Erdogan is no friend to America. He’s a dictator with strange ideas, not unlike Nicolás Maduro.
Turkish citizens are wildly optimistic about the invasion of Syria that began Oct. 9. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision finds broad support within Turkey, including from all the major opposition parties except the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. The incursion is understood domestically not only as a measure to protect the country from the Kurdish forces Mr. Erdogan calls “terrorists,” but also to affirm Turkey’s status as a power; Ankara no longer must bow to the wishes of Washington, Berlin or Moscow.
Then there’s the pessimistic view, the one I share. The invasion damages Turkey internationally: Western and Arab governments have condemned the military operation, as have the Russian, Iranian, Indian and Chinese governments. Volkswagen paused a planned investment in Turkey, and other companies may follow suit. Congress is weighing economic sanctions. Italy, France and Germany have suspended arms sales. Tensions are heightening between Turks and Kurds in Germany, and will likely rise within Turkey as well.
Though northern Syria’s open terrain is favorable to regular forces, Turkey’s huge army may not do so well on the battlefield. Mr. Erdogan has purged the officer corps several times in recent years for domestic political reasons. Even if initially routed, the Syrian Kurdish forces could regroup to mount a costly insurgency against the Turkish occupation. Turkey has many regional enemies eager to trip it up. Like many prior wars begun in a flush of jubilation—recall the British youth joyfully enlisting in 1914, confident of returning victorious within weeks—this one may end ingloriously.
Should the military operation go badly, responsibility for the failure will fall squarely on Mr. Erdogan’s shoulders. A brilliant politician and Turkey’s most consequential leader since Atatürk, Mr. Erdogan has repudiated Atatürk’s legacy of socialism, secularism and avoiding foreign military adventures. Instead, for years he oversaw a capitalist economic boom, and he still rules with an Islamist sensibility and a neo-Ottoman approach to foreign policy. In the nearly 17 years since his party first took Parliament, he has transformed Turkey.
But like other masters of domestic politics— Saddam Hussein comes to mind—Mr. Erdogan wrongly assumes that the cunning and aggression that brought him political success internally will also work internationally. This explains his unleashing thugs on the streets of Washington, abducting Turkish citizens accused of coup plotting from multiple countries, attempting to smuggle dual-use materials to Gaza, illegally drilling for natural gas in Cypriot waters, and shooting down a Russian jet fighter, among other bellicose actions.
Mr. Erdogan’s foreign-policy ineptitude has alienated other governments.
- Europeans seethe when he threatens to send 3.6 million displaced Syrians their way.
- Israelis despise him for a vitriolic anti-Zionism that compares them to Nazis.
- Egypt’s president hates Mr. Erdogan’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Erdogan’s abject apologies haven’t compensated for
- shooting down the Russian jet
- China hasn’t forgotten Mr. Erdogan’s accusing it of genocide against the Uighurs, despite his silence now.
When the candidate from Mr. Erdogan’s AKP party twice lost the Istanbul mayor’s race this year, most analysts saw this as a “political earthquake” and a “stunning blow” to Mr. Erdogan, but he remains as dominant and dangerous as ever. A ruthless ideologue, his continued rule could bring to Turkey the
- political repression,
- economic collapse,
- hunger and
- mass emigration
that plague Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.
I worry about this terrible outcome because Mr. Erdogan has consolidated power over Turkey’s institutions:
- the military, the
- intelligence services, the
- police, the
- judiciary, the
- banks, the
- media, the
- election board, the
- mosques and the
- educational system.
He has supported the private security company Sadat, which some analysts consider a “shadow” or “private” army. Academics who signed a 2016 petition critical of Mr. Erdogan’s policies toward the Kurds have lost their jobs, faced criminal charges and even been jailed. Mr. Erdogan’s hare-brained theory that high interest rates cause, rather than cure, high inflation has recently done great damage to the economy. The 1,150-room palace he had built symbolizes his grandiosity and ambition.
In short, Mr. Erdogan is a dictator with strange ideas, wild ambitions and no restraints. The invasion of Syria has made a domestic and regional tragedy the most likely outcome.
How can the outside world prevent catastrophe? By terminating its disgraceful indulgence of Mr. Erdogan. Donald Trump is only the latest politician to fall for his mysterious charms— George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, among others, preceded him. Mr. Erdogan deserves punishment, not rewards, for his outrageous behavior. His heading a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member country should raise, not lower, the bar.
