“Made for each other”. That must have been the thought that crossed many an analyst’s mind when it came to predicting the likely course of the relationship between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Alas, things got off to a rather rocky start for the two brash demagogues. Rude realities, such as the US and Turkish presidents’ very different needs when it comes to the involvement of the Kurds in the Syria conflict, intervened. But following an eventful UN General Assembly week in New York, the two bullheaded ‘country CEOs’ are finally coming across as true buddies. Not best buddies as yet – and there are still some delicate issues that could knock their friendship right off the road – but they’re getting there.
On the sidelines of the UN assembly, Trump and Erdogan emerged from their September 21 meeting fairly beaming for the cameras. Erdogan “has become a friend of mine,” declared Trump, adding: “We have a great friendship as countries. I think we’re, right now, as close as we have ever been. And a lot of that has to do with the personal relationship.”
Erdogan will know full well that his counterpart can change his mind on such matters in the blink of an eye, but his camp was feeling confident enough to push the claim — denied by the White House but not by Trump himself — that the US president had privately apologised to the Turkish leader for the bloody brawl that broke out with protesters in Washington, DC back in May outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence, leading to indictments being issued against several of Erdogan’s bodyguards.
The question over whether an apology was made or not remained unresolved and, oddly enough, the very next day Trump aides’ file on the matter grew that much thicker when violence broke out at New York’s Marriott Marquis Hotel as Erdogan was addressing supporters at an event organised by the Turkish-American National Steering Committee (TASC). Demonstrators, some of whom had been heckling Erdogan with cries of “terrorist”, were punched, pushed and dragged out of the venue, but, despite some claims to the contrary, no evidence emerged that any of Erdogan’s security detail were involved. Still, the headlines that followed were hardly flattering to the Turkish president, with The Daily Caller going so far as to report: “Erdogan’s goons beat up some more Americans”.
World’s biggest jailer of journalists
Thanks to a state of emergency declared in Turkey after the failed July 2016 coup, Erdogan is entitled to rule by decree and one finds oneself wondering if Trump is green with envy.
Less than a year ago almost nobody would have imagined that the leader of the free world would gleefully greet and meet the world’s biggest jailer of journalists (around 150 are said to be languishing in jail in Turkey). But it’s not as if Trump didn’t know who he was dealing with. The day before their encounter, Quartz, in an article tagged “Surreality”, came out with the headline: “In a chilling assertion, Turkey’s Erdogan says imprisoned journalists are not journalists but terrorists”. Erdogan, it turned out, had bizarrely told an audience at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York: “The ones who have been sentenced, who have been imprisoned, are not journalists. Most of them are terrorists. Many have been involved in burglaries and some have been caught red handed as they were trying to empty ATM machines.”
It’s the kind of outlandish and illiberal comeback to an earnest journalist’s question that is lauded by Trump. Erdogan, he knows, is right there on the same page of contempt for his critics, but might matters weightier than their personal chemistry still get in the way of their growing closeness?
Putin enters the picture
On September 22, The Washington Post published an opinion piece entitled: “Trump may have to sanction his Turkish president best buddy”. At this point, Russian President Vladimir Putin, another rogue Trump is just dying to be pals with (tough-talking brute and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte is a confirmed amigo but perhaps isn’t big league enough), enters the picture. Erdogan, who fell out with the Russian president after a Turkish jet shot down a Russian fighter-bomber over the Turkish-Syrian border in late 2015, has, after a rapprochement, already made a good comrade out of Putin. So much so that he has put a deposit down on acquiring Moscow’s most advanced missile defence system, the S-400.
Though it won’t yet say as much in public, Nato is clearly mightily miffed by the move made by one of its members. But if Trump tries to shrug off his chum’s acquisition, it won’t play easily. According to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which Trump begrudgingly signed into law last month, the US must sanction any foreign entity that engages in significant transactions with the Russian Federation’s defence and intelligence sectors.
Erdogan defended his planned missile system purchase during a September 19 interview with PBS News Hour, claiming Nato allies had refused to provide Turkey with the military hardware it needs and insisting he would see the deal through.
The Post reported sources as saying that inside the Trump administration an internal debate is emerging over what to do. Some Pentagon officials, it said, are seeking to interpret the law so as not to require sanctions on Turkey, believing such penalties could complicate military-to-military cooperation.
Congress is apparently watching the situation closely and preparing to enforce the sanctions if the Trump administration fails to press ahead. “The clear congressional intent is that a lot of these sanctions are mandatory,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Ben Cardin (Md.) reportedly said, adding that he intends “to follow up on making sure that congressional intent and authority is properly respected.”
If human rights cut no ice with Trump when it comes to keeping good company, the prospect of Congress being in uproar over support for an ally that is buying the enemy’s missile defence system might just. This is one new friendship that is about to be seriously tested.