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Can the Biden Administration Ensure that Turkey’s Erdogan “Stays Bribed?”

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flies over the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility Oct. 14, 2020. The F-16 Fighting Falcon is a compact, multirole fighter aircraft that has proven itself in both air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Duncan C. Bevan)
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flies over the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility Oct. 14, 2020. The F-16 Fighting Falcon is a compact, multirole fighter aircraft that has proven itself in both air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Duncan C. Bevan)

The Biden administration needs a change of tactics when it comes to dealing with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

According to recent reports, the White House has informally notified Congress of its support for the sale of advanced F-16s and upgrade kits for Turkey’s existing F-16s to Ankara. The White House intends to formally submit such a deal to Congress, which must approve the sale. Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu triumphantly announced that agreements
have been reached with management at all levels concerning the controversial sale, although he admits that Congressional roadblocks could still create issues. Administration officials are saying that approving the sale will help convince Turkey to approve Sweden and Finland’s bids to join NATO.

If you’re getting a hint of déjà vu, you’re not alone.

It was back in June that U.S. President Joe Biden announced he supported the sale of advanced F-16’s to Turkey. The announcement came immediately after Turkey lifted opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO following a reported breakthrough whereby Helsinki and Stockholm agreed to take certain actions toward Turkish expats that Ankara considers terrorists. While Biden denied a quid-pro-quo, everyone understood his support came largely in response to Turkey’s actions toward Scandinavia. So why are we still talking about this nearly seven months later? 

In short, because Erdoğan will not stay bribed.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani dedicated an entire chapter in his post-Mayoralty book Leadership to the idea that you should “bribe only those who will stay bribed.” Staying bribed isn’t technically about bribery, but, as Giuliani puts it, “You can be a liberal, a conservative…you can even be a crook, but when you make a deal, you keep it.” However, “Sometimes a leader has no alternative but to deal with someone untrustworthy,” and at times like that, you must “lock up every detail,” and even still be aware that “they’ll find some way to weasel out of it….You’ve got to know when you’re dealing with someone who will not stay bribed so you can collect your end of the bargain up font.” Giuliani’s reputation may have fallen on hard times lately, but this remains sage advice.

Experts in the field have called Erdoğan a pan-Islamist, neo-Ottoman, authoritarian. He has systematically arrested opposition journalists, co-opted major media organizations, and outlawed opposing political parties. Erdogan’s actions, as well as statements he made in leaked private conversations, demonstrate that he disdains the Western alliance and sees NATO as little but a tool to use for leverage. A specific example is when Erdogan reneged on a deal to release Pastor Andrew Brunson, held on obviously fictional terrorism charges, after then-U.S. President Donald Trump helped Erdoğan secure the release of a Turkish citizen held in Israel. It was only months after Trump made it clear that he would not pay, yet again, and shamed Erdoğan publicly, that Brunson was freed.

Yet there are signs that the Biden administration has not taken this history to heart when it comes to Turkey and F-16s. According to an exclusive report from the Wall Street Journal, “Biden administration officials have argued that selling F-16s to Turkey could help restore ties with the country,” and that they see it as a “carrot on a stick,” to entice Erdoğan to allow Finland and Sweden into NATO.

But much like the Brunson issue, Erdoğan has already been bribed — by Sweden, Finland, the U.S., and Europe more broadly. Yet he’s not upholding his side of the bargain.

It is technically true that Turkey’s initial agreement to drop its veto of Swedish ascension was conditional on Sweden and Finland delivering on its promise to crack down on Turkish expat groups that Erdoğan deems terrorists, and to resume some arms sales in spite of Turkey’s oppression of Kurds. But it is entirely clear that both countries have done everything they could plausibly be expected to do to meet his demands. Sweden truly has an independent judiciary (a concept that may seem foreign to Erdoğan, who has denigrated Turkish judicial independence), and Swedish judges have disallowed some of the  extraditions desired by Erdoğan, while allowing for others. Sweden has already toughened up its counter-terrorism laws at Turkey’s request. Çavuşoğlu is also demanding that Sweden prosecute protesters for burning an effigy of Erdoğan, a move that would almost certainly violate Swedish law as well as internationally recognized standards of free speech. Just this week, Erdogan went even further, saying that Sweden should not expect support for its NATO bid, all because at a protest in Sweden, a Quran was burned.

In other words, Erdoğan is making intentionally unreasonable demands, after initially agreeing to allow Sweden to enter NATO, possibly in order to hold over allowing the Scandinavian countries till after his election, or worse. This is the behavior of someone who will not stay bribed.

Yet the Biden administration seems to be giving Erdoğan even more wiggle room. The administration has warned Ankara that Congress may not approve the sale unless it allows Sweden and Finland into NATO, but this is a simple truism. Congressional leaders, including Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have threatened to block the sale. Yet, assuming reports are accurate, the administration has stopped short of saying that failure to allow Sweden and Finland into NATO will result in the termination of any possibility of Turkey getting F-16’s, even while Turkey is asking for F-16 sales to be expedited. But allowing Sweden and Finland into NATO should be the bare minimum demand. Indeed, the White House should require changes in Ankara’s behavior that go well beyond NATO expansion.

Meanwhile, as Erdogan and Çavuşoğlu are busy making unreasonable conditions on Sweden, Çavuşoğlu is insisting that he will not buy products from countries that want to place conditions on sales of advanced F-16’s, obviously referring to Congressional demands that Turkey not use advanced F-16’s to antagonize fellow NATO member Greece, which Turkey provokes with illegal overflights on a daily basis. Indeed, blocking Sweden and Finland’s admission to NATO is only one of many sins that ought to cost Turkey its bid to get advanced F-16’s. Turkey’s  many abuses against Kurds in Syria and Iraq, and against Armenians in support of the Azerbaijanis, are also significant reasons. Moreover, the only reason this is even an issue is due to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, which, being in defiance of Turkey’s NATO obligations, got it kicked out of the even more advanced F-35 program. The F-35 will now only be sold to Turkey’s quasi-foe, Greece.

Some of this is happening behind closed doors, and it is impossible to know exactly what the Biden administration is saying in private. Yet indications are that it still considers Erdogan an actor that will “stay bribed.” This is a mistake. The Biden administration needs to collect a significant change in Turkish behavior upfront, or else risk getting little or nothing. In the long run, Turkish misbehavior will only get worse if we do not insist on ensuring our side of the bargain is met first.

Turkey’s slide into an authoritarian state has been unmistakable, but just opaque enough that some are still failing to grasp its significance. If the Biden administration does not quickly internalize the truth concerning Turkey’s shocking descent, expect U.S. interests, the interests of NATO and its prospective members in Scandinavia, and our shared cause in Ukrainian victory, to suffer.

Clifford Smith is the director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Written By

Clifford Smith is director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project.