Running Out of Excuses
When asked about sanctioning Turkey over its S-400 missile purchase during the recent NATO Summit, President Trump once again used his typical excuse for leniency on Turkey:
“As you know, Turkey wanted to buy our Patriot system and the Obama Administration wouldn’t let them.”
The President, not particularly known for attention to details on policy matters, needs to stop repeating this half-truth. Indeed, the President’s consistent failure to paint this picture accurately brings him perilously close to regurgitating Turkish talking points.
As much as President Trump would like to blame President Obama for not making a Patriot missile deal with Turkey, he would have been calling it “the worst deal ever” had the deal actually been made.
The Obama Administration did not resist the Patriot sale because of Turkey’s bad behavior. Unfortunately, it did not take into account that Turkey uses American weapons to occupy a country that the Obama Administration labeled a “strategic partner” (Cyprus), to threaten the airspace and territorial waters of a NATO ally (Greece), or to saber rattle against other allies and partners – Israel, Egypt, the Kurds.
The breaking point for the Obama Administration was purely an American reason. Turkey – accustomed to blank checks from the American foreign policy establishment – insisted on technology transfer. Perhaps to create negotiating leverage with the US, Turkey signed up on two different occasions for missile systems – in 2013 when it chose a Chinese system that it later abandoned, and in 2017 when it struck a deal with Russia for the S-400. NATO “ally” Turkey twice opted for non-NATO systems, even when a European alternative (the Aster) to the Patriot system existed.
Erdogan is intent on making Turkey “independent in the field of defense by 2023.” According to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, “Turkey is sick of being a market. We will become a producer, too.” Turkey already produces killer drones and an amphibious assault ship that might be able to serve as a mini aircraft carrier. This week, Erdogan predicted that Turkey will produce its own fighter jets within 5-6 years.
President Trump’s rhetoric and focus on “deals” with Turkey suggests that be believes that the Obama Administration cost the US an arms market. Not at all. President Obama, belatedly realizing that Turkey had transformed into an unreliable ally denied Turkey the potential of expropriating American technology to become not merely independent in terms of arms manufacturing, but independent of American political influence.
Accepting Turkey’s terms would set both US national security and arms manufacturers back for the sake of short-term sales. In an interview with CNBC, Andrew Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out that “when foreign militaries buy American, above and beyond the purchase, they are buying a partnership with the US military.”
Turkey has already justified the concern that allowing it to have both the S-400s and F35 fighter jets would compromise American military secrets by testing its S-400 radars using F16 fighter jets. It has not only turned its back on Patriot missiles, but on its traditional partnership with the US military. Turkey has more than telegraphed its intention to compete with the United States.
The worst deal ever – letting Turkey have both the S-400s AND the F35s – seems to have been averted thanks to bi-partisan efforts in Congress. Given Erdogan’s open declarations and the choices that his government has made, President Trump has to realize that not up to $100 billion in bilateral trade is nowhere near worth enabling a revanchist Turkey that is intent on independence not only from the arms industries of Western allies, but even the political influence of Western allies.
President George W. Bush got fooled by Erdogan. President Barack Obama got fooled by Erdogan. Despite an indication during the Pastor Brunson case that the Trump Administration would head in another direction, President Trump seems intent to be the latest occupant of the White House to be fooled by the aspiring Sultan. He does, however, have a tool that his predecessor did not – CAATSA sanctions. Imposing them would finally signal to Erdogan that he has less leverage than he thinks on the US. Giving Erdogan a pass would be a monumental failure – worse than anything the Obama Administration did on US-Turkey policy.