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Edward G. Stafford
Oct 10 2018

Trump reduces rhetoric about Turkey

Much was made of the lack of a formal bilateral meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the UN General Assembly last month.  Many commentators were trying to figure out what the brief handshake and nothing more means.  They and we should focus on what was in Trump’s speech regarding relations with Turkey and its neighbours, and what was left out.  

In total, Trump mentioned Turkey once, alongside Jordan and Lebanon, for their role in hosting refugees from the Syrian conflict; yet he mentioned Iran 12 times. From the speech, it appears that Trump, for the time being, has decided it is best to say little to nothing about Turkey and its president, but the comments regarding Iran serve as a message to those who are thinking of evading U.S. sanctions on those doing business with Tehran.  

This is not surprising. With power and sway of Islamic State dramatically reduced, Syrian President Bashar Assad consolidating power and likely to be bogged down with reconstruction for a generation, Iran’s economy less productive and facing renewed U.S. sanctions, and Erdoğan facing daunting economic issues at home, the United States may no longer consider Turkey under its current leadership as indispensable or irreplaceable for U.S. policy and action in the Middle East. Apparently the Department of Defense is already taking a preliminary look at other options.

Many pundits argue that Trump has no strategic vision. In fact, his emphasis on putting American interests first and his rejection of globalism and multilateralism, due to their constraining effect on the exercise of U.S. power, reveals that Trump has a strategic vision that keeps the United States in a pre-eminent role and commands respect from others. His "trade war” successes thus far have shown that he considers the U.S. economy robust enough to handle financial shocks better than others.  

With Mexico and Canada, he demonstrated his preference for bilateral trade deals (NAFTA was truly trilateral, its successor is less so, though not quite two U.S.-other bilateral deals) in which the size of the U.S. economy gives the United States a decided advantage when negotiating on trade. And though the new North American trade arrangement does not differ greatly from its predecessor, the message on how Trump will conduct business, and a willingness to impose temporary pain on even his electoral supporters, stand out.   

Regarding Turkey issues, Trump appears content to allow American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson to remain under house arrest as a "great patriot hostage" until  the impact of U.S. sanctions against two Turkish ministers and tariffs on some of its exports impels Erdoğan to seek a resolution to Brunson and other issues, such as Turkey’s purchase of Russian S400 missiles and U.S. cooperation with Syrian Kurdish forces.

Fast approaching is the most important question, for the United States, of compliance by Turkish companies and officials with U.S. sanctions on Iran. Given that Trump referred to Iran 15 times in his UN General Assembly speech, Turkish companies and officials should not expect any waivers from the looming sanctions regime.

Of course, the issue of the extradition of U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen remains, though it appears Trump would rather let this matter plod along under the direction of the Departments of Justice and of State.

The recent reports of a guard at Gülen’s compound near Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania firing a warning shot to ward off an intruder likely reflects the fear many of those close to Gülen that Turkish Intelligence (MIT) will kidnap him and take him back to Turkey. Of course, the guard could have been overreacting, and the possibility the warning shot incident was staged to increase police surveillance as a means to deter a kidnapping attempt cannot be dismissed. September events in Moldova involving teachers at schools affiliated with Gülenists serve to heighten the siege mentality of those at the compound.  

The U.S. government position that it awaits convincing and verifiable evidence of Gülen’s involvement in or direction of the July 2016 coup attempt before it proceeds with his extradition does not calm the fears of his supporters.

How long will this apparent informal downgrade of relations with Turkey last?  Who knows - Trump follows his own advice as much as Erdoğan follows his own - and there are no hints of Trump being in a hurry to appear overly concerned about Turkey slipping away from the North Atlantic alliance.  

One indicator of heightened concern by Trump for US-Turkey relations will be how quickly he nominates an ambassador to Turkey now that the Senate has confirmed his nominee to the Supreme Court - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can now focus on non-judicial appointments.

Of course, if the Republicans lose control of the Senate in the Nov. 6 mid-term elections, Trump may very well resort to using special envoys not needing Senate confirmation rather than face the rejection of appointees to high-profile posts. If the Republicans hold the Senate, or even increase their number of seats, Trump may very well name ambassadors even with the prospect of contentious hearings.  

Turkey remains geo-strategically and politically important regardless of Trump's apparent disinterest, for the time being. The appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Ankara will result in contentious hearings - unless the disagreements over Brunson, Gülen, S400s, F-35s, the Syrian Kurds, and most importantly sanctions against Iran have been resolved before an ambassador is nominated, which no one expects.  

For now, Trump appears to have decided that letting things play out without a lot of public posturing suits his strategy with Turkey more than resorting to inflammatory tweeting. Expect the inflammatory tweeting to return if Turkey continues business as usual with Iran in the face of Trump’s clear expectation that U.S. friends and allies will join with the United States in cutting business, trade, financial, and investment ties with Iran.