Donald Trump welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Washington on Tuesday which is hilarious for all kinds of reasons.
First of all, Trump has stolen more of Erdogan’s moves in four months than Kobe Bryant took from Michael Jordan in four years.
Additionally, Trump (and a whole lot of the shadowy media outlets that back him) like to posit the existence of an American “deep state,” something which certainly doesn’t exist in the US but certainly does in other countries. Erdogan will be more than happy to feed Trump’s Steve Bannon-inspired paranoia about the existence of a plot hatched by entrenched bureaucrats to oust him.
“Turkish experts will tell you that discussion of the ‘deep state’ flourishes in a climate of conspiracy and political polarization,” WaPo wrote earlier this year, adding that “it encourages the public to doubt the pillars of civil society – from the judiciary to the press – and take shelter in the shadow of a populist leader.” Sound familiar?
More on the whole Trump vs. imaginary “Deep State” here.
Incidentally, if you want an interesting case study in “cause meets effect” re: the perpetuation of the American “deep state” myth, look no further than Google trends:
But the Trump/Erdogan meeting won’t be all about the latter teaching the former how to be a better dictator.
See, Trump stumbled headlong into Erdogan’s epic struggle against the Kurds when, last Monday, he authorized the Defense Department to arm the YPG in Syria “as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa.”
Predictably, Erdogan lost his fucking mind.
At first, he was measured in his response (well, as “measured” as Erdogan can be). “The U.S. should work together with its NATO ally and not with a terrorist organization,” he said last week, before offering the following assessment: “Trying to destroy a terrorist organization with another terrorist organization is not an ideal policy.”
Of course the US doesn’t really think of the YPG as “terrorists,” and certainly doesn’t regard Rojava as equivalent to Raqqa.
But for Erdogan, a Kurd is a Kurd is a Kurd. And every Kurd is PKK. Something he made abundantly clear just a week before the Pentagon announced it would directly arm the YPG, when Turkish warplanes hit YPG and Peshmerga positions including Sinjar in northern Iraq which was liberated from ISIS in late 2015 to all kinds of international fanfare.
The thing is, without the YPG in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq, the US has but two options when it comes to routing Islamic State: the Free Syrian Army (in Syria) and Iran-backed Shiite militias (in Iraq). Those aren’t great options considering it’s impossible to tell an FSA fighter from a Sunni extremist and fighting alongside Iraq’s powerful Shiite militias to oust ISIS ironically risks fostering the very same dynamic that created ISIS in the first place (i.e. alienating the Sunni minority).
Adding to the absurdity is the fact that it isn’t entirely clear why Trump felt like he needed to make a big show out of arming the YPG when the US has been arming them behind the scenes for years. This idea that there’s something called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” has always been something of a standing joke that was dreamed up in the first place to pacify an angry Erdogan. The US figured Ankara would be less mad if Washington could make the case that the SDF wasn’t simply the YPG with another name, so the Pentagon dreamed up what amounted to an imaginary alliance between the Kurds and “Syrian Arabs.” Thus was born the SDF.
Well, Erdogan has always been suspicious of that charade and he has an ace up his sleeve: access to Incirlik, the Turkish airbase from which the US flies combat sorties in Syria.
So when Department of Defense spokeswoman Dana White says things like “Raqqa and all liberated territory should return to the governance of local Syrian Arabs,” everyone – and most especially Erdogan – knows it’s complete bullshit. The YPG isn’t going to just liberate Raqqa and then return happily to Rojava, never to be heard from again. And even if they wanted to, it’s by no means clear there are enough “Arabs” in the SDF to hold onto a city the size of Raqqa after liberating it. On top of it all, what happens if defense of the city is left to whatever “Arabs” are actually part of the SDF and then along comes Hezbollah and a few Sukhois?
Obviously, Trump understands exactly none of this, which is why Tuesday’s meeting is so amusing.
So that’s the setup for today’s pow wow in Washington which should produce more than a few hilarious images that we can all keep for posterity.
On that note, I’ll leave you with a good piece on all of this from FT…
Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and how democracies die
When Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Washington on Tuesday, they might find they have a lot in common.
