By now it has become clear that Donald Trump enjoys engaging with a “difficult” negotiating partner and that furthermore he maintains a zero-sum mentality in thinking that it isn’t possible for both sides to be equally happen at the end of a successful negotiating sessions. That being said, his historic meeting with Kim Jong-un appeared to win universal favour, while his recent meeting with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Junker also appeared to be a success from the perspective of both sides.
Now though, as elements of the US political elite are in open conflict with one another regarding America’s policies towards Turkey, Trump has accidentally stepped into a fight with a man who will be his most difficult negotiating opponent yet: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
At present, US Defence Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis leads a section of the US political establishment that remains firmly committed to Washington’s history alliance with Turkey and that further respects Turkey’s role as a long-time NATO member that should be treated with respect and moreover should be given the F-35 jets Ankara ordered years ago. In this sense, while Mattis and the military-industrial complex he tends to represent remain pro-Turkey, others in Congress, anti-Turkish ethno-confessional lobbies, academia and now members of the White House including Mike Pence are driving the wider anti-Turkish witch hunt that is already brewing in Washington.
While US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in careful negotiations with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu over the matter of Andrew Brunson, US Vice President Mike Pence issued a provocative Tweet regarding his desire for Brunson’s immediate release. Shortly after Trump followed, adding that sanctions on Turkey could result is Brunson was not released.
The Tweets from Pence and Trump have been profoundly shocking to Turkish officials who were in the midst of private negotiations on the matter and did not expect a disgraceful public display of insolence from top US officials. It was later surmised the the reason Brunson’s case is of importance to Pence is becomes like Brunson, Pence is an Evangelical Christian and it is assumed that the release of Brunson from Turkey to the US would be an easy way to galvanise the Evangelical vote prior to this autumn’s mid-term elections in the US.
However, the issue runs far deeper than this as Brunson is not under house arrest in Turkey for being an Evangelical Christian. Brunson is under house arrest in Turkey because he stands accused of collaborating with the Fethullah Terror Organisation, an extremist Islamist death cult that has engaged in multiple lawless activities. Brunson is also charged with forming similar ties with the part anarchist and part communistic terror group PKK – an organisation that has killed over 40,000 people.
If releasing Brunson before his trial finishes is all about appealing to the Evangelical vote in the US- shouldn’t these voters know that Brunson stands accused of working with groups that few American Protestants would care for? After all, Islamist cults and far-left terror gangs aren’t exactly the preferred causes of the religious right in the US.
Therefore, either Brunson merely represents a further excuse for the anti-Turkish wing of the US political establishment to antagonise Turkey or otherwise, the latest barrage of anti-Turkish threats by Pence and Trump are simply a poorly calculated political stunt, one that clearly has cooler heads like Mattis worried.
But whatever the case may be, in directly Tweeting a threat to Turkey, Donald Trump has earned himself a new negotiating opponent who will be far tougher on Trump even than Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin or possibly Hassan Rouhani whom Trump previously sought to meet.
Erdogan responded to Trump’s Tweet by implying that any negotiations for a “prisoner swap” with Turkey are now over. The Turkish President said,
“I think this is psychological warfare. We will not step back with sanctions. We did not haggle regarding Brunson”.
While Erdogan and Trump appeared to be on friendly terms at this month’s NATO summit, things have once again gone down hill as the anti-Turkish factions in Washington have allowed the Brunson matter to become far bigger than it objectively is. Now, if Trump seeks to undo the damage of Mike Pence and others in his own government he will have to face the fact that in more ways than one, Erdogan has the upper hand.
First of all, while trade deficits have been a major bone of contention that Trump raises both with rivals like China and long term partners like the EU, Canada and Japan – Turkey is unique in that it the US has a trade surplus with Turkey. Thus, tariffs or sanctions on Turkey will hurt US exporters more than Turkish consumers. Secondly, as the member of NATO closest to the conflicts in the Middle East in terms of geography, any major and sustained spat with the US could lead to Turkey telling America with withdraw its military hardware from Turkish soil. This includes US nuclear weapons which remain housed on Turkish soil.
If the US were to re-locate its weaponry elsewhere in the region, its options would be limited as the political situation in Jordan, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia is far less stable than that of Turkey. Likewise, the security situation in Israel has always meant that the US has looked for alternatives rather than build a large scale NATO base in a country with a history of conflict with all of its neighbours.
Finally, Turkey retains a strong trading relationship with the EU – one that is arguably far more favourable than that which the UK is proposing to have with Brussels after withdrawing from the EU. At the same time, Turkey is increasing its trade with Iran, Russia, China and throughout Africa, all while continuing to buy US goods at a time when Trump is pushing for more countries to have a Turkey style trading relationship with Washington.
Taken in totality, the US has a great deal to lose in terms of both trade, military logistics and long term strategy if the anti-Turkish forces in Washington win-out over Mattis and the Pentagon who remain committed to an alliance with Ankara.
If need be, Turkey can buy more weapons from Russia until Erdogan’s drive to make Turkey into a weapons producing power is complete and likewise, as Turkey as an enthusiastic participant in the One Belt–One Road trading initiative, Ankara is not short of trading and investment partners. Thus, what would Trump exactly negotiate with Erdogan other than a truly meaningful prisoner swap whereby Turkey would hand Brunson to the US authorities if the US handed Turkey FETO founder Fethullah Gulen who is currently living as a free man on US soil. As Ankara has sought Gulen’s extradition for years, all the latest round of Trump/Pence brinkmanship has done is made Washington look foolish as the threats are not likely to lead to any concessions from Turkey. In actual fact all they will lead to is Turkey working more intensely with other regional and international partners ranging from Iran to China and Russia.