Case in point: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump ran for president by pledging to wage war on “radical Islam,” yet he has granted concessions to Erdogan that his advisers told him are inimical to U.S. national security interests. In a phone call with Erdogan on Oct. 6, Trump agreed to pull U.S. troops from the Syria-Turkey border, clearing the way for Turkish troops and a motley crew of Islamist proxies to assault the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which partnered with the United States to defeat the Islamic State in Syria.
Trump was apparently counting on Erdogan not to do anything the United States would “consider to be off limits.” Three days later, after the Turks’ unrestrained assault had begun, Trump pleaded with Erdogan, “History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way.” If Trump had been more skeptical, he would have discovered that Erdogan’s ideology entails the rejection of limits that would otherwise constrain a NATO ally such as Turkey.
In contrast to Islam, the faith practiced by more than a billion Muslims, Islamism is a political doctrine that calls for the subordination of governments and peoples to Islamic law. In pursuit of that goal, Erdogan has supported the violent jihad of Hamas and even, for a while, the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. He has also given free rein to terror financiers, helped Iran evade sanctions and taken American citizens as hostages.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002 on the heels of an economic crisis that pushed all existing political parties out of the Turkish parliament. Erdogan, who presented himself as an outsider capable of fixing a broken system, reassured skeptics wary of his radical past by claiming that he had “taken off the shirt” of Islamism to establish a “conservative democratic party.” In fact, the AKP’s roots, like those of the long line of Turkish Islamist parties before it, are intertwined with those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s preeminent advocate of Islamism since its founding in Egypt in 1928.
After securing a sizable majority in Turkey’s 2007 election, Erdogan began to do away with checks and balances on his power while employing various arms of the Brotherhood to project Turkish influence throughout the Middle East. The Arab Spring of 2011 created unprecedented opportunities to pursue such an agenda.
In Tunisia, Erdogan supported the Ennahda party, which grew out of the Brotherhood but has shown consistent deference to democratic norms. In Egypt, the Turkish leader supported the Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, who governed in an increasingly autocratic manner yet fell to a military coup before his respect for free elections could be tested.
In Syria, Erdogan made clear he would not respect limits on working with those who perpetrate atrocities and terrorism. Turkish airport authorities watched passively as young men from across the world arrived without luggage and headed across the border to join the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front. At the time, Vice President Joe Biden told students at Harvard University that U.S. allies, including Turkey and the Persian Gulf states, “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad,” including al-Nusra Front.
The war in Syria also led Saleh al-Arouri, the West Bank commander of Hamas’s Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, to seek refuge in Turkey. From there, he planned the kidnapping and slaying of three Israeli teenagers. Their deaths marked the point of no return on Israel’s road to war with Hamas in the summer of 2014. After the fighting subsided, Arouri proudly claimed responsibility for the triple murder at a conference in Istanbul, also attended by Turkey’s deputy prime minister. U.S. and Israeli pressure eventually forced Erdogan to send Arouri packing.
While moving millions to Hamas, Turkish financial institutions have shown the ability to move billions for Iran. The details became public thanks to the federal prosecution of what may be the largest sanctions-evasion scheme on record, netting Iran an estimated $20 billion.
One defendant, Reza Zarrab, chose to cooperate with the prosecutors. At trial, he walked the jury through the complicated mechanisms he engineered for evading the aggressive sanctions Congress imposed on Iran from 2010 through 2015. Zarrab testified that Erdogan himself authorized some of the transactions and that the minister of economy received payoffs for his participation. This ought to have served as ample warning that neither the law nor a formal alliance would restrain Erdogan. Amazingly, Trump pressed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to intervene with the Justice Department to drop its prosecution of Zarrab, who hired Rudolph W. Giuliani to make his case to the White House. Tillerson adamantly refused, on the grounds that Trump’s request was illegal.
Erdogan also sought to negotiate Zarrab’s freedom in exchange for that of Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina pastor whom Turkey had imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The deal fell through, and Trump briefly imposed sanctions on Turkey until it let Brunson go — an indication that Erdogan is susceptible to timely and well-calibrated pressure. (Trump alluded to those sanctions in a letter he sent Erdogan earlier this month.)
Erdogan’s use of Brunson provides an apt illustration of the Turkish leader’s hostage diplomacy. Like Iran, Erdogan has taken dozens of Westerners hostage to increase his leverage with their governments. He still holds one U.S. consular employee in prison and has prevented another from leaving the country.
When examining Erdogan’s foreign policy, it is tempting to conclude that he is a grandmaster of diplomatic chess who knows precisely how to push the outer limits of realpolitik. Admittedly, there is something extraordinary about his ability to collude with so many illicit actors and rogue states, ranging from Russia to Venezuela, while remaining a member of NATO in good standing.
Yet rather than a realist, Erdogan remains a prisoner of the deeply ingrained conspiracy theories that have shaped Turkish Islamists for generations. On his watch, state-owned Turkish broadcaster TRT produced and aired a revisionist historical blockbuster that laid the country’s woes at the doorsteps of a Jewish cabal led by Theodor Herzl himself.
While such fare has the benefit of stoking outrage among Erdogan’s supporters, the Turkish president also treats anti-Semitic conspiracy theories as a guide to making economic policy. Rather than addressing inflation with the tools familiar to economists, Erdogan rages against “the interest rate lobby,” which he accuses of seeking Turkey’s destruction. He has also taken to denouncing “the famous Hungarian Jew [George] Soros” for allegedly sowing economic chaos.
The depth of Erdogan’s commitment to Islamism renders it highly unlikely that he will ever accept the rules that other members of NATO take for granted. Yet unlike a stateless insurgent, Erdogan has many assets to protect him from U.S. sanctions and other forms of pressure. The Brunson incident demonstrates his sensitivity, especially with Turkey’s economy now in recession and its currency reeling.
Trump’s threats to “destroy and obliterate” the Turkish economy play into Erdogan’s hands, however, because they create the impression of an American assault on Turkish citizens. The White House and Congress should take strong action — but they should be clear that their targets are Erdogan and his clique, whom many Turks resent deeply for religious authoritarianism on the home front. While there is a growing bipartisan majority in Congress that recognizes Erdogan as an ill-advised ally, the effectiveness of American pressure is likely to rest on Trump recognizing the Turkish president for what he really is.