Once a close strategic ally, over the last four years or so Turkey has not only been pulling away from the United States in terms of policy coordination, but also increasingly infusing relations with antagonism. Washington modulated its diplomacy accordingly, but made few substantive efforts to reverse Ankara’s course. Until now. On Oct. 9, as Turkey added to the list of U.S. citizens and diplomatic employees in its jails, the United States finally stood up to Turkish truculence. The manner in which it did so, however, is counterproductive, and reflects a misreading of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s motivations. By suspending nonimmigrant visa services for ordinary citizens in Turkey, Washington plays into Erdoğan’s hands rather than punishes him.
The visa suspension stems from a recent but faulty way of thinking about U.S.-Turkish relations. To be sure, the relationship currently struggles with a strategic contradiction: The United States still sees Turkey as a vital player in securing its interests in the Middle East, particularly in a post-ISIL Syria and Iraq, but Ankara has become increasingly difficult to work with. Concluding, along with many Turkey scholars, that its fellow NATO member is proving itself a questionable ally at best, Washington appears to have shifted to a “transactional” approach. Based on mutual interests and trade-offs rather than shared values, this strategy of pragmatism aims at producing cooperative deals in which each side gets some of what it wants.
This approach, however, leads policymakers to misunderstand and underestimate the regime in Ankara. Committing one of the most common errors cited in the psychological literature on foreign policy decision-making, U.S. policymakers engaged in “mirror imaging,” i.e., believing that since Washington is looking to strike deals, Turkey must be treating the relationship the same way. According to this line of thinking, Turkey’s actions must constitute some form of negotiation – that in arresting American citizens and personnel, Turkey is taking “hostages” to trade for something it wants.
Erdoğan certainly seems to have corroborated this view, suggesting he was willing to trade jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson for Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based cleric whom Erdoğan accuses of masterminding the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Reports also suggest that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder “brokered” a deal with Erdoğan to release German activist and documentary filmmaker Peter Steudtner, although what Ankara got out of the deal remains unclear at this point. The Turkish president’s threat to send busloads of Syrian refugees to Europe if its promised compensation didn’t come through in a timely manner also reflects an “opportunistic transactionalism” that undergirds the 2016 EU refugee deal.
At first glance, the term “hostage diplomacy” that observers recently applied seems to capture the dynamics in Turkey’s relationships with its Western counterparts quite well. By arresting for American and European citizens and consular employees, however, Erdoğan is not merely stacking his deck in a game of tit-for-tat prisoner exchange. As one of the authors of this piece argued at a recent panel on the subject, his agenda is much broader. Washington needs to understand this.
Rather, the Turkish president sends another signal – following such moves as signing a deal with Russia to purchase S-400 air defense missiles – that Turkey is a force to be reckoned with, not lectured to. The recent arrests demonstrate Erdoğan’s strength to his domestic constituency and signal his determination to lead a “New Turkey,” one that does not need the West. In fact, Erdoğan may have an interest in keeping Gülen at arm’s length, as former Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman suggested. The accused coup plotter’s ongoing stay on American soil provides Erdoğan with endless justification to criticize the U.S. – criticism that buys him a lot of political capital at home as well as in the region.
And therein lies the conundrum: The more the United States chastises Turkey, the more fuel it provides to Erdoğan’s anti-Western rallying cries – not to mention the more it punishes Turks who wish to travel or study abroad. With the hasty and ill-conceived visa restrictions, Washington handed Erdoğan the proof he needed to claim that the Western world discriminates against his people. By immediately responding in kind with Turkish visas suspended for Americans, Erdoğan won approval from his party base at home – as well as members of the ultra-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), whose votes he seeks for the 2019 elections. Rather than toning down the tension, in blaming the crisis solely on Ambassador John Bass, Erdoğan cunningly belittled his largest NATO ally, saying “Shame on you if the great USA is run by one ambassador.” He then accused the West of providing free weapons to terrorists, and of having a hidden (read: pro-Kurdish) plan behind its attempts to surround Turkey from the south.
