By Irfan Husain
What happens when two headstrong leaders, both enjoying the support of their nationalistic and religious base, clash? In most cases, the leader of the weaker country is left to lick his wounds. This is what’s happening in the ongoing face-off between Donald Trump and Recep Erdogan. When leaders put pride before common sense, it’s their people who suffer.
And while it’s easy for us to blame Trump for the pain Turkey is being subjected to, let us not forget how the two Nato allies and friends of long standing got to where they are now. The immediate trigger for the spat lies in the arrest and imprisonment of an American evangelist preacher, Andrew Brunson, in Turkey two years ago. The pastor was swept up in the dragnet that saw thousands jailed in the wake of the failed coup in 2016. Found guilty of supporting what has been described by the Turkish government as a Gulenist attempt to seize power, Brunson was jailed.
Fethullah Gulen is the modernist Turkish cleric who established a global social network of schools, colleges and hospitals under the banner of Hizmet (Khidmat in Urdu). For years he supported Erdogan, and the two were allies and friends. But they fell out a few years ago when leaked audio recordings posted on the social media appeared to show Erdogan and various family members and friends discussing deals and the disposal of commissions.
Many in the police, the judiciary, the military and the intelligence services were sacked at the time, but it took the 2016 coup to purge every vestige of the Gulenist movement from the Turkish state. Literally thousands of schoolteachers, college lecturers, military officers, judges and journalists were either jailed or sacked. Trials were held under a draconian emergency law where the rules of evidence seemed to have been suspended. Among these unfortunate people was Andrew Brunson.
Many of us were bemused by Trump’s election, and wondered where his core support came from. One powerful element was the Christian evangelical movement that believes in spreading the faith. Its other fundamental belief is that when God’s pledge to restore his chosen people, the Jews, to the Promised Land has been fulfilled, the end of days will arrive. When doomsday ends life on the planet, only a few of the faithful will be taken up to heaven. It goes without saying that these true believers will be Christians.
So how do these beliefs bring evangelists flocking to Trump’s support? Basically, Trump is the most pro-Israel president to occupy the White House, and has already taken a big step to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel. He has also made it clear that his close friend Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli PM, will have open-ended US support in his project to ultimately annex most Palestinian territory. All this is music to evangelical ears.
While Trump is not particularly religious, he is mindful of his base’s concerns, and on top of this list is the fact that an evangelical preacher has been locked up in a Muslim country for the last two years. So when Trump met Erdogan on the sidelines of the recent Nato summit, he brought up the subject. In return for Brunson’s release, Erdogan demanded the return of a Turkish banker, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, found guilty of sanctions-busting to bypass American restrictions on Iranian oil sales. Halkbank, the state-controlled Turkish bank he worked for, could be fined billions. Trump agreed to allow Atilla to serve the rest of his sentence in Turkey, but could give no commitment on Halkbank as the case had been brought to court by a New York district.
Trump’s understanding was that he had a deal, and that Brunson would be released first. But when the preacher’s application for release was turned down by a judge, and he was ordered into house arrest, Trump thought he had been double-crossed. That’s when he slapped sanctions on Turkish steel and aluminium, triggering a big drop in the value of the Turkish lira. As it was, the lira had been sliding downwards for much of this year, but now it has lost nearly 40 per cent of its value against the dollar.
For his part, Erdogan is obdurate in his determination to take on Trump, accusing him of “stabbing a strategic ally in the back”. But Erdogan has hardly been a model ally himself. His actions in the Syrian civil war have helped prolong the conflict and fund extremist forces. He has now carved out an enclave on the border where Syrian Kurds had established themselves, and in the process, has crossed both American and Russian red lines.
And in flagrant disregard of Nato procurement guidelines, he has ordered S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia when member states are supposed to buy from each other. In this case, Erdogan angered manufacturers of similar American missiles. In retaliation, Trump has blocked the sale of 100 F-35 stealth fighters to Turkey.
With each escalation of this petty, ego-driven conflict, the lira falls a bit more, while inflation rises. Most economic pundits agree that Turkey will have to approach the IMF for a major bailout. But given American influence with the Fund, it is not certain that Erdogan will succeed. The fact that he has appointed his son-in-law as finance minister in these troubled times does not inspire confidence among foreign investors.
The Turkish foreign debt today stands at a whopping $466 billion, with some 68 per cent of this borrowed by Turkish banks and corporations. Erdogan has thus far refused to raise the interest rate from the present 17.5 per cent to curb inflation, which is eating into people’s purchasing power and shutting down businesses.
The Turkish president came to power in 2002, and since then has delivered unparalleled economic growth that has created jobs and raised the standard of living for millions. But his recent elevation to an all-powerful autocrat seems to have impaired his judgement, and has led him to imagine he can win this battle.