Trump’s arm-wrestling with Erdogan likely to worsen

This column was first published on the Arab Weekly. This is a shortened version. 

Deteriorating relations between the United States and Turkey have shifted from a diplomatic dispute to a personal fight between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that is likely to worsen, former US government officials said.

While the rift between the two NATO members has been growing for a couple of years, it plunged into hostility as Trump and Erdogan announced punitive actions and made hectoring statements. The immediate flashpoint is Turkey’s detention of evangelical American pastor Andrew Brunson on charges of helping the attempted coup in 2016.

Erdogan on August 15 increased tariffs on US goods such as cars, tobacco and alcohol and urged Turks to destroy their American-made cell phones. Erdogan was responding to Trump’s August 10 Twitter announcement that he was doubling tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium — a move that helped send the Turkish lira into free fall.

“This issue is now extremely personal for Trump and it’s quite clear Trump is prepared to use additional policy measures” to secure Brunson’s release, said Amanda Sloat, a former US diplomat who handled US relations with Turkey and is now with the Brookings Institution. “The question is how much economic pain Erdogan is willing to suffer.”


Erdogan seems to relish a confrontation with Trump, whom he can use as a scapegoat for Turkey’s economic crisis while trying to use Brunson as leverage to get the United States to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen to face charges of instigating the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey.

“The dispute is a problem because it plays on the instincts of both presidents. They’re fundamentally bullies, both of them. They’re now dug in and see political costs in backing down,” said Max Hoffman, a former UN disarmament and security specialist who is with the Centre for American Progress. “It’s really down to the personal egos of these two presidents.”

Hoffman, Sloat and analyst Steven Cook spoke August 16 in Washington during a panel discussion on US-Turkish relations. All agreed that US-Turkish relations have been deteriorating for years as the two countries have split over Iran, Syria, Erdogan’s consolidation of power and the arrest of roughly a dozen Turkish Americans following the coup attempt.


Relations have become so strained that the United States should reset them with Turkey, said Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and African studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“We should recognise there isn’t a strategic relationship and we need to figure out how to deal with a country that’s important but not as important as it once was,” he said.

The United States supported Turkey, hoping it could help negotiate a peace deal between the Palestinian territories and Israel and could serve as a democratic model for other Muslim nations. Turkey was a leading ally of the United States after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

More recently, Turkey has sought to develop closer ties with US adversaries Russia, China and Iran.

“It’s hard to make the case that Turkey is an ally and a partner when you consider the long list of different priorities,” Cook said.

Trump’s decision to increase tariffs and to sanction two members of Erdogan’s cabinet undermined efforts by the US State Department and Defence Department to defuse the conflict. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert tried to calm the brewing controversy by saying on August 15 that the United States has “a very broad relationship with the government of Turkey.”

“Of course, with all nations, as a general matter, we will often have areas where we don’t always agree,” Nauert added, “but we also have areas where we do work together and cooperate and Turkey would be one of those governments where we sometimes have areas where we disagree and we certainly sometimes have areas where we cooperate as well.”

On the same day, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders denounced a Turkish court’s decision to reject Brunson’s request to be released from custody as his trial continues. “We feel that Turkey, and specifically President Erdogan, have treated Pastor Brunson — who we know to be a very good person and a strong Christian who’s done nothing wrong — very unfairly, very badly,” Sanders said. “And it’s something that we won’t forget in the administration.”

Written by Thomas Frank.

Thomas Frank is a correspondent in Washington.

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