Will the US impose sanctions on a fellow NATO member? Both Donald Trump and Mike Pence issued surprisingly strong warnings today to Turkey over the status of Christian preacher Andrew Brunson, threatening to impose “large sanctions” against the putative US ally unless he’s fully released from custody:
The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being. He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018
This came immediately after Mike Pence delivered a similar message in more specific terms:
“To President (Tayyip) Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America: release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences.
“If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free,” Pence said on behalf of President Donald Trump at an event hosted by the U.S. State Department.
It’s not the first time that the US has threatened sanctions against Erdogan, although it’s the first time Trump or Pence have tied those threats to Brunson. Last month, the State Department told Congress that the administration would impose sanctions on Turkey if they proceeded to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system:
The U.S. will take the unprecedented step of imposing sanctions on a NATO ally when Turkey receives a Russian missile defense system, according to a State Department official testifying before Congress.
The delivery of the S-400s will impair military cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey and will damage relations between the countries more generally, Wess Mitchell, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, said Tuesday in testimony to the Senate.
The U.S. has been clear that the “acquisition of S-400 will inevitably affect prospects for Turkish military-industrial cooperation with the U.S., including F-35,” Mitchell said, referring to fighter jets that Turkey has ordered from the U.S. “A decision on S-400 will qualitatively change the U.S.-Turkish relationship in a way that would be very difficult to repair.”
The U.S. Senate passed a bill last week calling for a freeze of arms sales to Turkey until assessment is made of military and diplomatic ties in light of its potential purchase of the Russian system. The bill also called for assessment of impacts on other U.S. weapon systems and platforms operated and developed jointly with Turkey, including the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike aircraft.
In fact, the F-35 sales would be the most likely target for the first step in sanctions. Congress has made it clear that they see those sales as a risk to the US’ newest fighter jet and its operations in potential conflicts involving Russia. Turkey’s use of both platforms would necessitate significant coordination, and that would give Moscow a very close look at the F-35’s capabilities — and its weaknesses. That sanction might not require the White House to take action, and would likely take place even if Brunson gets freed:
“The F-35 and the S-400 are just nonstarters,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said shortly after visiting Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.
Graham and fellow Republican James Lankford, along with Democrat Chris Van Hollen, are so opposed to the Turks mixing Russian missile defense systems with U.S. jets that they included a provision in the Senate’s Defense spending bill banning Turkey from acquiring F-35s if Ankara also purchases the Russian missile defense system.
North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis and New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen have a similar provision in the Senate’s defense authorization bill that would block the sale of the F-35s to Turkey. House and Senate conferees on Monday wrapped up negotiations on the final version of the Pentagon policy bill, which the House could vote on as early as this week.
All of this prompts the question as to whether we need to reassess our relationship with Turkey more comprehensively, both in bilateral terms and as a member of NATO. It seems more than odd that a NATO member has decided to start buying Russian defense platforms when the rest of the alliance is having to calculate common defense in terms of Russian aggression in Ukraine, Crimea, and threats in the Baltic. Turkey has strategic positioning that is no doubt valuable and irreplaceable, but that’s why it’s able to sell out to Moscow, too.
Bilaterally, the relationship has been deteriorating for years, mainly due to Erdogan’s slow acquisition of dictatorial power. His security forces beat protesters in the US with impunity — twice — a diplomatic outrage for which Erdogan defiantly refused to apologize. Erdogan has become hostile to other allies, including Israel, and recalled his ambassadors for moving our embassy there to Jerusalem. His army is attacking our anti-ISIS coalition forces in Syria, which only helps Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia. Other than the need to keep an air base in Incirlik, it’s tough to see what common goals exist between Turkey and the US, and between Turkey and the rest of NATO.
It’s good to see Trump and Pence get tough with Erdogan over Brunson’s case. However, it shouldn’t end there, either.
Addendum: Turkey responded by saying they remain committed to the “rule of law,” and won’t be dictated to:
"No one dictates Turkey. We will never tolerate threats from anybody. Rule of law is for everyone; no exception," Turkish FM Çavuşoğlu tweets after sanctions threats from President Trump and VP Pence over detainment of American pastor.https://t.co/WMd3l5zMr0
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 26, 2018
For those who need it, here’s a demonstration of Erdogan’s commitment to the rule of law from last year’s meeting with Trump, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.