The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Brunson saga signals Turkey’s frightening exit from the West

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters in Trabzon, Turkey. (Murat Kula/Turkish Presidential Press Service/AFP)
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Back when I started as a U.S. correspondent for a Turkish newspaper in the late 1990s, Turkey was the toast of town. At events and galas in Washington, guests wore little pins of American and Turkish flags, and officials referred to Turkey as a “staunch U.S. ally.” After 9/11, an Islamist government came to power in Turkey, but it was generally agreed in Washington that these moderate Islamists were the panacea for radicalism in the Muslim world.

What changed? The recent spat is ostensibly about Turkey’s jailing of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, on trumped-up charges. Brunson was arrested during the post-coup-attempt crackdown in 2016 and was accused of, among other things, converting Kurds to Christianity in order to carve out an independent Kurdistan and gathering information about the position of gas stations and railroads for a possible U.S. invasion. A government secret witness claimed that Brunson was sending coordinates of Syrian Kurdish positions for U.S. weapons drops. The reality is that this pastor is a pawn.

This diplomatic conflict is really about the new currents reshaping Turkey. “Brunson is not the cause but a symptom of the crisis between Turkey and the United States,” observes Turkish scholar Soli Ozel. The list of resentments is long. Turkey blames the United States for the failed 2016 coup attempt, suspecting that Washington would have rejoiced if the coup succeeded. The fact that the cleric Fethullah Gulen — seen by Ankara as the mastermind of the coup attempt — lives in Pennsylvania is a constant source of tension.

Washington also supports Syrian Kurds whom Ankara considers a threat across its border. The two administrations disagree on Jerusalem and the Palestinians and generally support opposite camps in the Middle East.

Erdogan has threatened to “start looking for new friends and allies.” But this is already happening. The Turkish president somehow finds Russian President Vladimir Putin easier to deal with than his Western allies. In Erdogan’s worldview, regional leadership of Sunni Muslims is more attractive to being a junior member of the Western club.

If Turkey were a robust democracy, perhaps its foreign policy orientation would be different. But Erdogan’s “New Turkey” has features that make a long-term alliance with the West difficult, if not impossible. For example, the president’s new sultan-like powers almost abolish the rule of law, making it easier for security forces to persecute activists, journalists and foreigners on dubious charges. The state has been reconfigured into an authoritarian national security apparatus since the failed coup.

Turkey’s leaders used to lament a democratic deficit and vowed to fix it, but in Erdogan’s Turkey, suspicions about the West now run so deep that any criticism about human rights is quickly dismissed as an effort to weaken the country. Erdogan’s breed of Islamist nationalism regards the West and its values in cynical terms. Once Turkey rids itself of the constraints imposed by the West, the thinking goes, it will be in control of its own destiny to emerge as a superpower.

There is an equally messianic thinking across the Atlantic. The Trump administration shows little regard for Western institutions and the liberal order that the United States has been trying to maintain for much of the past century. “Make America Great Again” is not about values; it’s about establishing transactional relations in a Hobbesian world of great power competition. There is little appreciation for having a majority-Muslim nation as a NATO member. Washington’s interest in a slow disengagement from the Middle East means that preserving its alliance with Turkey is no longer a strong strategic imperative.

Ironically, it was this mutual contempt for the Western liberal order that made the two men fall in love at the beginning. In Erdogan, President Trump saw a strongman who cares about economic progress. Now, Trump is mad at his friend. I doubt that he has given much thought to the strategic implications of pushing Turkey completely out of the Western alliance. His decision to punish Turkey seems more personal than anything else.

But it will have major implications. This will push Turkey above the cliff economically and into the “other camp” politically. It’s what makes the Brunson saga more frightening than a simple fallout between two temperamental men. Erdogan will try to ride it out on a nationalist wave, while getting closer to Putin and his model of governance. Trump, on the other hand, will boast about determination to bring an American prisoner home in the run-up to midterm elections.

I suspect that six months from now, things will cool off after the pastor is sent home. But the damage will be irreversible. When historians look back, the Brunson saga will probably mark Turkey’s exit from the West. It will complete the Erdogan project of creating a New Turkey – nationalist, nonaligned and inward-looking.

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