“The circumstances that led Turkey to procure S-400 systems in the past are very well known,” the Turkish foreign ministry said Monday, responding to the imposition of US sanctions. “In fact, President Trump himself has acknowledged Turkey’s rightfulness on this issue.”
That statement is a testament to why US presidents should avoid placating and otherwise coddling autocrats like Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ankara was apparently referencing remarks Trump made last year in the wake of the G-20 summit in Osaka, when the US president essentially blamed Barack Obama for Erdogan’s purchase of Russian-made missile systems.
“We have a very complicated situation because the president was not allowed to buy the Patriot missiles,” Trump said, during a bilateral discussion with Erdogan in June of 2019. “You can’t do business that way. It’s not good.” Later, at a press briefing, Trump said “honesty, it’s not really Erdogan’s fault.”
Despite (loud) cries from Congress, the White House waited some 18 months before moving ahead with the CAATSA measures. Eventually, lawmakers had to literally order Trump to impose the sanctions (which are legally mandated, by the way), by inserting language to that effect in the defense bill passed last week.
On Monday, Erdogan called the situation “sad.” The lira pared earlier losses after the announcement, presumably because the measures, which target the country’s defense procurement agency, were seen as weak-willed by the market.
The lira stabilized below an 8-handle over the past couple of weeks after a tumultuous two months that pushed Turkey back to the brink of a currency crisis. A dramatic shakeup at the central bank and the resignation of Erdogan’s son-in-law as economic czar helped buoy sentiment at a time when markets were also nervous about the prospect of a deterioration in relations with Washington under a Joe Biden administration.
“The United States made clear to Turkey at the highest levels and on numerous occasions that its purchase of the S-400 system would endanger the security of US military technology and personnel and provide substantial funds to Russia’s defense sector, as well as Russian access to the Turkish armed forces and defense industry,” Mike Pompeo said, in a perfunctory statement of his own.
At the risk of lapsing into colloquialisms, this is a total farce. Trump’s relationship with Erdogan is complicated, to say the least, but the White House has allowed him to get away with quite a bit over the past four years including, most notably, a literal invasion of northern Syria. That wholly lamentable episode found Turkey and allied militia embarking on a violent campaign against the same Kurdish troops who fought with the US against ISIS.
Trump was widely criticized for permitting Erdogan to carry out the operation, which quickly turned into a massacre, complete with war crimes. Some of the harshest criticism came from Trump’s staunchest allies on the Hill, including Lindsey Graham who called Trump “delusional” over the incident.
Additionally, scattered reports over the last three years indicate the administration may have intervened at Erdogan’s request in the notorious Halkbank matter. For example, the president was said to have once lobbied Rex Tillerson to intercede on behalf of Reza Zarrab (who just happened to be Rudy Giuliani’s client at the time), the trader at the center of the case.
Just about the only time Trump took a serious hard line with Erdogan was over the imprisonment of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, whose case resonated with the Republican base. Other than that, Erdogan has enjoyed free rein for four years.
He should enjoy it while it lasts. Because it will probably end next month.