According to Michael Anton, one of President Donald Trump’s top foreign policy aides, the chief characteristic of Trump’s foreign policy is unpredictability.
On the surface, unpredictability is a great advantage.
Keeping US enemies guessing, at least to some degree, about how the US will respond to hostile acts expands Washington’s maneuver room.
But one of the consequences of Trump’s desire not to be locked into one pattern of behavior is that it is unclear how he thinks about the world, and the many threats facing the US and its allies. As a result, it is difficult to know whether he can be trusted to take the actions necessary to protect American interests and to stand by America’s allies.
Take for instance the administration’s actions this week in relation to the nuclear deal with Iran. On the one hand, on Tuesday the State Department notified Congress that Iran is in compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal.
On the other hand, on Wednesday Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stood before the cameras and read Iran the riot act. Tillerson set out in detail all of the ways that Iran threatens the US and its allies and many of the reasons that the nuclear deal is a disaster.
He announced that the Trump administration was revisiting US policy on Iran and pledged that Trump will not leave the Iranian threat to his successors.
It is almost impossible to square this circle.
So what is the administration’s policy? Can it be trusted to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons when it certifies that Iran is complying with an agreement it is manifestly breaching, by among other things, blocking inspections of its key nuclear sites and storing uranium in quantities that exceed those permitted under the deal?
Then there is Turkey.
After 15 years in power, on Sunday Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan destroyed Turkey’s democracy once and for all. On April 16, 51.4% of Turkish voters voted to accord Erdogan all but absolute power.
Given that this means that Turkey is now effectively indistinguishable from Erdogan, the central question that people should answer before determining whether they are pleased or displeased by the results of Sunday’s referendum is who is Erdogan and what does he want.
Erdogan would say that he is a Muslim. He has made very clear, repeatedly, that he sees no distinction between moderate Islam and radical Islam. Islam is Islam, he says.
Maybe he is right. But in the West, distinctions are made. So it is important to set out what Erdogan means by Islam.
As George Friedman wrote at Real Clear World earlier this week, for Erdogan, Islam is an all-encompassing worldview. Its precepts dictate human behavior on every level. And it rejects secularism. In Erdogan’s Islam, the secularist belief that there is a distinction between the private and public spheres and that religion is a private matter is inconceivable.
Erdogan’s view is the reason that for nearly a century, Islam – as Erdogan views it – was banned from public life in Turkey.
As Friedman explained, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern Turkey after World War I on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and its caliphate, he recognized that he couldn’t change the way that his people viewed the world.
Rather than reform Islam, Atatürk repressed it. The secular democratic regime he created rested on the coercive power of the military, not on the consent of the governed.
Erdogan’s rise to power, in contrast was predicated on popular support for his anti-secular, Islamic worldview.
To secure that support, Erdogan periodically signaled his intentions.
For instance, as mayor of Istanbul, in 1997 Erdogan recited a poem at a political rally that included the lines, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
For doing so, Erdogan was arrested, tried and convicted of inciting religious hatred. He was imprisoned for four months. His party was outlawed and he was banned from politics for life.
For Westerners, the regime’s treatment of the mayor of a major city was inconceivable. All he did was read a poem, after all.
But for the Turkish secularists, the move against Erdogan made perfect sense. The lines he recited were an encapsulation of a plan to undermine the secular regime and replace it with a totalitarian Islamic one.
Due in part to the West’s response to his arrest and conviction, Erdogan has used the US and Europe as allies in his bid to win and consolidate power.
Erdogan’s AKP Party first won power in the 2002 parliamentary elections. At the time, the administration of then-president George W. Bush was guided by the neoconservative worldview. Neoconservatives asserted that the yearning for individual freedom is a universal yearning. If given the opportunity to determine their path in life, people worldwide who live under authoritarian regimes, would opt for liberal democracy.
The Bush administration’s belief that liberal democracy is the default aspiration of humanity informed Bush’s demand that Egypt allow Muslim Brotherhood candidates to participate in the 2005 parliamentary elections, and that Israel permit Hamas to participate in the 2006 Palestinian elections.
The view also informed the administration’s decision not to interfere in the Iraqi elections in 2005.
The Bush administration devoutly retained its faith in the universal attraction of liberal democracy even after the Muslim Brotherhood scored extraordinary victories in Egypt, after Hamas won the Palestinian elections, and after the Iraqi government, whose leaders were supported by Iran, began colluding with Tehran.