Erdoğan has perfected this art of rhetorical vilification. Sometimes this strategy of delegitimization literally adds insult to injury, as in the AKP’s denunciation of peaceful demonstrators being beaten by police in the 2013 Gezi Park protests as hooligans and terrorists. Other times, particularly in the foreign policy arena, words alone can cause serious harm to relationships as seen recently in the fights Turkey has picked with the Netherlands and Germany. A simple “Ey Almanya,” or “Hey Germany! What do you think you’re doing?” can do the trick, but when accompanied by calling Germans Nazis, Erdoğan wins extra points from voters happy to see him standing up to the West. He did it with Israel at Davos in 2009, and he’s doing it again now with the United States and Europe.
Indeed, Erdoğan’s anti-Westernism is nothing new. Friendly words with President Donald Trump and E.U. aspirations aside, the Turkish leader and his party come from one of Turkey’s most anti-Western strands of political Islam. Further, the AKP’s Ottoman Islamist identity, as evidenced by the now defunct “strategic depth” doctrine, prescribes creating a new Middle East order. Ottoman Islamism represents one of several competing understandings of Turkish identity, one in which Turkey, by virtue of its imperial legacies as the former home of the caliphate and Ottoman sultanate, presides as a major regional power. While attitudinal animosity toward the West is thus innate to this – by no means singular – understanding of Turkish national identity, rhetorical animosity is strategic. Vilifying the West wins votes at home and support in the region. Placing visa restrictions on citizens of Turkey provides Erdoğan with exactly the ammunition he needs to do so.
Moreover, the reciprocal swiping that U.S.-Turkish ties have devolved into recently is unlikely to yield any beneficial transactions whatsoever. With both sides now seemingly intent on finding the other’s pressure points, the diplomatic row risks becoming a game of chicken. And with the leaders of both countries notoriously loathe to admit wrongdoing or appear weak, it is more likely that the crisis will escalate than that either side will blink. At a time when there actually is a regional issue on which U.S. and Turkish interests align, namely the crisis between Baghdad and Erbil, Washington’s transactional approach risks missing both immediate opportunities for cooperation and the long-term transformation of Turkey.
The real challenge for the United States, thus, is not how to respond to every Turkish anti-American tit with a commensurate tat, but how to counteract Erdoğan’s concerted effort to convince Turks their fate no longer lies with the West. Rather than focusing on haggling over the terms of cooperation today, Washington needs a strategy that will keep Turkey from abandoning the foundations of its Western alliance – NATO, the European Union, and so on – tomorrow.
Such a strategy should consist of two elements. First, distinguishing between Turkey and Erdoğan while recognizing that it is the latter, not the former, that greatly exacerbates already simmering tensions in the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Anti-Americanism has long pervaded various sections of Turkey’s society, tied to a belief in U.S. neo-imperial aspirations, but experts claim it reached a peak this year under Erdoğan’s leadership. If this historic alliance is to have a future it will require the United States to make common cause with, or at least refrain from alienating, the roughly 50 percent of Turks that still reject Erdoğan’s vision for their country. Not all of those opposed to Erdoğan hold favorable views of the United States, to be sure. But behavior corroborating Erdoğan’s accusations that the United States never has and never will respect Turks or embrace Turkey as a full partner weakens the position of those who do.
Avoiding this requires standing the current U.S. approach on its head. It is not Turkish citizens that should bear the brunt of U.S. displeasure, but Erdoğan and his associates. Going forward, U.S. policymakers and officials would do well to make sure that when they critique or censure that they direct their comments toward Erdoğan, not Turkey or Turks as a whole. It is time for Washington to take off its self-imposed muzzle when it comes to Turkey’s president and stop worrying that irritating the erratic and obstreperous strongman might foreclose the possibility of some future transaction.
