Under normal circumstances, these White House visits serve to smooth over differences and provide a boost in bilateral relations. I covered many of those visits as a U.S. correspondent for Turkish media; they all typically end with friendly statements and some type of an action plan.
But the malaise in the Turkish-American relationship is long past the stage where an Oval Office photo op could make the wrinkles go away. There are real fissures now.
Once a member of the transatlantic community, Turkey used to be a key component of U.S. policy in the Middle East. This was a Cold War alliance with military cooperation at its core. Today, there is a long list of problems that stem from the decline of U.S. hegemony and Turkey’s wish to play a more prominent role in the great power competition. These problems are too profound for two leaders — or rather, these two leaders — to manage.
The global outrage about the Turkish incursion into Syria — fueled by reports of abuses against Syrian Kurds by Turkey-backed Syrian Arab militias — continues unabated. The Turkish president is not exactly popular abroad these days: Erdogan will be arriving in Washington under a cloud of criticism, and he is probably only half-aware that he has become a liability.
Add to this the fury in Congress about Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile systems and a potentially explosive court case in New York about a Turkish state bank, Halkbank, bypassing Iran sanctions.
So far Trump has stood by Erdogan: He greenlighted the Turkish incursion in Syria, shielded Halkbank from treasury fines, refused calls from Congress to sanction Turkey on the S-400s. It is thanks to Trump’s actions that Turkish markets are stable and Erdogan’s government can muddle through the country’s economic mess with hopes to reverse its declining popularity.
Theirs is a true “bromance.” But that could turn into a disadvantage. Erdogan will be in the White House on the day impeachment proceedings start. He seems to miss the point that Trump is also a divisive figure; his strategy of using Trump as a counterweight against the U.S. foreign policy establishment has made Turkey more vulnerable, not less. It’s a tactical mistake to bring Turkey into the eye of the storm in Washington and a bigger mistake to reduce a decades-long alliance to a personal relationship with Trump. Not to mention there’s a real risk that Turkey could start attracting some attention in the impeachment saga.
From Erdogan’s perspective, apart from the photo op, the most important aspect of the visit would be getting assurances from Trump that the Halkbank case in New York’s Southern District court won’t go far and a promise to push back against calls for sanctions in Congress. Trump, vulnerable and erratic, might not be able to deliver.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s big ask from Erdogan is a commitment that Turkey will send back or deactivate the S-400 Russian missiles system. This is far more important to the White House than the Syrian Kurds and would possibly give Trump enough ammunition to push back against Congress.
I’m not sure that Erdogan can deliver that. He has exhausted the limits of the balancing act between Moscow and Washington and now is forced to choose. Appeasing Washington’s demand on the S-400s would mean angering Vladimir Putin — Russia can cause real trouble for Turkey by flattening the opposition-held city of Idlib in the north of Syria and sending about 3 million refugees toward the Turkish border. Putin would do that without blinking.
Erdogan is not in an enviable position. His power at home is diminishing as new generations of Turks demand more freedoms and splinter groups from his own party are entering politics. By walking away from democracy and the Western alliance, he has made Turkey far too susceptible to the vicissitudes of the great power competition. This resembles the high-stakes game the Ottomans played among great powers right before World War I, which led to the destruction of the empire. To avoid that, a grand bargain between Turkey and the United States is badly needed to bring Turkey back into the Western camp and norms.
But too exposed and chaotic, Trump is not the president who can achieve that.