Bush and his advisers insisted that Hamas would become domesticated once it was forced to contend with constituents demanding that their potholes be filled.
Bush’s notion was that Islamic extremism, jihad and terrorism were reactions to subjugation and repression. If authoritarian regimes would stand back, then the Islamists would eschew violence.
The AKP’s first action after winning in 2002 was to bar US forces from invading Iraq from Turkish territory.
Despite this, the Bush administration embraced Erdogan. For Bush, the AKP government was proof that he was right to view liberal values as universal.
Erdogan and his colleagues proved there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy.
Erdogan used the Bush administration’s support to undermine the secular state. He insisted that all he was doing was promoting pluralism when he undid the military’s control of his government, and brought Islamists into the military, judiciary and governing bureaucracy.
When Turkish military leaders tried to explain to the Americans the dangers to Turkish secular democracy that each of Erdogan’s pro-Islamic reforms constituted, they found that no one would listen. True, Erdogan overdid it. But the Islamists had to be given their day in the sun after all the years they were repressed by the secularists.
Under Barack Obama, the situation changed, slightly. Like Bush, Obama supported Erdogan and the notion that his consolidation of power – and his popularity – was proof that there was no contradiction between Islam and democracy. But whereas Bush believed that Islamic radicalism and jihad were a reaction to domestic repression that would be resolved by democratization, Obama believed that Islamic jihad and radicalism are reactions to Western imperialism.
For Obama, the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and Erdogan were more legitimate than their secular opponents, specifically because they opposed the West. As he saw it, their opposition was justified because the West, through colonialism and Cold War geopolitics, repressed them.
In his view, the way to end Islamic jihad and terrorism was to convince the Islamists that the US and the West supported them. Obama believed that Western empowerment of Erdogan, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and others would quell their anger and appease their ambitions.
This then brings us to Trump, and his policy toward Turkey. During the campaign, then-candidate Trump congratulated Erdogan after he successfully defeated the military coup before it had the chance to get off the ground. That attempted coup was a last ditch effort to prevent Erdogan from consolidating the dictatorial powers he consolidated on Sunday.
On Monday, Trump again stood with Erdogan.
Trump phoned Erdogan and congratulated him on his victory. Erdogan is expected to pay a state visit to Washington in the coming weeks.
If we understood better how Trump feels about the totalitarian Islam that Erdogan adheres to, we would know better what to make of Trump’s repeated statements of support for the Turkish leader.
Does Trump realize that the more powerful Erdogan has become, the less concerned he has become about how the West perceives him? Does Trump recognize that in recent years Turkey has turned its back on Europe and become a major state sponsor of terrorism? Turkey is Hamas’s most outspoken supporter. Until recently, Turkey served as Islamic State’s mobilization center for foreign recruits and its logistical base. ISIS oil exports went through Turkey. ISIS forces received medical treatment in Turkey. And Turkey became Iran’s conduit to the global economy while it was subjected to UN sanctions for its nuclear program.
Does Trump realize that Turkey opposes the US’s support for the Kurds – the most effective fighting force in the war against ISIS? Does Trump realize that to secure his victory in the referendum, Erdogan has repressed his opponents? Today more than 100,000 regime opponents, including journalists, businessmen, judges, generals and teachers, are imprisoned in Erdogan’s Turkey.
Does Trump know that among those languishing in jail are some of the strongest proponents of the Turkish- US alliance? Was Trump made aware of the fact that Erdogan’s media supporters have called for him to develop nuclear weapons and stop Turkey’s anti-ISIS operations in Syria?
It is possible that Trump knows all of these things and that he recognizes that in the long run and perhaps in the short run as well, US interests are likely irreconcilable with the direction Erdogan is moving Turkey.
Perhaps his congratulatory phone call was simply his only option.
Turkey is still officially a US ally and a member of NATO. Air bases that are key to US operations in Syria are located in Turkey. And Erdogan is the dictator.
Trump may be biding his time until he has the opportunity to weaken Erdogan. Or he may believe that Erdogan is an ally worth having.
Just so, he may have certified Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal to buy time, or he may have certified compliance because he doesn’t feel like stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The question of how Trump views these issues is one that needs to be answered. So long as his basic positions are unknown, it is hard to give him the benefit of the doubt that an unpredictable foreign policy requires.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.