However, and this is the other part of a new principled strategy, American rhetoric and actions must be calibrated to exploiting Erdoğan’s vulnerabilities and undermining his strengths. Washington is rightfully frustrated by the myriad ways in which Erdoğan scuttles U.S. interests in the Middle East. But giving voice to this frustration by castigating Turkey for its failure to toe the American line only supports Erdoğan’s anti-Western conspiratorial mindset. A more successful approach would make this about Erdoğan’s deleterious impact on the strength, vitality, and prosperity of Turkey, not U.S. interests. U.S. policymakers should seek to erode the foundations of Erdoğan’s appeal to Turks and amplify their concerns about him.
Erdoğan’s strength flows from not just his ideology and rhetoric, but the fact that he gets away with it in spades. What makes his vision of a post-Western, “New Turkey” so compelling at home is that it appears to not just be coming to fruition, but paying strategic dividends. Under his leadership, Erdoğan would claim, Turkey has become a regional power to be reckoned with. It stands up to the West and suffers no repercussions. It confronts bullies like Iran and Russia in Syria and then, according to Erdoğan, brings them to the negotiating table. And it has come to the aid of the region’s forgotten (Syria’s opposition) and unfairly maligned (Qatar), while confronting terrorist threats (PKK and FETO) on its own. Moreover, being able to smile, shake hands with, and receive acclaim from the leader of the United States, only then to turn around and undermine American interests is a blatant demonstration of Erdogan’s power. In short, Erdoğan can claim, with only mild exaggeration and deception, that Turkey is stronger without the United States and Europe than it ever was with them.
The first step for Washington, therefore, should be to dispel the aura of Erdoğan as a reviver of Turkish glory. Here, President Trump’s determination to put “America First” and his talent for tweeting stinging sobriquets can be useful. Depriving Erdoğan of American approval, refusing him high-level meetings with U.S. officials, either in Washington or Ankara, and repeatedly and forcefully pointing out his myriad foreign policy blunders can render his grand vision for Turkey much less appealing. Prime candidates for such a recasting of Erdoğan’s successes on the world stage include his failure to stop numerous deadly ISIL attacks within Turkey, abetting the Assad regime’s conquest of the opposition stronghold of Aleppo, and having to apologize for downing a Russian jet.
The United States should also be prepared to push on issues that matter to Turks and on which Erdoğan is particularly sensitive. This should include his failures of governance overall, but focus specifically on the nexus of Turkey’s economy and Erdoğan’s alleged corruption in which growth is profoundly mired. Much of Erdoğan’s political strength is commonly assumed to come from the strong economic growth – particularly among Turkey’s rural and Anatolian communities – that occurred during his first decade in power. The prospect that Erdoğan might now endanger Turkey’s economy is, therefore, one of the most powerful arguments against him, for both common Turks and the Turkish business community. To wit, recent rumors in Turkey that the United States was preparing sanctions against Turkish banks had an immediate weakening effect in Ankara.
Rather than walking back the possibility of sanctions, U.S. officials should be highlighting the numerous ways in which Erdoğan’s actions might bring financial repercussions that could be deleterious to the Turkish economy. The United States should do everything it can to bring attention within Turkey to the case of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader charged by U.S. prosecutors with evading sanctions on Iran and paying million in bribes to Turkish officials to do so, as well as to the fact that banks tied to Iran sanctions busting, even those of close U.S. allies, have previously suffered huge penalties and the same fate could befall Turkey. U.S. officials should also more explicitly emphasize that Ankara’s deal to buy a Russian air defense system could open up Turkey to even more U.S. sanctions. Further pressure could be put on Erdoğan by investigating whether corruption among his ministers and family members – of which U.S. diplomats were warning as early as 2004 – could be ground for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. When combined, hitting Erdoğan where it truly hurts could convince Turks of America’s continued friendship, while demonstrating that their president only weakens their country while enriching himself.
Erdoğan is not taking hostages. He is burning bridges. There are no deals to be struck with him. It is time for Washington to take a principled stand against Erdoğan.
Dr. Lisel Hintz is Assistant Professor of International Relations and European Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Blaise Misztal directs the National Security Program at the Bipartisan Policy Center.