Trump is gambling with America’s security and pushing Turkey into Putin’s embrace

A series of crass, unforced errors by the US president is undoing decades of patient American diplomatic efforts.

Monday 13 August 2018 21:30 BST
Erdogan says Turkish economy will grow, despite 'attacks' on lira

Just for a change, a tweet from Donald Trump that everyone can agree with: “Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”

And, also something of a novelty, President Trump understates, if anything, the miserable state of US-Turkish relations. They have descended into a pantomime economic “war”, in which the US is slapping ever higher tariffs on Turkish exports, and plucky Turkey is lobbing its devalued Turkish lira at the mighty dollar. The effect has been to exacerbate the misfortunes in Turkey’s badly mismanaged economy, and to disturb investors in emerging economies more widely (including American investment funds, as it happens). As ever, this is an economic war with no winners. What is different here is that it could provoke geopolitical shifts that could prove even more damaging to western security and world peace.

For US-Turkish relations today stand at a one hundred year low. Not, in fact, since the United States and the Ottoman Empire found themselves on opposite sides in the Great War have things been worse. The decline has been precipitous, and is dangerous. With Saud Arabia and Israel, Turkey is (or was) America’s only reliable major ally in the region – and the one, even now, most likely to contribute to political and military stability, including restraining Russia and Iran in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

America has always counted on Turkey as an anchor of its strategy for the region, and a partner as a longstanding member of Nato. Now it risks losing its allegiance. We know that Mr Trump cares little for Nato, but this is ridiculous.

For the danger now is that Turkey’s estrangement from the US and Nato will be so complete that it will be pushed even closer to its historic rival, Russia: it could scarcely be worse. Despite some fierce arguments over the years – including over shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by the Turks – presidents Erdogan and Putin have begun to form a kind of informal local alliance, ancient animosities about the Black Sea and the Straits shelved for the time being.

Most visibly, Turkey and Russia have collaborated with Iran in bringing “peace” (the peace of the graveyard in fact) to Syria, with the happy coincidence that the defeat of Isis furthers all their national interests. In return, Turkey expects, and has received, help from its new friends in crushing the nascent democracy in Kurdistan, about which it has long felt paranoid.

Against that new Turkey-Russia-Iran triumvirate, we find the tacit alliance of America, Israel and Saudi Arabia, their relationship seemingly based on the old adage that my enemy’s enemy is my friend (though President Trump’s exact personal relationship with President Putin is evidently more nuanced and enigmatic).

These two blocs already fight proxy and air wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, and are sizing each other up for a fresh bout of fighting in Lebanon. Both sides have their own lesser sidekicks, such as the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. The risk that these localised conflicts could escalate into something more serious is all too apparent. As Iran-backed militias edge closer to the Israeli border, for example, the prospect of more direct action by the Israelis against Iran intensifies.

Israel is, after all, an unacknowledged nuclear power, and Iran and Saudi Arabia could easily acquire such weapons. President Trump’s renunciation of the international nuclear deal with Iran makes it simply more likely that the ayatollahs will start publicly testing nuclear-tipped missiles, inviting Israeli counteraction. The latest tough US sanctions on Iran and Turkey have done nothing except boost Russian influence and add to the tensions.

Looked at from the point of view of the Kremlin, the American president couldn’t be giving Russia more diplomatic help if Mr Putin himself were running the White House. Russia, without much effort on its own part, has acquired two powerful allies – Turkey and Iran – that serve the Russian interest well. America, powerful as it is, is that much less able to protect its own interests – including those of its client states in the Gulf and Israel.

The fault lies with President Trump, for a series of crass, unforced errors undoing decades of patient American diplomatic efforts. He was right to protest about the unlawful detention of the American pastor Andrew Brunson. He has been held for no good reason for two years, and yet he was recently moved from prison to house arrest, a hopeful sign. President Trump might have made more progress if he had tried to work behind the scenes than by via social media. Now Mr Trump has made Mr Brunson into a totem, the Turks can hardly release him for fear of appearing weak.

It need not be thus. After all, the leading Turkish dissident preacher, Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, is a 77-year-old recluse who has been living in the US for any years. Turkey has loudly demanded his extradition many times, but has taken little further action against the US for harbouring the man they believe has been plotting to undermine the Turkish state, or at least Mr Erdogan's autocratic rule (Mr Brunson was suspected of being a “Gulenist” agent, hence his detention). There was, before Mr Trump lost his temper, a sense of restraint over these, in effect, political hostages.

Not for the first time, President Trump is gambling with America’s security and world peace. The hope is that this is yet another exemplar of the Trump way of diplomacy – speak loudly and wave a big stick. If that is the precursor to a more sensible dialogue with Turkey, then the damage may be repaired. If not, and he pushes Turkey out of Nato and into the embrace of Putin’s Russia, the consequences could be grim indeed, especially for America’s remaining friends and vital interests in the Middle East. America’s foreign policy is not good at this time.

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