For several years, there has been a significant shift underway in U.S. strategy toward the Middle East, where Washington has consistently sought to avoid combat. The United States is now compelled to seek accommodation with Turkey, a regional power in its own right, based on terms that are geopolitically necessary for both. Their relationship has been turbulent, and while it may continue to be so for a while, it will decline. Their accommodation has nothing to do with mutual affection but rather with mutual necessity. The Turkish incursion into Syria and the U.S. response are part of this adjustment, one that has global origins and regional consequences.
Similarly, the U.S. decision to step aside as Turkey undertook an incursion in northeastern Syria has a geopolitical and strategic origin. The strategic origin is a clash between elements of the Defense Department and the president. The defense community has been shaped by a war that has been underway since 2001. During what is called the Long War, the U.S. has created an alliance structure of various national and subnational groups. Yet the region is still on uneven footing. The Iranians have extended a sphere of influence westward. Iraq is in chaos. The Yemeni civil war still rages, and the original Syrian war has ended, in a very Middle Eastern fashion, indecisively.
A generation of military and defense thinkers have matured fighting wars in the Middle East. The Long War has been their career. Several generations spent their careers expecting Soviet tanks to surge into the Fulda Gap. Cold Warriors believed a world without the Cold War was unthinkable. The same can be said for those shaped by Middle Eastern wars. For the Cold War generation, the NATO alliance was the foundation of their thinking. So too for the Sandbox generation, those whose careers were spent rotating into Iraq or Afghanistan or some other place, the alliances formed and the enemies fought seemed eternal. The idea that the world had moved on, and that Fulda and NATO were less important, was emotionally inconceivable. Any shift in focus and alliance structure was seen as a betrayal.
After the Cold War ended, George H.W. Bush made the decision to stand down the 24-hour B-52 air deployments in the north that were waiting for a Soviet attack. The reality had changed, and Bush made the decision a year after the Eastern European collapse began. He made it early on Sept. 21, 1991, after the Wall came down but before the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a controversial decision. I knew some serious people who thought that we should be open to the possibility that the collapse in Eastern Europe was merely a cover for a Soviet attack and were extremely agitated over the B-52 stand-down.
It is difficult to accept that an era has passed into history. Those who were shaped by that era, cling, through a combination of alarm and nostalgia, to the things that reverberate through their minds. Some (though not Europeans) spoke of a betrayal of Europe, and others deeply regretted that the weapons they had worked so hard to perfect and the strategy and tactics that had emerged over decades would never be tried.
The same has happened in different ways in the Middle East. The almost 20-year deployment has forged patterns of behavior, expectations and obligations not only among individuals but more institutionally throughout the armed forces. But the mission has changed. For now, the Islamic State is vastly diminished, as is al-Qaida. The Sunni rising in Iraq has ended, and even the Syrian civil war is not what it once was. A war against Iran has not begun, may not happen at all, and would not resemble the wars that have been fought in the region hitherto.
This inevitably generates a strategic re-evaluation, which begins by accepting that the prior era is gone. It was wrenching to shift from World War II to the Cold War and from the Cold War to a world that many believed had transcended war, and then to discover that war was suspended and has now resumed. War and strategy pretend to be coolly disengaged, but they are passionate undertakings that don’t readily take to fundamental change. But after the 18 years of war, two things have become clear. The first is that
- the modest objective of disrupting terrorism has been achieved, and the second is that
- the ultimate goal of creating something approaching liberal democracies was never really possible.
The world has changed greatly since 2001. China has emerged as a major power, and Russia has become more active. Iran, not Sunni jihadists, has become the main challenge in the Middle East and the structure of alliances needed to deal with this has changed radically since Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. In addition, the alliances have changed in terms of capability. The massive deployments in the Middle East have ended, but some troops remain there, and to a section of the American military, the jihadist war remains at the center of their thinking. To them, the alliances created over the past 18 years remain as critical as Belgium’s air force had been during the Cold War.
There is another, increasingly powerful faction in the United States that sees the Middle East as a secondary interest. In many instances, they include Iran in this. This faction sees China or Russia (or both) as the fundamental challenger to the U.S. Its members see the Middle East as a pointless diversion and a drain of American resources.
