The US must turn up the heat on Turkey’s Erdogan

Turkey Election
Supporters of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, May 28, 2023. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dissipated a challenge by an opponent who sought to reverse his increasingly authoritarian leanings, securing five more years to oversee the country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia that plays a key role in NATO. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel, File)

The US must turn up the heat on Turkey’s Erdogan

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The United States-Turkey relationship is built on cultural links and a long-term alliance. Turkey was vital to NATO’s southern flank defense during the Cold War.

Unfortunately, however, U.S.-Turkey relations are now in crisis.

A DEBT LIMIT WIN FOR THE GOP

Turkey’s newly reelected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to blame. Since entering power in March 2003, just before the Iraq War, first as prime minister, Erdogan has steadily concentrated power in his own hands. He has degraded democratic norms and human rights, throwing thousands of journalists, activists, and political opponents in prison. He has enriched crony allies and built himself a 1,000-room palace.

Yet the central challenge facing U.S.-Turkey relations is Erdogan’s foreign policy. Rather than living up to his obligations as an important member of NATO, he treats the alliance and America with disdain. Consider that Erdogan has:

imprisoned Americans as hostages, releasing them only under threat of U.S. economic sanctions. repeatedly used his security detail to attack innocent protesters on American soil.  repeatedly undermined security cooperation with Israel, cultivating ties with Hamas and other terrorist organizations. continues to prevent the accession of Sweden to NATO. Out of NATO’s 30 member states, only the equally problematic Hungary joins Turkey in that obstruction. continues to treat Russian President Vladimir Putin as a partner, even as he threatens Turkey’s NATO allies and wages the largest land war in Europe since 1945.

Turkey is seeking a soft reboot of U.S. relations, desiring to buy F-16 fighter jets. But Erdogan should be rebuffed. The Biden administration and Congress should make clear that unless and until Erdogan behaves like an ally, he will no longer be treated as one. If Erdogan retaliates by expelling U.S. military forces from Turkey, so be it. The trajectory of the relationship is no longer tolerable for American interests or those of our real allies.

If Erdogan relents and seeks cooperation, the U.S. should make three expectations clear. First, he must accept Sweden’s accession to NATO and drop his absurd demands that Sweden extradite people on his political prisoner wanted list. Second, Erdogan must not buy Russia’s S-400 missile system as planned. Third, he must treat NATO as a partner rather than a tool for his partisan political agenda.

To accomplish these tasks, the U.S. should deploy its economic leverage. Money talks, and Turkey doesn’t have it.

Turkey’s currency is collapsing. Inflation is rampant at over 40%. Ankara’s foreign currency reserves are heavily depleted. Erdogan’s economic mismanagement is largely to blame, along with his partisan undermining of the central bank. His failure gives the U.S. an opportunity to exert significant pressure. Washington could impose tariffs on imports from Turkey, which would hit its inflow of foreign currency. The U.S. imported $19 billion of Turkish goods in 2022 and exported $15 billion in return. Turkey needs that trade far more than the U.S. does.

How would this more robust policy toward Turkey support U.S. interests?

It would reduce Putin’s ability to divide NATO over the war in Ukraine and his other malevolence. Treating Erdogan as an uncomfortable partner rather than a pariah would encourage Putin to bend Erdogan to Russia’s purposes. NATO’s credibility requires its deterrence and a degree of political unity among its members. If Sweden joins, NATO will have a three-pronged Scandinavian front from which to dominate the Baltic Sea and Russian naval approaches into the Atlantic. A Turkey realigned in support of NATO would also provide a bastion against Russian threats in the Black and Mediterranean seas. Such a Turkey would deter Putin rather than embolden him.

As Erdogan prepares to spend at least five more years in power, Washington should act quickly to avoid a repeat or even worse version of the last five years in U.S.-Turkey relations.

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