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Erdogan Joins Trump’s Battle Against the Deep State

Eli Lake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Before departing for Washington on Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered the kind of sound bite sure to make his American counterpart happy.  

“We are in agreement with President Trump to solve problems and develop our ties despite the foggy weather in our relations,” Erdogan told reporters. He then added: “We have made significant progress on several issues despite bureaucratic and political sabotage attempts by some remnants of the previous administration.”

With that, Erdogan became the latest ally of President Donald Trump in his effort to impugn the so-called deep state. For the Turkish president, the remarks are particularly ironic. Unlike the U.S., Turkey has had a deep state, a military that has at times overruled the country’s elected leaders.

At least it did until Erdogan. Over the last decade, he has purged his military of both secularists and followers of an exiled cleric whom he accuses of plotting a failed coup in 2016. Erdogan was railing against the deep state when Trump was still attending celebrity roasts.

Erdogan’s embrace of the deep state narrative shows how he and Trump are rubbing off on one another. Just as Trump sounds like Erdogan when he equates Islamic State with the Kurdish militias that died fighting them, Erdogan echoes Trump when he talks about draining the Washington swamp.

More important, Erdogan is illustrating just how shallow the U.S.-Turkish rapprochement really is. He is correct that major U.S. institutions, from the military to Congress, are furious at his recent aggression. It’s not just Erdogan’s initial incursion into Turkey, where Islamist militias aligned with Turkey have been credibly accused of war crimes against Kurds. Many U.S. military analysts fear that Turkey has turned a blind eye to the jihadist groups fighting in Syria. Islamic State founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was hiding in a part of Syria patrolled by the Turkish army.

Beyond that, Erdogan will have to answer for his decision to ignore multiple U.S. and NATO warnings with his purchase of the S-400 Russian air defense system. Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said that he expects Trump to tell Erdogan that there is “no place in NATO for the S-400.”

Of course, Congress has passed legislation that forces the president’s hand on this matter. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, passed in 2017, was supposed to trigger sanctions on Turkey’s economy last summer, when the S-400 system was delivered. At the time, the U.S. held off on imposing those sanctions, in part because it had negotiated a delicate cease-fire between the Turkish army and Kurdish militias in northern Syria. Turkey violated that cease-fire last month.

Erdogan may consider legal sanctions and official concerns about his government’s tolerance of jihadists to be the plotting of deep state saboteurs. But he is mistaken. Washington isn’t Ankara. When it comes to Turkey, there is a bipartisan consensus that Erdogan has been duplicitous. Only 11 House members voted last month against a resolution recognizing the 1915 Turkish-led genocide against Armenians. Ten years ago, similar resolutions couldn’t even get out of committee.

In other words: Turkey’s problems will not go away simply because Trump has decided to overlook them. If Erdogan has any doubt about that, he might want to ask Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, about his recent experience with Ukraine.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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