For them, bringing the conflict to a conclusion was critical. Those who made their careers in this war and in its alliances were appalled. The view of President Donald Trump has been consistent. In general, he thought that the use of military force anywhere must be the exception rather than the rule. He declined to begin combat in North Korea. He did not attack Iran after it shot down an American drone or after it seized oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. After the attack on the Saudi oil facility, he increased Saudi air defenses but refused offensive actions against the Iranians.
Given the shift in American strategy, three missions emerge. The first is the
- containment of China. The second is the
- containment of Russia. The third is the
- containment of Iran. In the case of China, the alliance structure required by the United States is primarily the archipelago stretching from Japan to Indonesia and Singapore – and including South Korea. In dealing with Russia, there are two interests. One is the North European Plain; the other is the Black Sea. Poland is the American ally in the north, Romania in the south. But the inclusion of Turkey in this framework would strengthen the anti-Russia framework. In addition, it would provide a significant counter to Iranian expansion.
Turkey’s importance is clear. It is courted by both Russia and Iran. Turkey is not the country it was a decade ago. Its economy surged and then went into crisis. It has passed through an attempted coup, and internal stress has been massive. But such crises are common in emerging powers. The U.S. had a civil war in the 1860s but by 1900 was producing half of the manufactured goods in the world while boasting a navy second only to the British. Internal crises do not necessarily mean national decline. They can mean strategic emergence.
Turkey’s alignment with Iran and Russia is always tense. Iran and Russia have at various times waged war with Turkey and have consistently seen Iraq as a threat. For the moment, both have other interests and Turkey is prepared to work with them. But Turkey is well aware of history. It is also aware that the U.S. guaranteed Turkish sovereignty in the face of Soviet threats in the Cold War, and that the U.S., unlike Russia and Iran, has no territorial ambitions or needs in Turkey. Already allied through NATO and historical bilateral ties, a relationship with Turkey is in the American interest because it creates a structure that threatens Iran’s line to the Mediterranean and compliments the Romanian-U.S. Black Sea alliance. The U.S. and Turkey are also hostile to the Syrian government. For Turkey, in the long term, Russia and Iran are unpredictable, and they can threaten Turkey when they work together. The American interest in an independent Turkey that blocks Russia and Iran coincides with long-term Turkish interests.
Enter the Kurds
This is where the Kurds come into the equation. Eastern Turkey is Kurdish, and maintaining stability there is a geopolitical imperative for Ankara. Elements of Turkey’s Kurds, grouped around the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, have carried out militant attacks. Therefore it is in Turkey’s interest to clear its immediate frontiers from a Kurdish threat. The United States has no overriding interest in doing so and, indeed, has worked together with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. But for the Turks, having Kurds on their border is an unpredictable threat. American dependency on the Kurds declines as U.S. involvement in the Middle East declines. Turkey becomes much more important to the United States in relation to Iran than the Kurds.
Trump clearly feels that the wars in the Middle East must be wound down and that a relationship with Turkey is critical. The faction that is still focused on the Middle East sees this as a fundamental betrayal of the Kurds. Foreign policy is a ruthless and unsentimental process. The Kurds want to establish a Kurdish nation. The U.S. can’t and doesn’t back that. On occasion, the U.S. will join in a mutually advantageous alliance with the Kurds to achieve certain common goals. But feelings aside, the U.S. has geopolitical interests that sometimes include the Kurds and sometimes don’t – and the same can be said of the Kurds.
At the moment, the issue is not al-Qaida but China and Russia, and Turkey is critical to the U.S. for Russia. The U.S. is critical for Turkey as well, but it cannot simply fall into American arms. It has grown too powerful in the region for that, and it has time to do it right. So Trump’s actions on the Syrian border will result in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington and, in due course, a realignment in the region between the global power and the regional power.
Many people have compared Donald Trump to a mob boss. But I’m starting to think that the comparison is unfair — to mob bosses.
After all, you can’t build an empire, even a criminal empire, unless people believe that your word is worth something. They have to believe both that you’ll honor your promises and that you’ll make good on your threats. The first few times you renege on agreements it may look as if you’re being smart and other people are being suckers; but soon they’ll take your measure, and realize that you’re actually the guy who can be rolled.
