The Turkish hostage crisis
It’s never a good idea to negotiate with a hostage-taker, but when it’s a NATO ally, there isn’t much choice.
The Trump administration has been trying to get back a Christian pastor detained in Turkey since October 2016, and when a possible deal at the sidelines of the NATO summit fell through, decided to drop the hammer.
A couple of weeks ago, the administration sanctioned Turkey’s justice and interior ministers — remember, these are top officials of a fellow NATO country. The action hit the Turkish currency and stock market hard. Then President Donald Trump intervened in his inimitable style, with a tweet promising a doubling of aluminum and steel tariffs against the country and pointedly noting the drop in the value of the lira.
As always, the president’s shoot-from-the-lip style is open to question, but Turkey deserved every last character — including the two exclamation points — in that presidential tweet. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not Justin Trudeau or Angela Merkel, a leader firmly within the liberal West who annoys Trump. He’s an Islamist authoritarian who is fundamentally changing the character of an erstwhile ally.
Erdogan’s resort to hostage-taking as a tactic to gain leverage over allies — it’s not just us — is a barbarous throwback and a disgusting homage to rogue states like Iran and North Korea. He also has grabbed a Turkish-American NASA scientist and local employees of American consulates.
The case against the pastor, the highest-profile case, is ludicrous. Andrew Brunson lived with his family in a seaside city, Izmir, for more than 20 years until the government, after Erdogan survived a coup, decided that he was guilty of aiding terrorist organizations and carrying out military espionage.
The alleged supporting evidence is a collection of absurdities that could have been assembled by the Turkish equivalent of Alex Jones — a video of a traditional Arab dish sent to Brunson by his daughter, a church member telling the pastor by text that he couldn’t make it to a service, a photo of him with a man in a scarf bearing certain colors, and so on, all of which supposedly implicates him in dire crimes against the Turkish state.
What this clearly is about is holding Brunson to try to get Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally and cleric who lives on a farm in Pennsylvania. With great fervency but little evidence, the Turkish government accuses Gulen of being behind the shadowy July 15, 2016, coup that became an occasion for Erdogan to seize emergency powers and purge the state and civil society of his political enemies.
Erdogan isn’t even subtle about the agenda behind the seizure of Brunson. In a talk to police officers last year, he said, “They say, ‘Give us this certain pastor,’” meaning Brunson, to which Erdogan’s rejoinder was, “You have another pastor in your hands; give him to us.”
This isn’t a trade the U.S. should be willing to make, but a swap of a Turkish woman held in Israel for links to Hamas in exchange for Brunson was reportedly discussed at the last NATO summit. When nothing ultimately came of it — although Brunson was released into house arrest — the crisis escalated to a different level.
Erdogan blames an “economic war” for his country’s dire economic straits. He should instead blame his own mismanagement. Turkey was already vulnerable to an end of the era of cheap capital, even before it pursued a course of confrontation with a country vastly richer and more powerful than it is.
There were always going to be stresses in the U.S.-Turkish alliance; Turkey views the Kurds as a threat, and we consider them allies. But the chief cause of the radical deterioration in the relationship is Turkey’s rank anti-Americanism, a paranoia stoked at every turn by Erdogan for his own cynical purposes.
He is now reaping what he sowed, and if Erdogan wants relief, his first step should be releasing the hostages.