The presidents of the US and Turkey are both nationalists who have promised to make their countries great again. Both have turned governing into a family business and rely heavily on their respective sons-in-law, Jared Kushner and Berat Albayrak. Both are despised by metropolitan elites but often adored outside big cities. Both have accused their countries’ permanent bureaucracy of plotting against them.
However it is the similarities in the Trump and Erdogan approaches to the media and the courts that should be most chilling for Americans. Mr Trump is famous for calling the mainstream media “the world’s most dishonest people” and for his denunciations of “fake news”. Mr Erdogan is at war with much of the Turkish media. Mr Trump denounced a “so-called judge” who ruled against his travel ban for refugees. Mr Erdogan is contemptuous of the Turkish constitutional court and had two of its members arrested last year.
The critical difference between the Turkish and American presidents, however, is that Mr Erdogan has succeeded in taking his country a long way down the road to autocracy. The Turkish president has repressed the media and the judiciary in ways that should be impossible in the US.
So while Mr Trump has been limited to denunciations of television hosts who displease him, the Erdogan government has imprisoned about 120 journalists. Last week, Oguz Guven, the online editor of Cumhuriyet, a leading opposition paper, was the latest to be taken into custody. Similarly, while President Trump fired James Comey, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and before that sacked Sally Yates, the acting attorney-general, and Preet Bharara, a prominent prosecutor in New York, the Erdogan government has dismissed more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors since declaring a state of emergency last summer.
There are two possible conclusions about these differences between Trump’s America and Erdogan’s Turkey. The first and most comforting for Americans is that systems matter more than personalities. Mr Trump might have the instincts of an autocrat. But America’s system of checks-and-balances and its entrenched democratic traditions will prevent him from indulging his worst tendencies. Turkey is a country with a history of military coups and suspensions of democracy that make its institutions far less robust than those of the US.
The second possible conclusion is less comforting for Americans. It is that, given enough time, any democratic system is vulnerable to assaults from a determined, dictatorial leader. Mr Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 and, over time, utterly changed his country. As one Turkish intellectual put it to me in Istanbul last week: “Things that I would once have thought impossible are now happening on a daily basis.”
Some of the ways in which Mr Erdogan has rolled back freedoms should sound alarm bells in Trump’s America. Turkey’s bitterly partisan politics have ensured that Mr Erdogan has always had a firm block of political support for his actions, no matter how outrageous. Much as Senator Mitch McConnell and leading Republicans seem prepared to defend President Trump’s every decision (most recently the sacking of Mr Comey), so loyalists in Mr Erdogan’s AK Party will retrospectively justify their leader’s decisions.
A second warning is the way in which Mr Erdogan has used the threat of terrorism to justify cracking down on his enemies. Turkey has been governed under a state of emergency since a failed coup attempt in July. Mr Erdogan has used the suspension of the rule of law to launch a purge of alleged enemies of the state in the military, the media, universities and the bureaucracy. Nothing comparable would be possible in the US, given the protections of the constitution. But if America were to be hit by a major terrorist attack it is possible to imagine Mr Trump asking for state of emergency powers, and getting them.
Given their temperamental similarities, it is likely that Mr Trump and Mr Erdogan will get on well when they meet in Washington this week. There is, however, a major geopolitical stumbling block in the way of their potential friendship. Last week, the US announced that it intends to arm Kurdish militias in Syria: the Americans hope the Kurds will play a crucial role in the defeat of Isis. The decision outraged the Turkish government, which is at war with Kurdish separatists inside its own country. As Binali Yildirim, the Turkish prime minister, told the Financial Times last week: “We have made it very clear that to eliminate one terrorist network, you cannot use another terrorist network.”
The Pentagon was probably wise to push through the decision to arm the Kurds before the Turkish president’s arrival in the Oval Office. For Mr Trump has shown himself susceptible to briefings from fellow strongman leaders – crediting China’s Xi Jinping with educating him on North Korea and issuing a White House invitation to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. The geopolitical conversation between Mr Erdogan and Mr Trump will certainly be fascinating.
But Americans should hope that the two presidents do not get around to comparing notes on domestic politics.