Andy McCarthy sees the constitutional changes in Turkey as having “hammered the final nail in the coffin of [that] country’s democracy.” He castigates President Trump for calling to congratulate strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan on this accomplishment.
Lee Smith sees the situation differently. He contends that the closeness of the referendum on Erdogan’s changes represents “a warning that he had better address Turkish voters’ key concerns—the economy, political stability, terrorism—or else he might expect worse in the 2019 presidential elections.” And Smith doesn’t seem bothered that Trump made his phone call.
I think President Trump was right to call Erdogan, especially if McCarthy is correct about the state of Turkish democracy. If Erdogan really has locked up power for the next eight years or more, it becomes all the more important for Trump to establish a solid relationship with him, if possible. And the best way to seek such a relationship is by approaching Erdogan now, when he most craves such attention.
Turkey is a hugely important player in the Middle East. Whether the issue is Iran, Assad, or ISIS, Turkey matters.
Turkey under Erdogan will never be a U.S. ally or friend, but it’s a potential collaborator in various projects where the two nations’ interests run parallel. Unlike Iran, Turkey under Erdogan is not inherently hostile to America. If there has been little collaboration recently, it is probably because, as Smith argues, President Obama “turned on American allies [in the region] and empowered their adversaries,” notably Iran and Russia.
Trump needs to reverse this course. An overture to Erdogan can be part of the process.
We should think of Trump’s approach to Erdogan as similar to his outreach to China, which is less democratic than Turkey and more of a threat to its neighbors, including friends of the U.S. Trump wants China to assist America in dealing with the North Korean threat. He has thus become friendly with China’s dictator. If China actually does assist on this vital issue, the president likely will overlook a multitude of its sins. If not, not.
The same approach makes sense when it comes to the Middle East. Indeed, Trump has already hosted Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The strongman isn’t much of a democrat, but he’s a key ally in the region.
The U.S. shouldn’t be indifferent to the internal practices of nations like China, Egypt, and Turkey (or to China’s trade policies). But these practices shouldn’t stand in the way of collaboration on vital issues of mutual interest, provided the nation in question is not implacably hostile to the U.S. and is not unacceptably aggressive towards its neighbors.
Such collaboration can’t take place without outreach. This week was an opportune time for Trump to have reached out to Erdogan.