Max Hoffman is the associate director of National Security and International Policy at American Progress, focusing on Turkey and the Kurdish regions; U.S. defense budgeting and policy; and the intersection of climate change, human migration, and security concerns. Prior to joining American Progress, Hoffman worked on disarmament and security issues for the United Nations, interned for the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, and worked in public affairs in Boston. Hoffman has been published in a range of academic and news outlets, including The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Politico, and has appeared on TV and radio programs to discuss his work.
FeniksPolitik (FP): How would you describe the current perceptions on Turkey in Washington especially in Congress, Pentagon and White House?
Max Hoffman (MH): Beginning under Obama but continuing under Trump, Turkey really lost a huge degree of political capital in Washington. The reasons behind this change may evaluated in three categories. Many people in Washington both from the professional bureaucracy and in the political sphere viewed that there are three pillars of the U.S- Turkey relationship. One was that, for all its flaws, Turkey was a democracy. The second, Turkey was a key NATO ally and very important in countering Russia. And the third pillar was Turkey was important regionally on a whole array of questions. This is not about only Syria; before Iraq was also a subject matter.
Over the course of 2010 to the present we saw that first the democracy piece was eroded quickly. The concern about Turkish democracy was a more recent thing because in the Cold War the U.S. did not care much because the Soviet threat was so great. But in the post-Cold War era Turkey’s democracy had been an important piece of the bilateral relations. Erdogan’s authoritarian drift became very pronounced from 2015 and before 2013 Gezi Park protests was also a turning point.
Third pillar of the regional piece break down dramatically over Syria. First, the U.S. broad strategy was more of standoff and Turkey wanted to be more assertive about the safe zones. Besides, the U.S. cooperation with PYD-YPG created a huge animosity on both sides and really undermined bilateral cooperation. The U.S. and Turkey no longer shared regional goals. And S-400 came on top of deepening Russian-Turkish energy cooperation was the fall of second pillar. It is not just about the gas purchases and pipelines since Turkey needs the energy and the U.S. was very understanding about that. But Akkuyu nuclear power plant and then the S-400 was the last straw.
The present situation is the Congress has no desire to help Turkey in anyway, in fact keeps trying to sanction Ankara. The professional ranks of the bureaucracy are a little bit cooler headed. But they think Turkey is no longer a reliable partner and don’t want to make further investments in Turkey and bilateral political/security relations. On the other hand, the White house is a special case. The U.S. suffers from a two-government problem that basically, the White House is entirely separate from the professional high ranks of the bureaucracy. This shows up in a couple of ways. The first is that regional actors, including Turkey, see Trump’s disinterest and the U.S. stepping back from its traditional mediating role in the region. They regard that as an opportunity to assert themselves forcefully often in military terms. This is applicable to Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and the list goes on. And second way it shows up that it undermines the professional ranks of the U.S. government. Because whatever they try to do with regional partners or adversaries; their foreign counterparts know that if they do not like the U.S. policy as presented by the professional ranks, they can go around them and go straight to the Trump family. This happened again and again with the UAE, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
FP: So far there seems to be chemistry between Erdogan and Trump. How do you evaluate Trump’s personal relationship with Erdogan? What are the limits of this relationship?
MH: The referred three pillars of the relationship does not work for Trump. About the values as the first pillar, Trump does not care about the democratic values. Before being the president, he always admired with the strong men and wanted to be one of them. Erdogan’s authoritarian drift is something that make him to like Erdogan while he thinks this is a person who can get stuff done. A similar situation is applicable to the second pillar of regional cooperation, particularly on Syria. Again, Trump wants to be out of Syria and out of the whole Middle East. All he wants to do is to have relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE and sell high priced weapon systems. To be fair about this issue, Trump represents a major part of American public opinion. And the third piece about anti-Russia, Trump is very consistently favor accommodation with Russia, and it is questionable that he values Turkey as an ally to counter Russia.
Other than these open issues, we may speculate about some other things. Trump often seems to treat the countries where he has investments different from than others. Besides, he likes to be seen as a big deal maker as his whole self-image. Thus, he wants to have these separate relations with Erdogan. The government squabble and fight over things with Ankara and actually these are very important. Then, Trump comes and make a phone call with Erdogan and make a deal. Trump likes this sense of power and ability to deal with one on one with another strong man.
Yet, there is a pattern on Brunson issue and Turkey’s unilateral Syria intervention as limits for the personal relationship. If Trump feels that something effects his domestic political prospects and potentially his re-election, he takes it very personally and very seriously. Brunson was important for the Evangelicals particularly in North Carolina which is a swing state. I think that was sort of Trump’s calculus. Which is not how foreign policy should be made but that is the world we live in. Trump is not diplomatic he is never been diplomatic he does takes slights personally. He felt Erdogan had embarrassed him a little bit. Besides, he started to care about Erdogan’s unilateral intervention in October because started to politically strike him at home. The criticism about abandoning the Kurds and throwing away the investment in Syria became so widespread, then he started to care. That was behind his not so diplomatic letter.
FP: Do you expect the current dynamics between Trump and Erdogan continue in a possible second term of Trump? How the issues of Syria and S-400 will evolve?
MH: If Trump is re-elected things will continue roughly on the path they are on. Nonetheless, it is hard to predict the future developments in Syria in a context that Trump does not need re-election. Trump may either say we will leave Syria, or he would say that now I do not need re-election, so I do not care what you do in Syria. It is hard to speculate.
The S-400 issue is interesting. The U.S. government’s general attitude is that the ball is in Turkish court about the S-400s. Turkey made this decision which has huge negative ramifications for NATO and U.S-Turkey relationship and the U.S. did what it viewed as the bare minimum response by removing Turkey from the F-35 program which is still a big consequence. It is hugely damaging to the Turkish interests. But the U.S. government does not really want to go further. Even in the professional ranks of U.S. government there is no desire to sanction Turkey that would torpedo Turkish economy. U.S. interests are in a stable and democratic Turkey that is cooperating with the U.S. on the regional issues and against Russia. None of those interests are served by the crippling Turkish economy.
Especially Jim Jeffrey tries to patch things up with Turkey. Jeffrey’s appointment was a sort of offering to Turkey while is seen as very understanding of Turkish interests. Jeffrey and some others present everything about Turkey’s importance in countering Russia. But that effort falls apart if the S-400s made operational. Because you can’t say Turkey is crucial to countering Russia when they make this huge decision that ties them strategically to Russia. I really think that the S-400 issue is consequential.