Turkey may eventually be excluded from the F-35 program, but it is a fact that President Trump is exhausting all means to prevent US sanctions against Erdogan’s Turkey. As a result, Washington-Ankara relations have hovered in recent years between covert hostility and a tendency towards rapprochement.
The S-400 case brought things to a head, with the result that a doctrine of “either S-400 or F-35” prevailed in the American political system. It did not, however, lead to a rupture in US-Turkish relations. Undoubtedly, President Trump played a key role in this, as he had repeatedly come out to publicly justify the purchase of the Russian anti-aircraft system by Turkey.
The crucial question is why does Trump have this attitude stance towards Turkey? What makes him so positive towards Erdogan, when for years the latter’s attitude towards the United States verged on arrogance? Obviously, the answer is not that Trump is out of his mind, or that his attitude is dictated simply by personal sympathy for the Turkish president.
Some attribute his stance to his personal business interests in Turkey, others to the theory that the Erdogan regime has “dirty laundry” on him and is blackmailing him, and still others to the fact that Trump sincerely admires authoritarian and determined leaders like Erdogan. The above three scenarios may have a greater or lesser basis in truth, but they alone are not enough to explain the attitude of the American president.
A return to the western “fold”
It is also not enough to explain that in Washington they eagerly want Turkey to return to where it was after the world war. Especially after the 2016 coup, the Americans were willing to come to a compromise with Erdogan, but found no response. Convinced (not unjustifiably) that the Americans tried to overthrow him, Erdogan does not trust them. And because he does not trust them, he does not return to the western “fold”.
The Turkish president’s belief that the Americans had planned the coup against him forced him to embrace Putin as a geopolitical counterweight, despite the opposing Russian-Turkish interests in Syria, Libya and beyond. The crisis of mutual trust is now deepening the rift that has been created in US-Turkish relations, but it is not leading them to rupture, because neither side wants to burn bridges.
Obviously, Erdogan is never going to say explicitly that he is breaking with the West. His views may at times coincide with the US (eg in Libya) and the Europeans, but that’s as far as it goes. This is despite the fact that it needs the West to deal with the worsening economic crisis in Turkey. In fact, the Turkish president is seeking a balance between the United States, Europe, Russia and, in part, China, while at the same time trying to establish himself as a leading figure in Islam.
In this context, and in order to prevent the revival of relations of dependence on the West, Erdogan uses his rhetoric to cultivate anti-Western sentiments inside his country, arguing that the West seeks to mutilate Turkey through the Kurds. It even extends to the ideological level, using Islamic stereotypes to revive and exacerbate anti-Western sentiment in Turkish public opinion. A more recent example is the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
Russia in the background
Let us return to the starting question: why is Trump – in contrast to the American deep state – so positive about his Turkish counterpart? Without ignoring the aforementioned reasons, my assessment is that this has to do with the way he views US-Russian relations. In other words, the tug-of-war in Washington over sanctions against Turkey and more broadly about how Erdogan should be treated is, in fact, another link in the chain of contradictions produced by a different view of the US president from US policy concerning the relationship with Moscow.
Let me remind you that before he was elected President, Trump had made clear his intention to approach Putin, in order to create a kind of geopolitical containment of China. That is, to do the opposite of what the Nixon-Kissinger duo had done in the 1970s, when they had approached Mao’s then-underdeveloped China to contain the then-Soviet Union. When Trump was elected, he tried, but he ran into the well-known obstacles posed internally by the American political establishment.
Trump did not see the purchase of the S-400 system as a “cause of war”, mainly because he sees Russia differently, as a potential US ally in the effort to encircle and contain the Chinese “Dragon”. If they let him, then, he would be willing, as he indicated in his occasional statements, to accept the purchase of the Russian missile system, as well as a joint settlement with Moscow and Ankara on the Syrian front. His moves, after all, on this front showed it clearly.
The American establishment has other views
In Washington, however, from the beginning, winds were blowing in the opposite direction and, now, in fact their intensity is growing. The anti-Russian climate in the national security establishment is so strong that it also determines the attitude towards Turkey. The issue with the S-400, then, was the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Erdogan’s great sin is his geopolitical embrace of Putin.
From the beginning, Trump was a “black sheep” not only for the Democrats, but to a large extent for the entire American establishment. His alien character, his narrow business mindset in handling state affairs, his ignorance and his challenges added to his “heretical” conceptions of the international scene, which remained crude and rudimentary and therefore unproductive.
However, Trump was a favorite for re-election until the pandemic. However, the way he handled the disease, combined with his reactions to the Floyd murder case, turned the Democratic candidate Biden from a total outsider into the favorite in the presidential election. If, as it turns out, Trump loses the election, Washington will redefine its policy toward Turkey, without it being clear at this time how much it will harden its stance.