Erdogan Plays Biden Again, now on F-16s – Both National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the State Department praised Turkey for re-establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel several years after Turkey withdrew its ambassador from the Jewish state. “This move will bring increased security, stability, and prosperity to their peoples as well as the region,” Sullivan tweeted.
Sullivan speaks too soon and plays into Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hands. While Erdogan feigns moderation and receives White House goodwill in return, the Turkish president remains two-faced. Just hours before Sullivan praised Erdogan, the Russian press announced that Turkey had signed a new contract to both purchase additional S-400s from Russia and produce parts locally for the S-400 system. This is essentially a middle finger to the Biden administration after the White House and State Department went to bat for Turkey by endorsing the sale to it of upgraded F-16s.
Erdoǧan’s duplicity surprises less than the gullibility of those inclined to see his goodwill. In his heart, Erdogan is an ideologue. He remains deeply anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and anti-American. Whereas he seeks to benefit from NATO membership, he shows his true attitude toward the defensive alliance with the arrests of officers whose only sin is long service in NATO offices and his willingness to engage in transactional bidding wars with its adversaries.
Today, Sullivan and the State Department’s Turkey desk might see a new moderation in Turkey, but this is for show only. With inflation topping 80 percent, Erdoǧan realizes he needs outside support. After years of economic mismanagement, Turkey’s foreign reserves are near empty. Creative accounting can no longer cover the deficits and Qatar, the rich Persian Gulf emirate that has bankrolled Erdogan from the start has reached its limit. Erdogan hopes that a more moderate face may allow him to expedite emergency loans from international lenders without other countries seeking to use Turkey’s desperate straits to extract concessions.
The White House and State Department also approach Turkey through the lens of wishful thinking: They ignore the systematic change wrought by Erdoǧan over two decades has done and believe that Turkey might revert to the status quo after Erdoǧan. They both hope that next year’s elections might unseat Erdogan and conversely worry that any punitive action might backfire by fanning nationalist flames. This is misguided for two reasons: First, there is nothing in Erdogan’s character to suggest he would abide by the outcome of a truly democratic election. He will either cheat or, as in 2016, feign a crisis to impose emergency rule. Second, refusing to hold Erdogan accountable for his actions allows the Turkish leader to project strength, simultaneously undermines the opposition, and encourages the continuation of the double game.
It is fine to applaud Turkey’s restoration of relations with Israel, but the United States must calibrate policy on reality rather than hope. It is time to stop falling for Erdogan’s bluff. Full diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel will not bring “security, stability, and prosperity,” as Sullivan remarked. ‘
Rather, Sullivan should demand a stop to Turkey’s military dealings with Moscow; its support for Hamas, the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda, an end to Turkey’s overflights of Greek islands; China-like violations of its neighbors’ maritime waters, and exclusive economic zones; and Russia-like occupations of other neighbors. The White House and State Department may believe boilerplate diplomacy and moral clarity are smart, but statecraft is more than an algorithm or purposeful neglect of a country’s true behavior.
It is time to take the F-16s off the table and ratchet up sanctions in response to the new S-400 deal.
About this Expert: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).