I’ve been thinking about this reality over the past few days, as we’ve watched two separate Trump administration debacles unfold.
The biggest debacle, the one that has many of us feeling a bit ashamed to be Americans, is, of course, the betrayal of the Kurds. We don’t really know why Trump so casually abandoned allies who have fought and died on our behalf, but one thing is clear: Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan took Trump’s measure, decided that his threats to retaliate against Turkey’s effective invasion of Kurdish territory were empty, and seized the moment.
But there was another, lower-key debacle involving China. Trump has, of course, made a trade war with China the centerpiece of his economic policy, inflicting substantial harm on both economies along the way. Last week, however — perhaps realizing the weakness of his domestic position as the march to impeachment gathers momentum — he seemingly decided to declare victory and retreat, proclaiming that he had a deal with China that, even by his own officials’ description, sounded like getting nothing China hasn’t been offering all along.
But it was actually worse than that. Acute observers quickly pointed out that all we had was a unilateral announcement by U.S. officials that there was a deal, which should be treated with skepticism until and unless we got an explicit joint statement of what had been agreed.
And sure enough, yesterday the Chinese basically said, “Oh, that deal? Well, we’re thinking about it. Let’s talk some more.”
In other words, like Turkey’s Erdogan — and, actually, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a while back — they’ve taken Trump’s measure and decided that he can be rolled.
The point is that Trump’s actual art of the deal, which involves making promises you intend to break whenever it seems convenient, only works if you can keep finding fresh suckers to cheat. If there are people you have to deal with repeatedly, like the leaders of other nations, they eventually figure out both that you can’t be trusted and that you needn’t be feared: your promises are empty, but so are your threats.
All of this has vastly weakened America. We used to be a country of great power but even greater influence, because we had principles other nations could count on us to follow. Now we have a leader whom other leaders see as malleable — an unprincipled and ill-informed guy who can be flattered, bribed or simply fooled into giving them what they want.
Making America great again, indeed.
Much remains mysterious about the Enquirer’s actions, and in particular its connections, if any, with President Trump and the government of Saudi Arabia — a possibility that Bezos alluded to in his blog post. Both the Saudis and Trump are aggrieved at The Post, and Trump wrongly blames Bezos for the newspaper’s accurate but unflattering coverage of him. When the Enquirer’s initial article about Bezos’s extramarital relationship was published, the president gloated in a tweet: “So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post. Hopefully the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!”
The president would obviously love to see a sale of The Post to a friendlier owner — perhaps Trump pal David Pecker, the chairman and chief executive of AMI. (One is reminded of autocrats such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have benefited from bullying media organizations into submission in their own countries.) The Enquirer was threatening Bezos in order to get him to affirm that its coverage was not “politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Might the Enquirer have, at a minimum, pursued the story to curry favor with Trump?
.. This is apparently not the first time the publication has been accused of extortionate demands. Other journalists, including Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker, have said they were threatened by the Enquirer’s lawyers while investigating the tabloid’s relationship with Trump. And Bezos wrote that “numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI.” These machinations are now being exposed because of Bezos’s smart and courageous decision to confront the Enquirer rather than give in. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out,
.. I suspect David Pecker will rue the day that his friend Donald Trump became president — if he does not already. And he is not alone.
- Paul Manafort had a flourishing business as an international influence-peddler before he became Trump’s campaign chairman. He now faces a long stretch in prison after having been convicted of felony financial charges. Trump’s friend
- Roger Stone has now been indicted for the first time after a long career as a political dirty trickster.
- Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, has gone from well-respected general to felon.
- Michael Cohen had a cushy career as Trump’s personal lawyer before his client became president. Now Cohen, too, is a felon. Numerous other Trump associates and family members are facing, at a minimum, hefty legal bills and, at worst, serious legal exposure.
Every organization Trump has been associated with — the Trump Organization, the Trump Foundation, the Trump campaign, the Trump administration — is being investigated by prosecutors and lawmakers. His name, long his biggest asset, has become so toxic that bookings are down at his hotels. And Trump, a.k.a. Individual 1, faces a serious threat of prosecution once he leaves office. Before it is all over, Trump himself may regret the day he became president. His unexpected and undeserved ascent is delivering long overdue accountability for him and his sleazy associates. We have gone from logrolling to having logs rolled over — and it’s about time.