Erdogan fiddles with glee as Turkish lira goes down in flames

With the Brunson case and US sanctions, Erdogan may have found the perfect way to divert the blame.
Sunday 05/08/2018
A money changer counts Turkish lira banknotes at a currency exchange office in Diyarbakir. (Reuters)
Faltering economy. A money changer counts Turkish lira banknotes at a currency exchange office in Diyarbakir. (Reuters)

There’s been an unprecedented escalation in tensions between Turkey and the United States, countries that have been allies for seven decades. The US decision to impose targeted sanctions on two Turkish ministers is a harbinger of massive changes in international politics. It shows the worrying effects of the convergence of political folly and erratic behaviour at the highest levels of government in both countries.

The sanctions specifically target Turkey’s interior and justice ministers. Coupled with the US Congress’s decision to block the sale of F-35 jet fighters to Turkey, the sanctions are incendiary in terms of Turkey’s slow-burning anti-Americanism. The headlines in the Turkish media — government-controlled or self-censoring — say it all: “We are all one!’; “One Voice”; “Know your place, America!” The leftist, quasi-opposition nationalist media is venting its frustration against what it sees as the “mother of all evil.”

Furthermore, as was predicted, the hardball played by the Trump administration has unified Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Islamist-nationalist coalition and the secularist-nationalist opposition. This was to be expected because resentment of the West remains fiercely inherent in the Turkish psyche.

On the surface, the impasse that led to the US sanctions seems all about an evangelist pastor. Andrew Brunson is held captive in Turkey on what are seen as bogus charges of terrorist activity.

For US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a sizeable section of the US Congress, Brunson is someone who must be “brought home.” The pastor has emerged as a cause for which every devout Christian must rise against the Turkish government.

As American politicians prepare for elections this fall, realpolitik is causing a stalemate in ties with Turkey. It is approaching a turning point that American neoconservatives see as irreversible. They must win. The pastor must come home. Period.

All this happens while a few in Washington, whose opinions somehow have less weight than before, argue for a wide-angle view of the situation.

They make the following points: That at least five other people linked with the US Embassy in Ankara are being held in Turkey under bizarre circumstances. The detainees include Hamza Ulucay, a Turkish citizen, who has spent years as a respected liaison between Kurds and Americans. Tens of thousands of Turks and Kurds are imprisoned under conditions that do not respect the rule of law but those few voices in Washington don’t seem to be heard.

If Brunson is released, politicians in Washington may sigh with relief, and the sad cases of all the rest — political prisoners and intellectuals languishing in jail — will recede further. The pattern is not much different from the one that defined US-Turkish relations during the Cold War.

This may be exactly what Erdogan wants. His strategic redesign of relations with the European Union and the United States is clear: ties must exclude any dimension that touches on freedom, diversity and human rights in Turkey and the relationship must be a transactional one.

Many Western capitals, including London and Berlin, are rapidly warming to the idea given the general global disarray, the rise of multipolarity and the fact that most Turkish voters favour top-down iron rule. Yet, given the yo-yo game on the Brunson case, many wonder why Erdogan did not simply send the pastor home.

Erdogan stands out in international politics as one who tries to play his hand smarter than everyone else. He is enjoying the disarray within the Trump administration, where dissonance on Turkey rules. The answer to his seeming obstinacy to keep Brunson may be found in the Turkish economy.

“Erdogan’s choices aren’t doing much for his country. The lira has reached a record low, the stock market has plunged by 35% this year, external debt has soared, inflation is high, foreign investment is drying up and wealthy Turks are fleeing,” Bloomberg News editors recently wrote. “The faltering economy gives the United States and its allies some long-term leverage. And Turkey is unlikely to quit NATO. To be sure, that would be a huge blow to the alliance — but a far bigger one to Turkey’s national security.”

The editorial concluded: “Erdogan needs to be told there’s a price to pay for the course he’s on.”

This line of reasoning may make sense but there are other aspects to consider. Erdogan’s decisions are tied to domestic support. He has known that his true enemy would be economic decline, for which he and his team are to blame.

However, with the Brunson case and US sanctions, Erdogan may have found the perfect way to divert the blame. A large majority in Turkey, regardless of ideology, sees the West as the culprit. Now, Erdogan is pushing this and is prepared for extreme measures.

It may be a good time to read about Nero.