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Henri Barkey
Nov 30 2018

The Trump and Erdoğan relationship: It is not what you think

U.S. President Donald Trump’s insistence on protecting the Saudis and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the case of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi should on the surface have created a rift between the United States and Turkey. After all, it is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has acted as Prince Mohammed’s chief accuser and is maximising global attention on the case. Paradoxically, not only has this not damaged relations between Erdoğan and Trump, but also the whole affair may have created just the opposite effect.

Erdoğan and Turkish authorities from the moment Khashoggi disappeared within the confines of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul have successfully managed to keep the attention on the disappearance by revealing details daily, almost always without attribution, of the murder. These often quite salacious and disturbing details have riveted the international media. By generating this constant pressure, Erdoğan succeeded in putting Prince Mohammed and Trump on the defensive.

Prince Mohammed and Erdoğan have been at odds with each other for some time now. Erdoğan’s perceived support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere and his support for Qatar in the dispute between that country and the rest of the gulf monarchies rattled the Saudi crown prince. Beyond that, and perhaps far more relevant, is the fact that the two leaders are jockeying for the leadership of the Muslim world.

Erdoğan, who has managed to consolidate his power at home after a series of constitutional changes and somewhat dubious electoral results, is now focused on developing his international persona and role.

Erdoğan’s preferred method of domestic consolidation is the relentless persecution of domestic opponents. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned and he has turned the country into the biggest jailor of journalists. Political opponents, from the leader of the third largest party in parliament, Selahattin Demirtaş, to one of the most respected NGO leaders, Osman Kavala, have been imprisoned on imaginary charges. These have caused Erdoğan’s image in the Western world, especially in Europe, to suffer immeasurably. As a result, he has had to turn his focus on the Muslim world where had in recent years has achieved a degree of popularity. The servile Turkish press, which now is almost completely controlled by him and his cronies, has of late started to hail him as the leader of the Muslim world. The Khashoggi murder has provided Erdoğan with even more of an opportunity.

Trump has clearly sided with Prince Mohammed on this issue; he has used it to pressure Riyadh to increase its oil production to keep prices at the pump lower at a time when he is also imposing sanctions on Iranian crude exports and Venezuelan production is in steep decline. In an unprecedented fashion, he has also defended the crown prince by refusing to accept his own intelligence agencies’ analytical conclusion that Prince Mohammed must have authorised Khashoggi’s murder.

Yet the Turks have played it cool with Trump. Having learned from their previous experience with the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson that unnecessarily provoking Trump’s temper brings unwelcome political and economic consequences, they have opted to not confront the irascible American president. Instead, Erdoğan has been measured in his public attitude towards Trump while all the time unleashing his own acerbic tongue and that of his press on the United States. America is pilloried and vilified daily for its nefarious intentions to overthrow the Erdoğan regime, support for the Kurds in Syria and harbouring dissidents. There are serious issues of discord between the two countries that go beyond these issues, including the Turkish intention to purchase Russian S-400 missiles that threaten to compromise the U.S. top of the line F-35 fighter aircraft and the continued detention on the basis of frivolous and made-up charges of the State Department’s Turkish staff, or Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs).

Yet the two leaders have had a number of tête-à-têtes of late; they are scheduled to have another one at the upcoming G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. It is clear that Erdoğan has figured out, probably like many other leaders especially populist and authoritarian ones, to bamboozle Trump with a mixture of flattery and agreement while trying to undermine him behind his back.

Some of the evidence was there for all to see. The U.S. administration has for the most part refrained from criticising Turkey’s abysmal human rights record. Moreover, after Brunson was released, the State Department has said nothing in public regarding its detained personnel, giving the impression that this issue may not be a priority. To be sure, there are continuing conversations on the fate of the FSNs but the U.S. government has been timid in its response compared with how the Brunson case was handled.

Trump is clearly poorly informed when it comes to Erdoğan’s views of the United States and its policies. Credit Erdoğan for being able to chart a strategy that endears him to the White House while simultaneously undermining its occupant. Trump should be concerned if he emerges empty-handed from the Buenos Aires meeting with Erdoğan as it will signal that the United States can be manipulated, further damaging its weakened status in the Middle East and beyond.

Henri J. Barkey is the Cohen Professor of international relations at Lehigh University