Few foreign leaders will be watching the U.S. presidential election more closely than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who over the past four years has managed to successfully cultivate Trump while alienating the rest of Washington, including members of Congress in both parties. Erdogan gained the most from his ability to persuade — some would say manipulate — the president. But he also has the most to lose if Trump is defeated by former vice president Joe Biden on Nov. 3.
Erdogan was probably pleasantly surprised by his ability to elicit favors from Trump, whom he calls his “dear friend.” Trump greenlit the Turkish attack on the Kurds in northern Syria, looked the other way on Turkey’s democratic backsliding and even attempted to quash the Justice Department’s investigation into Erdogan’s favorite bank. But the biggest favor Trump ever did for his “dear friend” was to ignore the law that requires him to sanction Turkey for buying (and now test-firing) the Russian S-400 missile system.
Biden has been highly critical of Turkey and Trump’s kid-glove treatment of Erdogan throughout the campaign. He is unlikely to stop the sanctions push, which is about to gain even more momentum on Capitol Hill. An amendment to this year’s national defense authorization act, based on a bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), would effectively remove the president’s ability to waive sanctions against Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which is focused on thwarting Russian military sales.
“As a NATO member we have certain expectations of Turkey, and for many years have been patient,” Kinzinger told me. “But at some point we have to respond to bad actors, and both Republicans and Democrats have had enough. The Turkish people are great friends and natural allies. Unfortunately, Erdogan has cast that good will aside.”
The prospect of sanctions is undermining confidence in the Turkish economy and weighing down its already beleaguered currency. Erdogan, who believed that the Obama-Biden administration treated him unfairly on several fronts, decided to go on the offensive against Biden in advance of the election. In August, Erdogan’s official spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, attacked Biden on Twitter when video from an earlier Biden interview with the New York Times resurfaced.
In the interview, Biden says the United States should support the efforts of Erdogan’s domestic opposition to defeat him in elections, adding that Erdogan “has to pay a price” for his various misdeeds. Kalin accused Biden of “pure ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy,” and declared: “The days of ordering Turkey around are over.”
The animosity between Erdogan and Biden runs deep. In January 2016, when Biden traveled to Turkey, he openly criticized Erdogan and met publicly with leaders from civil society groups. A former State Department official told me that Erdogan was so incensed that he barged into a private meeting between their spouses and told Jill Biden that she should get her husband under control.
There’s an argument in Washington that the United States and its European partners should coax Turkey back inside the tent rather than push it away and into Russia’s waiting arms. But after four years of the United States stepping back from the region, Turkey is likely to continue its aggressive and independent role.
“Turkey doesn’t want to leave NATO, but it wants to have an independent foreign policy,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s no way to reel it back in unless we adopt Turkey’s position on a variety of issues, and the United States is not going to do that.”
The mountain of bad will that Erdogan has amassed in Congress may be insurmountable, said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The anti-Turkish policy has taken on a momentum of its own.”
A Biden administration would have to figure out a framework that allows for cooperation where possible but pushes back when necessary. Still, if Biden wins, Erdogan’s free ride is surely over.
A similar dynamic could play out for others who have abused Trump’s affinity for strongmen. The most exposed are Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The reason the United States is different from these countries is that our presidents cycle out, and Congress — which represents the will and values of the people — will eventually get its say. If Erdogan and the others aren’t yet worried about that, they ought to be.