Warm meeting between Trump and Erdogan could legitimize tyrant

The recent meeting between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan was surprisingly cordial. What went wrong?

TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a shockingly warm visit with US President Donald Trump at the White House on November 15. Shocking, even by Trump standards.
By all accounts, the meeting was shaping up to be a rumble in the heart of the DC swamp. Erdogan had a lot to answer for, not least of all his brutal assault on the Kurds in northern Syria. Trump was being challenged on his home turf – in the middle of an impeachment inquiry – and had plenty of ammunition.
In any other reality it should have been an easy victory for the American president. Finally a chance for Trump to get red in the face, pound little fists on big tables, and dress down a bona fide dictator for snubbing his nose at international law and jeopardizing security in the region and across Europe. As we all know, Trump is the undisputed heavyweight here: a master negotiator and deal-maker and an even better salesman, primed to win big for the United States against a dubious alley gone rogue.
So, as the president himself might have asked, what the hell happened?
First they rolled out the red carpet. The two leaders shook hands, drank some coffee, and even snacked on breakfast pastries (no chocolate cake this time.) But don’t let the smiles and warm embraces fool you. For staffers, members of Congress and reporters, the mood in the room was tense. Cameras captured Erdogan shrug off Trump and repeatedly attack basic tenants of democracy and US political institutions. These included condemning the House for its vote to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turks and calling for the arrest of a Turkish religious leader living peacefully in the US. All this while doing nothing to bridge the divide on issues rotting the US-Turkish relationship, such as Turkey’s imprisonment of 68 journalists last year or its plan to relocate a million Syrian refugees.
When asked about Trump’s infamous letter warning him not to be a “fool” – a letter the Turkish president promptly ignored – Erdogan chided reporters, saying, “We gave back the letter we received.” Erdogan proceeded to send troops across the Syrian border on October 9. Behind closed doors, he played a video depicting the actions of Kurdish fighters and slanderously attempted to link the YPG, a key US ally, with the PKK, a designated terrorist organization in the region.
Trump said the Kurds “seem to be satisfied.” But this is far from the truth. He is giving Erdogan carte blanche to slaughter the Kurdish community: the same men and women who fought fiercely and stood by the US and others in their battle against ISIS.
TRUMP HANDED the Turkish autocrat a microphone to lambaste his critics and praise his own self-righteousness. At the end of the day, it was Turkish propaganda but with a White House backdrop.
Erdogan is undeniably no friend of the United States. At public appearances, he constantly spouts anti-Western rhetoric and outrageously maintains that the US government was behind the coup attempt in 2016. Much like Trump rages against immigration as a means to keep his base in line, Erdogan fixes his power in Turkey by building fear and anxiety against America.
What’s more, Erdogan is unfairly playing both sides in order to build up his own military capability. He ignored the threat of US sanctions after purchasing Russian-made missile defense systems, but still negotiates to buy American Patriot missile systems to boost Turkey’s air readiness.
It is abundantly clear that the biggest loser in this “negotiation” is the guy from Queens. Trump invited a known war criminal back to the White House, featured him under a spotlight, and helped him to purposefully whitewash Turkey’s ethnic cleansing of the Kurds in Syria.
Turkey’s fundamental failure as an ally is one of the few issues to resonate throughout Congress. Just last month, the House overwhelmingly passed economic sanctions against Turkey following Erdogan’s invasion into northern Syria. Similar legislation is expected to reach the Senate floor and is likely to pass with bipartisan support.
In reality – from which our president is far, far removed – heaping praise on a foreign leader does nothing to fix the devastation in the region or the immediate threats facing our allies in Syria, the Kurds. Hopefully, legislators will take note. For his part, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) – a top Trump ally privy to the White House meeting, who introduced legislation to sanction Turkey in the Senate – was not afraid to condemn Erdogan, saying, “I warned [Trump] not to do it. And everything that I was worried about came true – in spades.”
Trump claims he invited Erdogan to Washington because he likes the “strong man” in politics. What really appeals to Trump is Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism. Erdogan is slowly but surely unraveling democracy in Turkey, purposefully violating human rights, stomping out free speech and criminalizing the media.
Erdogan must answer for his crimes. We cannot allow the White House to turn a blind eye to its international allies and legitimize a tyrant. We must call for oversight from Congress and for new executive leadership come 2020.
The writer is an award-winning Canadian-Egyptian journalist and CEO of The Investigative Journal, which gathered top Erdogan critics at the National Press Club on the eve of the Turkish president’s visit for a conference titled “Erdogan’s End Game: Turkey’s Long Arm in Syria and America.”