Disagreement over a jailed pastor has devolved into a personal fight between two strongmen، adding significant strain to relations between Turkey and the United States. These like-minded leaders should empower their diplomats to find a way forward before they inflict lasting damage on bilateral ties.
The relationship between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and American President Donald Trump began well، with the men bonding over their shared dislike of Barack Obama.
Erdoğan hoped Trump would reverse unpopular Obama-era policies: namely، American military support for a faction of Syrian Kurds (allied to a Kurdish terrorist organization in Turkey) in the fight against the Islamic State، and American refusal to extradite Islamic cleric and accused coup-plotter Fetullah Gülen without compelling evidence. Notwithstanding the improprieties of Michael Flynn—a former lobbyist for the Turkish government who served briefly as Trump’s national security advisor—the new administration did not deviate significantly from existing policies. However، senior officials in the State Department and Defense Department worked hard over the last year to address some irritants and restrained congressional calls for a tougher stance.
The two leaders developed a solid rapport، free from criticism of irksome rule-of-law issues. Trump invited Erdoğan to the White House less than four months after taking office.
He gave the Turkish president “very high marks” during a September 2017 meeting at the United Nations، suggesting the countries were “as close as we’ve ever been” due largely to “a personal relationship.” He fist-bumped Erdoğan at July’s NATO summit and praisedhim for “doing things the right way” on defense spending. The warm feelings were reciprocated. At the White House، Erdoğan described Trump’s election win as a “legendary victory” and at the U.N. meeting referred to “my dear friend Donald.”
The presidential connection soured in recent weeks amid a standoff over Andrew Brunson، an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey for nearly two years on spurious terrorism charges. Erdoğan recognized Brunson’s utility as a negotiating pawn and engaged in “hostage diplomacy،” telling Trump last fall that he would exchange one cleric for another: Brunson for Gülen. Motivated by the growing outcry among evangelicals in the Republican base (including Vice President Mike Pence)، Trump has made Brunson’s return the defining issue of the relationship. Meanwhile، Erdoğan is trying to negotiate an advantageous deal—reportedly concerning American action against a Turkish bank accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
American diplomats were quietly working on Brunson’s case (as well as advocating on behalf of other imprisoned Americans and three Turkish employees of U.S. consulates) until Trump became directly involved. He did a favor for Erdoğan by securing the release of a Turkish national being held in Israel، and then felt personally betrayed when Brunson was not freed in return. Trump tweeted that “Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years،” as his administration slapped human rights sanctions on two government ministers and doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports. In response، Erdoğan described U.S. sanctions as “unacceptable، irrational، and ultimately detrimental to our longstanding friendship” in a New York Times op-ed، threatened to find new friends and allies، and imposed reciprocal measures.