Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, April 17, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Why is Trump strict with Assad but not with Erdogan?


As we watch a new American administration crafting its foreign policy, we are reminded that the world is a complicated place and that defining one’s policy towards it can be a complicated exercise. Look at what the Trump administration has done in three arenas in the last two weeks:

It bombed Syria, signaling that the US is going to intervene in certain places, even if there is no obvious immediate American interest at stake.

It pushed the envelope in North Korea, showing that the US is willing to be bolder in dealing with one of its most persistent and dangerous enemies (but how bolder, and in what way, is not yet clear).

It congratulated Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his narrow and controversial victory in a referendum that gives him unparalleled powers to rule his country.

What do we learn about Trump from these three events?

First of all, we learn – or should be reminded – that everything in this world is interconnected. Turkey is needed if Syria is to be tamed. North Korea is a Syrian ally and provided it with the material to attempt to build a nuclear bomb. The Trump administration is making its first steps on the world stage and seems growingly aware of this fact. There are ideological inconsistencies that emerge as moves are made in such a world, but they are both inevitable and necessary.

Take, for example, the issue of intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. In Syria, Trump intervened. In Turkey, where the results of a referendum threaten to further erode the democratic character of the country, he chooses to be silent. The Europeans responded to the vote in Turkey with disappointment and even outrage – but the US President made a congratulatory phone call to Erdogan.

The Russians are more consistent than Trump in such cases. As a rule, they oppose intervention in the internal affairs of other countries (of course, they intervene when it suits them). The Europeans are also more consistent: they want to educate everyone (but are unwilling to do much about it except talking). The question is for Trump: why be strict with Syria’s Assad and not with Turkey’s Erdogan?

One possible answer is that Trump acts impulsively and without strategic reasons. He was moved by what he “saw on TV,” as Steve Coll writes in the New Yorker. But Coll himself counts more possible reasons. “One limited rationale might be that Syria’s conflict has eroded global treaties banning the use of chemical arms.” Put another way: Erdogan’s affair is truly “internal” – it concerns Turkey alone. And Trump does not feel any need to lecture Erdogan on the value of democracy.

The US wants Turkey’s cooperation on certain matters and is not interested in the country’s domestic situation as long as it has this cooperation. Assad’s behavior is different. True, what Assad does is part of an internal battle for superiority within Syria. But the use of chemical weapons has impact on foreign affairs. It breaks a taboo that is necessary for other countries and actors to think twice before they use such weapons (hence, the miserable comment by Sean Spicer on Hitler). Of course, the outrageous behavior of North Korea is even less “domestic” in nature. Thus, the Trump administration is not inconsistent in its decision to tackle it.

But there are also other ways of looking at these three actions. For example, we might consider the feasibility of action – and Trump’s pragmatic calculation – for each of them. Why bomb Syria? Because the US can do it without having to pay a serious price for it. This was precise, limited, well-targeted.

Why accept Erdogan’s victory without much hesitation? Because there’s nothing of value the US can do about it. The Europeans will protest and cry, but this seems to have little effect on Erdogan and Turkey’s voters. The US, in this case, is keeping its eye on the ball: Turkey is needed to fight ISIS and tame Syria. There is no value in picking a fight with it. Not until it does things that shake the international order.

And what about North Korea? Well, Trump’s policy in North Korea is still a mystery. He talks tough, because he can and, more importantly, because he hopes that this will help him convince the Chinese that it is time for them to be more active in calming their problematic neighbor. Calming, but not much more than that. Getting rid of the regime in North Korea or disarming its nuclear capabilities are not realistic goals at the moment.

As Ian Buruma explains in the Atlantic, “China is the only power with any influence in North Korea, but the last thing Beijing wants is for its communist neighbor to collapse. The Kim regime may be annoying, but a united Korea filled with U.S. military bases would be worse, not to mention the potential refugee crisis on China’s borders.”

What do we learn from all this?

First, Trump’s foreign policy is less confusing than some newspapers want you to think. There are confusing statements here and there, and lack of coordination, but the overall policy is not inconsistent and can be easily explained.

Second, Trump does not feel committed to always following the script that he carved during his campaign – but also that his policy is going to resemble many of the things that he talked about as a candidate.

Third, Trump as a foreign policy leader currently has two instinctive postures, the brutal warrior and the deal maker. He is not an educator, he is not a policy wonk, he is not an ideologue, he does not belong to a school of thought. He is the president who’s willing to use the Tomahawk when you stand in his way and who’s willing to cut a deal when you’re ready to negotiate.

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