Donald Trump unleashed a fair amount of hell in the Middle East after he withdrew U.S. forces from northern Syria and effectively invited Turkey to launch a brutal offensive against our Kurdish allies. The crisis has bolstered Russia, Iran, Syria’s Assad regime, and ISIS, while putting American troops in danger. The Trump administration’s foreign policy, as Rachel put it on the show this week, is “collapsing into catastrophe.”
But don’t worry, the White House has come up with a plan: Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien would fly to Turkey, initiate some kind of diplomatic talks, and work it out.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will refuse to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, who is due to travel to Turkey to argue for a ceasefire in the ongoing Syria conflict.
“I’m not going to talk to them. They will be talking to their counterparts. When Trump comes here, I’ll be talking,” he said in comments made to Sky News, referring to the U.S. delegation.
Erdogan, whose phone call with Trump precipitated the crisis, added that he’s heard the talk about a proposed ceasefire, but he doesn’t care. “They say ‘declare a ceasefire’. We will never declare a ceasefire,” the Turkish leader told reporters.
As for the threat of possible U.S. sanctions, Erdogan went on to say, “They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”
To a very real extent, these are humiliating circumstances for the United States: a high-ranking American delegation is on its way to a NATO ally, only to learn before arriving that our ally’s president doesn’t see the point in talking to them.
If Erdogan follows through and ignores the delegation, it would be a striking slap in the face and evidence of a total lack of respect for U.S. efforts. [Update: see below.]
But I was also intrigued by the idea that Erdogan would talk to Trump, but not his team.
It’s a dynamic we’ve seen before, with foreign leaders preferring to bypass the traditional diplomatic process and engage directly with the Republican president. The Wall Street Journal reported in March, “Increasingly, savvy leaders are bypassing the standard protocols and government processes of American diplomacy to go directly to President Trump himself, according to current and former officials, allies and foreign-policy experts.”
The article pointed to a series of world leaders who’ve taken advantage of these opportunities, and the list included Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
As we discussed at the time, there are a couple of angles to this foreign policy dynamic. The first is the international recognition that Trump administration officials are routinely on a different page from Trump himself. Why would foreign leaders meet with cabinet officials or U.S. diplomats when they know the American president might, on a whim, ignore the results of the negotiations?
But the other half of this is even more amazing. As the WSJ report added earlier this year, “In some cases, leaders think they might be able to get a better deal by going directly to Mr. Trump, according to several administration and foreign officials.”
And that’s the key. It’s not exactly a secret that the first-ever American amateur president is – let’s phrase this in the most charitable way possible – limited in his understanding of current events and substantive policy disputes. Foreign leaders looking for the best possible outcome for their countries often have a choice between speaking to experienced U.S. officials or talking to the reality-television personality in the Oval Office who can be flattered, cajoled, and manipulated.
Erdogan prefers to talk to Trump, rather than members of Trump’s cabinet? Well, sure. Of course he does. Trump very recently gave Turkey everything it wanted in exchange for nothing. Who else would the Turkish president want to talk to?
Update: Erdogan’s communications director has changed course, saying that while Erdogan would not speak with a U.S. delegation today, the Turkish president would meet Pence and Pompeo tomorrow.