Instead of Warmongering, Trump Should Throw Turkey Out of NATO
President Donald Trump has made a horrid hash of American foreign policy. Consider the debacle in Syria.
For a year, Trump said he wanted to withdraw American personnel, but failed to act under pressure from his own aides, who convinced the Syrian Kurds to trust Washington to stay. The Kurds’ discussions on reuniting with the Damascus government—which could have taken control of the border, keeping Turkish forces at bay—lapsed. Then the president abruptly announced America’s departure, triggering an almost immediate Turkish invasion. U.S. forces made a rushed exit and the Kurds desperately invited in the Syrian military.
Next the president denounced Ankara for doing what it had long planned to do, threatening to “totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey.” Vice President Mike Pence insisted, “The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further.” The administration announced a mix of economic and personal sanctions, while U.S. legislators proposed additional, harsher measures. Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged NATO members to take “diplomatic and economic measures” against Turkey.
Then came another policy pirouette, with the administration abandoning its hardline position and negotiating a ceasefire that gave Erdogan most everything he desired. European governments squabbled with NATO’s secretary-general over how to treat fellow member Ankara, which was undermining their objectives in Syria. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo upped the ante, seeming to suggest that Washington might attack Turkey in response to the latter’s conquest. Although the administration prefers peace, Pompeo said, “in the event that kinetic action or military action is needed, you should know that President Trump is fully prepared to undertake that action.”
Nevertheless, Erdogan dismissed Washington’s demands. His response to U.S. and allied threats: “We are determined to take our operations to the end. We will finish what we started.”
Could President Trump’s policy be any more incoherent, bizarre, inconsistent, and dangerous?
Despite the almost universal sympathy for the Kurds, their statelet of Rojava is not an American ally. No president has negotiated a treaty with it. No Senate has ratified a treaty with it. No Pentagon official can explain the extent or length of America’s commitment to it.
In contrast, Turkey has been a member of NATO for more than 67 years. The U.S. has stationed personnel in and cooperated with Ankara for nearly seven decades. Turkish troops fought alongside Americans in the Korean War. Throughout the Cold War, Ankara was seen as a key barrier to Soviet expansion into the Middle East.
So long as Turkey remains a treaty ally, the United States has an obligation to give its concerns precedence over those of more recent and less formal partners. Frenzied claims that no one on earth will ever trust America again if Washington does not defend the Kurds defy history. The U.S. and most other great—and even middling—powers routinely abandon allies when their interests require doing so.
Washington previously “betrayed” the Kurds in the 1970s when Iran shifted from confrontation to accommodation with Iraq. It did so equally ostentatiously two years ago when Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish territory held an independence referendum; Washington stood by as the Baghdad government launched a military assault. American officials have abandoned many other allies too: South Vietnam and the Republic of China (Taiwan), for instance. Afghanistan almost certainly will follow soon.
Moreover, Washington’s fidelity to a long-time, official treaty ally matters far more than the ephemeral ties created by a largely American air operation backing one of numerous warring parties within another state. To dismiss Ankara’s long- and oft-expressed concerns would be far more unsettling to serious American friends. If Washington won’t keep faith with its most important partners, then we should really ask: who can count on America’s support?
Of course, Turkey has been anything but a good ally of late. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved in a decidedly authoritarian and Islamist direction. His government continues to occupy much of Cyprus and challenge borders with Greece. Worse, Ankara prioritizes fighting the Kurds over battling the Islamic State. Indeed, early in the Syrian conflict, Turkey aided ISIS, and Erdogan’s son may have profited off the group’s illicit oil trade. Perhaps worst of all, at least from NATO’s standpoint, the Turkish and Russian presidents have been playing international footsie.
The risks of continuing to treat Turkey as a normal NATO member could be great. Ankara gains intelligence, influences policy, and affects operations. Moreover, the U.S. is believed to store some 50 nuclear bombs at Incirlik Airbase. Any attempt to wreck the Turkish economy, or worse, retaliate militarily for Turkish activity in Syria, would force Erdogan to respond—if only to preserve his nationalist credentials. His government could attempt to seize these weapons, which would also advance his ambitions to make Ankara a nuclear power.
Instead of denouncing and punishing Ankara, the Americans and Europeans should address the more fundamental problem of Turkey’s NATO membership. When the alliance was being negotiated, Canadian and American officials supported creating a process to address precisely this problem: a member whose government shifts away from democratic values. But, as reports historian Tim Sayle, the British and French opposed the idea, and so it was dropped. When asked about the possibility, Senator Arthur Vandenberg observed: “Under such circumstances the pact simply ceases to be operative in respect to them.”
However, that isn’t working with Turkey. Washington is imposing economic sanctions on and threatening war with a fellow member, while a half dozen European nations have suspended arms sales. This dissension undermines the alliance’s battle-worthiness. Now is the time to revive the expulsion proposal.
Of course, the Turkey made in Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s image never was a liberal beacon. But there was an argument for cutting corners during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union loomed large as a threat. It reflected Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s famous distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes: accepting a bit of the former might help prevent the latter.
Whether that analysis was true has been the subject of much controversy. Nevertheless, even theoretically, no such necessity exists today. An alliance supposedly committed to liberal, democratic values should not blithely accept Ankara’s move in a decidedly hostile direction. Expulsion or suspension would be an appropriate response. NATO could at least create a form of associate membership, eliminating any leadership role and automatic security guarantee.
Ankara likely would reject any attempt to downgrade its NATO standing, which would conveniently resolve the current controversy. However, Turkey is not the only potentially troublesome member. One can easily imagine a turn towards authoritarianism among many Central and Eastern European and Balkan members. Claims that Hungary is already there are overstated, but in several countries, the reform process is incomplete at best.
Moreover, in the main, as one moves east, countries become less important to American security and generate greater possible complications involving Russia. To limit future problems, the U.S. should stop reflexively adding as allies most any nation or group that asks. Bringing in Montenegro was a bit like adding the Duchy of Grand Fenwick featured in the novel The Mouse that Roared. Inducting North Macedonia makes little more sense.
Adding Georgia and/or Ukraine would be inviting war with Moscow, presumably the opposite objective of the alliance. Elevating informal relationships to ally-like status would be even more problematic. For instance, the Syrian Kurds have ensnared the United States in a volatile region amid multiple potential combatants while providing few security benefits.
Trimming alliance membership would be better policy. (There is, in fact, reason to reconsider America’s role in NATO, but that argument can be left for another article.) Today American policymakers collect allies like most people accumulate Facebook friends. But more is not better. In the case of the Middle East, especially, the U.S. would do far better with less, starting with Turkey.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.