let Republicans find the book partisan and continuously test the 'accuracy' of the book and there is nothing wrong with that. 

Though Turkey can only watch the United States with envy over such revelations. 

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