November 12, 2019 2:42PM

Keep the Relationship with Turkey, with Carrots, Sticks & Principles

As Turkey’s President Erdogan is coming to Washington DC to visit President Trump in the White House, there are two broad views about Turkey in the U.S. Capital: The more hawkish view, popular in Congress, considers Turkey an authoritarian Islamist regime which unjustly attacked the U.S. allies in Syria, and which must be punished with various U.S. sanctions, and perhaps even be kicked out of NATO. The more dovish view suggests that while Erdogan has indeed been a troubling actor, both at home and in his region, the alliance with Turkey must still be saved.

I believe the dovish view is more correct, but it needs some added nuance.

The dovish view is correct, because treating Turkey as an enemy will only help Erdogan further ally himself with Vladimir Putin, who has been eager to lure Ankara to his side. If Turkey ends up being a Russian ally (and a full dictatorship, just like Russia), the big winner will be neither Turkey, nor America, but Russia.

Also, the dovish view is correct because while Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria is pointless and disastrous, it has come out of an understandable concern with the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, Turkey’s main terrorist threat since the early 1980’s. Turkey's concern with the PKK is wrongly discounted in the West due to an unqualified support here for “the Kurds,” as if there are no nuances between different armed Kurdish groups.

The U.S. would achieve more if it continues working with Turkey, by understanding that the latter has some legitimate concerns while using its own influence for some damage control both in Syria and elsewhere. The ceasefire agreement Vice President Mike Pence brokered in Ankara soon after the Turkish incursion showed that this is possible (and as someone who had called on the U.S. leadership to mediate between the two sides and broker a peaceful deal, just four days before, it gave me relief).

But so far, there has been something important missing in the Erdogan-Trump relationship: A serious concern for Turkey’s grim record on human rights, freedom of speech, and rule of law. These are the key principles that no American administration should disregard. So the Turkish-American relationship should go on, but with a focus on urging Erdogan to ease his crushing authoritarianism.

Also, for the long run, American policy makers should not forget that Turkey does not equal Erdogan. He is obviously all too powerful now, but his rule will not last forever. At some point, there will be a post-Erdogan Turkey. And the latter will have a much better chance to restore liberal democracy if, at that point, it is still a part of the Western alliance, and not a minion of Russia and China.