Let’s start with his opening sentence: “Let’s work out a good deal!” Trump’s view of human nature is famously transactional, and he doesn’t disappoint here. For him, it seems there is nothing but the art of the deal. He apparently views politics as nothing more than a series of ad hoc deals, strung together with no glue binding them together other than the momentary advantage each dealmaker gains from the pact. That might be the way businesspersons think, but it is certainly not the way serious politicians and statesmen behave.
Political leaders always have some aim in mind beyond the deal itself. For some, it is keeping or extending power. For others, it is the accomplishment of some task consistent with a set of articulated principles. But for all, any deal must be seen as consistent with those larger aims. Trump’s letter ignores this basic political instinct.
Look at the world from Erdogan’s point of view. Turkey has a long, troubled relationship with the Kurds living in its own country. It has suppressed the Kurdish language; sporadically carried on a guerrilla war against Kurdish separatists within its borders and beyond; and views the Syrian Kurds as in league with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a group it considers a terrorist organization. A man focused on wiping out a threat to Turkish territorial sovereignty isn’t worried about what Trump calls the “slaughtering” of “thousands of people”; he might actually welcome it.
A nationalistic war against a longtime enemy could also shore up Erdogan’s flagging political standing at home. His party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, lost control of many major cities in local elections this year, including the capital, Ankara, and Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul. His own job approval ratings are also in decline, dropping to only 44 percent by early September, and both he and the AKP had seen support drop below 40 percent by early October. A military victory against the Syrian Kurds, then, might be exactly what Erdogan wants.
Trump’s letter shows no understanding of any of this. Instead, he tries to persuade the Turkish strongman to negotiate by alternating insults — saying Erdogan could be viewed as “the devil” and is merely playing “a tough guy” — with platitudes such as “history will look upon you favorably.” Serious political men, and Erdogan is certainly that, look at a such jejune mishmash incredulously. It is mind-boggling that the president of the United States thinks Erdogan could be deterred by name-calling or attracted by an ego massage.
It is also beyond comprehension that Trump thinks empty threats could do the trick. Trump conflates his own ego and U.S. interests when he vastly exaggerates U.S. power and tells Erdogan that he could destroy the Turkish economy. According to the World Bank, Turkey’s exports to the United States were only about 5 percent of its total in 2017.. It also imported much more from Russia and China than it did from the United States. Trump would have to get international cooperation to make sanctions or tariffs really hurt the Turks, something he will likely find difficult in light of all of the other conflicts he has instigated with many of the countries whose cooperation he would need.
The letter damningly confirms many of the traits that the president’s critics have long assumed: It shows Trump to be uninformed, narcissistic and naive. It shows him as obsessed with process and uninterested in substance, craving the applause of a multitude whose identities he does not know. It is the sort of note one could imagine coming from a clique leader in a movie about high-school angst, such as “Mean Girls” or “Heathers,” not a man who has access to the nuclear button.
The announcement of a five-day cease-fire could lead Trump backers to say the letter worked, but it’s hard to make that claim stick. The letter is dated Oct. 9, more than a week ago. It was clearly intended to forestall exactly what we have seen over the past week. Even if that argument were correct, it would still reveal disturbing things about how the president views politics and American power.
Trump’s instincts have sometimes produced great success, such as when his threats of tariffs shocked Mexico into assisting the United States to reduce illegal border crossings. He has also been successful taking the advice of competent aides, such as during the negotiations that produced the 2017 tax cut or in his decision in February to walk away from a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without a deal. But this letter shows what can happen when Trump acts on his own without counsel. That sight should give every American the chills.