May 13, 2024 | The National Interest

Why President Erdogan’s DC Visit Was Canceled

It is time to stop treating Turkey as an indispensable nation deserving endless accommodation for its rogue foreign policy.
May 13, 2024 | The National Interest

Why President Erdogan’s DC Visit Was Canceled

It is time to stop treating Turkey as an indispensable nation deserving endless accommodation for its rogue foreign policy.

After a series of mixed messages, a scheduled meeting between President Joe Biden and his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on May 9 was finally canceled. The White House may have dodged a bullet during a crucial election year, as there was no guarantee that Erdogan would refrain from using his White House visit as a venue to publicly embarrass the United States for its support of Israel—an opportunity which Erdogan capitalized upon when he met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in November 2023. Although it is unclear which side actually canceled the meeting, Erdogan gave plenty of reasons for the White House to pass on the encounter.

In March, Erdogan stunned observers after declaring, “Turkey is a country that stands firmly behind Hamas,” just days after Congress approved a $23 billion deal to sell fighter jets to Ankara. In late April, he damaged Turkey’s reputation even further by hosting senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Istanbul and professed his support. Then came an announcement that Turkey intends to launch an “aid” flotilla to Gaza-a move that could result in a military altercation with the Israeli Navy. Finally, Ankara announced on May 2 that it was suspending all trade with Israel—a move that is likely to be deemed illegal by the courts for breaking existing contracts.

Erdogan’s maneuvers help confirm that his sole interest in the Gaza War is to advance Hamas’ goals. The White House made the right decision not to host Erdogan. However, this is a loss for both Turkey and the United States—two NATO allies that have a fundamental disagreement over what Hamas is. For the United States, Hamas is a designated terrorist organization, while for Turkey, it is a group of “mujahideen resistance fighters.” Canceling a visit is one thing, but it does not solve the fundamental problem: Erdogan’s Turkey is steadily deepening ties with the West’s adversaries, whether they are state entities like Russia or terrorist organizations like Hamas. It is time for the United States and Europe to start holding Turkey accountable for backing both Hamas and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan has a split personality when it comes to managing his relationship with the West. On the one hand, he seeks its affirmation and support while simultaneously undermining its interests. What motivates this contradictory stance?

Ideology is a factor. Erdogan does not simply criticize Israel, for example, but supports Hamas—an entity dedicated to Israel’s eradication and genocide against the Jews. So, too, is his reading of history. His failure to back NATO expansion unreservedly and take a firm stance against Russia represents his view that the West is in decline. So, too, is his domestic turn away from democracy. Greed also colors Erdogan’s choices. By courting both the White House and the Kremlin, he believes he can force both to bid for his affection.

His unequivocal support of Hamas provided ample reasons for the Biden administration not to host Erdogan in Washington. Put simply, the United States simply has no other ally that maintains knee-deep relations with an abhorrent terrorist entity. In 2006, Turkey broke an agreement to keep Hamas at arms’ length until the U.S. and European Union-designated terror groups recognized Israel and rejected terrorist tactics, as the Oslo Accords demanded. Since 2011, Ankara has provided material support and sanctuary to Hamas, even after its October 7, 2023 attack on Israel.  

It is also worth highlighting Turkey’s disregard for Western security in other critical areas. In 2019, U.S. prosecutors charged Turkey with conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran in a $20 billion scheme in which Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank defrauded the United States by purchasing Iranian oil and gas.

Then, Erdogan risked intelligence surrounding the next generation F-35 joint strike fighter’s capabilities at risk by purchasing Russian S-400 missiles that could track the aircraft. Next, to force the United States to sell its F-16 fighter jets, Erdogan blocked NATO’s expansion for nearly two years.

Erdogan continues to undermine international efforts to defeat Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, even as he seeks credit for helping Kyiv’s fight. Erdogan refuses to sanction Russia and allows both the Russian regime and its elites to access Turkey’s financial system. In Syria, Erdogan endangers missions to degrade and contain Islamic State (ISIS) remnants and strikes at the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S. regional partner, for their historical affiliation to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Since October 7, these strikes have hit civilian infrastructure and nearly hit U.S. personnel.

There is a better way to confront the noxious mix of ideology, disdain for the West, and greed that define Erdoganism on the world stage.

First, it is time to stop treating Turkey as an indispensable nation deserving endless accommodation. At a minimum, Washington and Europe should continue to demand Ankara divest itself of Russian S-400 missiles. Second and relatedly, Washington and Brussels should drop their fear that any action to hold Turkey to account would precipitate a break. For instance, former Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s suggestion that Turkey might even rejoin the F-35 program is diplomatic malpractice, reflective of pathological fear that holding Turkey to account would lead to its permanent loss. 

While successive administrations have approached Turkey with a mix of wishful thinking and accommodation, it is time to recognize how Erdogan exploits the West’s fears and failed assumptions to undermine our collective security interests.

Sinan Ciddi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Sinan on X: @SinanCiddi.

Issues:

International Organizations Israel Israel at War Military and Political Power Sanctions and Illicit Finance Turkey U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy