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Fool Me Once…
Almost like clockwork, the Erdogan regime and its enablers in the United States switched from rhetorically assaulting candidate Joe Biden (in August, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin accused Biden of “ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy” and told him “You will pay the price”) to courting President-elect Joe Biden. Perhaps encouraged by the presence of certain individuals with a history of appeasing Turkey on the transition team or by overly diplomatic tweets by Biden advisors that he was “glad to see Turkey signaling an openness to dialogue with the next administration”, Turkey is setting itself up for a fresh start with the Biden Administration.
Ankara is once more employing one of its typical tactics – rolling out Turkey apologists in American op-ed pages. The mid-December Washington Post opinion by Asli Aydintasbas entitled “Trump lost Turkey. Here’s how Biden could restore the crucial relationship” is an egregious example of such disingenuous spin.
Aydintasbas is a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pro-Turkey hotspot that churns out spin for Ankara from the likes of Carl Bidlt and Nathalie Tocci. Aydintasbas latest contribution to the ECFR’s poppycock on Turkey includes a particularly cynical talking point – one perhaps designed to appeal to the Biden team’s commitment to fix global relationships damaged during the Trump years: “If it wasn’t for Trump, I doubt the Turkish leader would have purchased the S-400 or so greatly expanded his attacks on Turkish civil society and human rights.”
The latter claim on human rights is particularly disingenuous. After all, Turkey’s main assault on that front began during President Obama’s second term, almost immediately after Erdogan’s 2013 visit to the White House. The Turkish government’s crackdown following Gezi Park and its purge after the 2016 coup occurred with Joe Biden as Vice President and Tony Blinken at the State Department. It was enough for President Obama to decry Erdogan as “a failure and an authoritarian” in his final interview with Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic. Turkey’s crackdown on civil society during the Obama years was enough for the former President – who, during his first term spoke more to Erdogan than to any other world leader – to make this observation in his memoir A Promised Land: “But whenever I listed to [Erdogan] speak. . .I got the strong impression that his commitment to democracy and the rule of law might last only as long as it preserved his own power.”
Despite this rhetoric, there was no holding Turkey to account for human rights violations by the Obama Administration. Aydintasbas notes the efforts of the Trump Administration to secure the release of Andrew Brunson, but fails to mention that the Obama Administration had started those efforts and merely failed to be as forceful as Trump, who imposed limited sanctions on Turkey. Unsurprisingly, he completely avoids discussion of Obama’s State Department ignoring the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s designation of Turkey as a “country of particular concern” (the designation for the worst human rights violators in the world) in 2012.
Aydintasbas goes on to incorrectly (and deceptively) lay complete blame for Turkey going ahead with the S-400 purchase on bad signaling from the Trump Administration. It is true that President Trump’s rhetoric on the issue was horrible, and the work of Turkey’s top appeaser in the US government – Ambassador Jim Jeffrey – probably gave Turkey a false sense of security, there were countervailing signals as well. From Congress you had: the passage of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act); constant pressure – both in terms of legislation and Congressional rhetoric – for the application of CAATSA sanctions. During the Trump Administration, the Pentagon and the State Department made it clear that activation of the S-400s would never be accepted in Washington. Turkey was ejected from the F35 program. So Aydintasbas’ assertion that there was no pushback during the Trump years is just not credible.
The truth is that mixed signaling – and therefore bad signaling – is a bi-partisan tradition in Washington. The gradual “reset” that Aydintasbas argues for will continue that inane and counterproductive tradition. He argues for an “S-400 compromise”; there is no reason to trust Erdogan on any “compromise”. He has demonstrated that he can play for time. The U.S. only stands to lose in any solution short of the S-400s being given back or destroyed.
The US has finally signaled that accountability will be the watchword for Turkish-American relationships rather than accommodation, or worse yet, appeasement. We must be on the lookout for those like Aydintasbas and his colleagues, who resists holding Turkey accountable.