John F. Kennedy confessed that Nikita Khrushchev “beat the hell out of me” at their summit in Vienna in 1961. China gave Barack Obama a rude welcome when Air Force One landed in Hangzhou in 2016.
But in the annals of diplomatic humiliation, it’s hard to top Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit this week to the White House.
Not only did the Turkish strongman return Donald Trump’s sophomoric letter of Oct. 9 regarding Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, he also mentioned the fact in their joint news conference.
“Don’t be a tough guy,” Trump had implored in that letter. “Don’t be a fool!”
With one epic gesture of contempt — a raised middle finger taller than Mount Ararat — Erdogan left no doubt as to who’s the real tough guy, and who’s the fool.
During the Obama years, it became a standard conservative refrain that the 44th president had a bad habit of making nice with despots.
Little did we know what was coming.
At the same conference where Erdogan insulted his host, Trump declared he was a “big fan” of his guest.
He went on to paint a flattering portrait of Turkey’s rancid behavior.
One theory is psychological: From Putin to Erdogan to Kim, the president has a thing for authoritarians in the mold of his father.
Does he long for the power these men wield — or does he long to yield to their power?
A second theory is that Trump is cultivating his extensive business ties in Turkey.
This week, my colleagues David Kirkpatrick and Eric Lipton detailed the striking ways in which Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak (who happens to be Turkey’s finance minister); and the son-in-law of leading Turkish tycoon Aydin Dogan (who owns the Trump Towers in Istanbul) have cultivated a cozy backchannel.
The result has been weak sanctions for Erdogan’s misbehavior and quick capitulations to his demands.
A third theory is that Trump is pursuing a political strategy.
He sees his slogan of “ending endless wars” as part of his reelection appeal, and Erdogan can help him do it by filling a vacuum created by his withdrawal from Syria, with no regard to the people betrayed in the bargain.
Add to this the strategic rationale that it’s better to have Turkey as a truculent ally within NATO than as a dangerous foe, and you have something that almost resembles a normal explanation for policy.
These theories aren’t incompatible: As with so much else in Trump’s world, personal psychodrama, commercial venality, political self-dealing, and moral folly freely mix.
But they’re also a reminder of how debased policy-making has become during this presidency.
Turkey has long been of immense strategic importance to the West — as a check on Russian expansionism and Islamist fundamentalism; and as an inspiration for secularism and modernization for the Muslim world. Erdogan, a longtime Islamist and recent ally of Russia, is the most dangerous leader it has ever had.
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The goal of U.S. policy should therefore be simple: To use every lawful means to contain Erdogan’s regional ambitions, expose his domestic abuses, and weaken his grip on power for the benefit of ordinary Turks living in an ever-more authoritarian state.
Trump has achieved the opposite.
U.S. withdrawal from Syria in the face of Turkey’s threats gave Erdogan a nationalist boost just as his ruling party was smarting from this year’s back-to-back losses in Istanbul’s mayoral race.
The administration booted Turkey from the F-35 program after it purchased an incompatible Russian missile system, but has otherwise failed to impose meaningful sanctions, despite congressional demands to do so.
The Justice Department has sought ways to soften the prosecution of Turkey’s Halkbank, involving a multibillion-dollar scheme to bust U.S. sanctions on Iran in ways that deeply implicated Erdogan’s government and family.
And Lindsey Graham’s shameful intercession to block Senate recognition of the Armenian genocide signals to Turkey that it will not pay even a reputational price for violating the human rights of its neighbors.
Now, with the summit with Trump, “Erdogan has proved to both his domestic audience and international leaders that he’s not a pariah, that he’s still welcome in the White House,” says Aykan Erdemir, a former opposition politician now with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Returning the letter was just the icing on the cake: According to the Turkish newspaper Yeni Akit, Erdogan boasted that the administration “had no reaction” to his snub: He’d rendered the Americans mute.
It says something about the times we live in that a diplomatic debacle as serious as Erdogan’s visit feels like nothing more than a footnote to the week’s impeachment news.
All the more reason to pay close attention: Under the avalanche of endless Trump scandals, a superpower is losing grip.