Erdogan’s Turkey could best be described as America’s worst friend or best enemy. Even though they are allies by treaty, the US and Turkey have tended to go separate ways over the last few years. While the US has sanctioned Iran, Turkey has abetted the sanctions. Although a NATO partner, Turkey has purchased the Russian air defense system. And, Turkey and the US stand on different sides when it comes to Syria.
Despite this, on Wednesday, Erdogan made a trip to the White House and spoke with President Trump – a visit that many believed would never take place. Although a “Frank” discussion, the focus by both presidents afterwards was mostly on positives.
But not all of Washington welcomed Erdogan’s visit. Congress and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers opposed the trip due to Turkey’s foreign policy and its treatment of minorities, especially the Kurds. Earlier this week, Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representative sent a letter to Trump asking him to cancel Erdogan’s trip to the White House.
“President Erdogan’s decision to invade northern Syria on October 9 has had disastrous consequences on US national security,” the letter said. “Turkish forces have killed civilians and members of the Syrian Democratic forces, a critical partner in the US fight against ISIS.”
Despite the criticism from lawmakers and some in his administration, polls show that most American voters support Trump’s attempt to lower the military presence in Syria and the whole region. However, there were demonstrations by Kurds, dissident Turks, Armenians, and Syrians during the Erdogan visit. And, there are the attacks by Erdogan’s guards during the last visit that hangs over the whole visit.
According to Senator Rubio, Erdogan has four goals during the visit: Reduce the sanctions that Trump has threatened on Turkey for buying the Russian S-400 air defense system, extradite Gulen back to Turkey, pressure the US to stop patrolling with the Kurds, and make the US aware that Turkey would take action to eliminate General Abdi of the Syrian Democratic forces.
Trump, who honed his negotiation skills in the New York real estate market is more than willing to deal but will expect a tangible concession from Erdogan – something more than the ceasefire (something that wasn’t forthcoming).
The Kissinger Model
So, what is driving the Trump policy that seems in direct conflict with the experts?
One needs to look at Dr. Henry Kissinger, who as we mentioned in the past, has regular visits with Trump and his administration. Kissinger was frequently criticized for his moves in opening China, negotiating arms treaties with the Soviet Union, and removing US forces from Vietnam.
What Trump is doing appears to be right out of the Kissinger playbook.
In the book, Kissinger laments the foreign policy decisions made by 20th century diplomatic “experts,” which led to two damaging world wars.
Today, Kissinger sees a rising China, a weaker Russia and a US that is powerful, but not supreme. What is needed is a balance of power.
In the case of the Middle East, Turkey is a key player – not because of its adherence to the concepts of democracy or human rights (remember Kissinger dealt with the USSR and China despite being labeled as totalitarian by American leaders).
Although Erdogan has pushed the limit in terms of its relationships with the US and its European allies, Turkey remains an important nation in the Middle East. And, despite Erdogan’s dalliances with Iran and Russia, these two nations have been traditional opponents of Turkey in the diplomatic tug of war in the Middle East.
In other words, although Turkey may be working with Russia and Iran now, they will try to prevent either Iran or Russia from becoming the major power in the Middle East.
This points to the most important criteria in balance of power politics. The national leadership must be flexible enough to shift alliances (despite ethical issues) to maintain the balance of power, and thus, a relative peace in the region.
Supporters of Trump are claiming that the US isn’t giving up its own influence. By occupying the Syrian oil fields, which aren’t large (but are going to critical for any final peace settlement), to them the US will have an important role in creating the eventual balance of power.
This is where President Trump differs with the Washington establishment. As a commercial negotiator he is more than willing to make a deal with anyone.
What is Important in a “Balance of Power” meeting?
If Trump is more interested in creating a balance of power in the Middle East, the rules for a successful meeting with Erdogan are different. Issues like trade agreements are unimportant. Nor is an agreement locking out Russia or Iran critical.
What is important is that lines of communications are kept open and issues that separate the two nations don’t preclude keeping a balance in the region. The focus is on common areas of agreement.
This is what happened with the Trump-Erdogan meeting this week.
Although Trump highlighted the Russian sale of the S-400 to Turkey and how that hinders closer relations, Trump made it clear that it wasn’t going to cause a breach in relations. Trump also focused on positive US-Turkish relations like economic relations and the NATO alliance.
Erdogan also focused on areas of agreement like the possibility that Turkey could purchase some American Patriot missile systems and Christian minorities in Turkey and Syria. He also asserted that Turkey was the ideal ally to help defeat ISIS.
In the end, what happened was that both nations agreed to keep communication open and to cooperate on policies of mutual interest.
Some experts in Washington are observing that this was not what Iran, America’s opponent in the region, wanted. They would prefer a hostile relationship between Turkey and America. They didn’t get that with the Erdogan-Trump meeting. In fact, the Erdogan-Trump meeting was the last thing Iran or Russia wanted.
In understanding the Trump foreign policy, one must understand the Kissinger approach to diplomacy. It is not a policy of spreading American values through the occupation of American soldiers – which has been American policy for decades. The Trump-Kissinger policy is to avoid wars that destabilize regions.
The war on Syria has been a destabilizing factor in the region for the last few years. By holding on to the Syrian oil fields and allowing Turkey, Russia, and Iran to create a political balance in the area, Trump has prevented a grand alliance of Russia, Turkey, and Iran to oppose America. This, in turn, allows the US to cut back on its military presence.
Although many in Washington don’t like this policy, it’s important to remember that Kissinger and Nixon faced the same opposition from politicians and experts in the 1960s and 1970s. Although Trump and Erdogan met this week in Washington, the outrage was nothing compared to when Nixon went to China and toasted Chairman Mao.
Nixon’s move to establish relations with China was critical to minimizing Soviet power and encouraging them to seek friendlier relations with the US.
And, as with the Nixon-Kissinger policy, what happens with the Trump policy will not be known for years.