Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan successfully pushed through a national referendum giving him powers greater than any head of state since the sultans. Americans accustomed to pro-democratic rhetoric from the U.S. were surprised that President Donald Trump called the increasingly authoritarian leader to congratulate him on the narrow victory. Unfortunately, Trump’s diplomatic response reflects a new reality in the Mideast that has built up over time and is only now coming into full view.
The stakes are high. As a Muslim-majority nation negotiating to join the EU, a strategically critical player in the Mideast, and a longtime NATO ally with the organization’s second-largest military, Turkey’s political fate has long affected America’s interests and goals. And, in recent years, Ankara’s foreign policy has chafed against U.S. objectives, given its protracted divisions with Israel, continued conflict with the Kurds, and political hardball over Syrian refugees with Europe, which has struggled to absorb victims of a war that spiraled out of control on President Obama’s watch. Turkey even galled the Obama White House by quietly abetting ISIS through the oil trade — a shady deal that reached as high as Erdogan’s own son-in-law at the oil ministry.
But, in a twist, an abortive military coup last summer forced Obama to defend Erdogan’s regime as the democratically elected and legitimate representative of the Turkish people, even when Erdogan imposed draconian crackdowns against a broad swath of Turkish society, including thousands in the fields of academia, journalism, health and policing. The measure was seen as a bald effort to purge civil society of Turkey’s secular and modernist cultural leaders — intentionally or not, teeing up a narrow, but effective, win this month in the referendum to elevate Erdogan to a near-despot. Nevertheless, Turkey had begun to pivot in its foreign policy, tempering its attitude toward Israel and agreeing to help the U.S. combat ISIS. The groundwork was laid for Erdogan to push as far away from the West as he desired, so long as America’s most immediate interests were not put in peril.
So neither Erdogan’s referendum nor his dramatic success were any big surprise. The only real question was how the U.S. — now under the Trump administration — would respond. But even there, Turkey had worked to ensure continuity with Obama’s policy of accommodation on internal affairs. As Trump has given his generals a freer hand against ISIS, Turkey has steered clear of too much or too little involvement. Turkish-Israeli relations, meanwhile, “have converged and accelerated the reconciliation process,” as key Erdogan advisor Gülnur Aybet remarked last month amid fast-moving pipeline negotiations designed to speed newly discovered Israeli oil to the European market. Liberal Europeans may bridle at the thought of an illiberal regime dominating NATO; on the other hand, they’re being given an out on the once-thorny question of how to deny Turkey EU membership without looking illiberal themselves. For the U.S., it’s the best of both worlds: a more stable EU and a more stable NATO.
Yet, to Americans accustomed to a certain kind of global leadership, Trump’s move feels like a fresh defeat. As uncomfortable as it may be, feeling differently requires reckoning with just how sharply constrained America’s options have become — something Barack Obama realized, even as his policies were tightening the constraints.
Source: OC Register