Turkish President Visits White House Amid Worsening Relations

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will visit the U.S. president at the White House. The meeting, which was confirmed only a few days ago, takes place against a worsening U.S.-Turkish relationship and moves by the U.S. Congress to officially recognize the mass expulsion and massacre of Armenians by the Ottomans during and following World War I as genocide. Mr. Erdogan has shown little desire to cede ground. If anything, the Turkish president has sounded more and more combative as he tries to carve out an important role for Turkey in the Middle East and broader region.

Pro-government dailies in Turkey are following the visit with great interest, with many observers already anticipating a contentious meeting between the two heads of state. Writing for Hurriyet Daily News, Serkan Demirtaş points out that despite the U.S. Senate’s decision not to take any action on a sanctions bill, Mr. Erdogan is likely to find the atmosphere in the U.S. capital frosty, “because members of Congress are overwhelmingly united in moving forward with punitive actions against the Turkish government. Many believe that Trump will be reluctant in trying to change the anti-Turkish environment in Congress at a time when he struggles to keep his Republican fellows on his side to avoid a potential impeachment…. Given all these reasons, making a breakthrough on the Turkish-American impasse will be a difficult one for the two presidents in case they fail to bring about a new and constructive vision for the future of the ties.”

According to Daily Sabah’s Burhanettin Duran, responsibility for the current state of the U.S.-Turkey relationship lies with the U.S. government and its failure to address Turkey’s longstanding concerns in Syria and elsewhere: “The Turkey-U.S. relationship has been plagued by problems since 2013. At the heart of those problems is Washington’s misguided policy on Syria. The United States refuses to acknowledge Turkey’s independent foreign policy…. Washington’s steps go beyond a difference of opinion over policy. Instead, the Turks see these U.S. actions as acts of hostility toward their national interests. To be clear, that situation is no less disturbing than Trump’s indelicate letter…. Washington’s relationship with the YPG and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) continues to poison bilateral relations. What Turkey needs to do, however, is to keep negotiating rather than lashing out.”

Judging from the actions of the U.S. lawmakers, it seems that such concerns have been insufficient to elicit any meaningful change. If anything, argues Arab News ‘s Yasar Yakis, members of the U.S. Congress may have just made the atmosphere surrounding the meeting even more challenging: “Two votes in the U.S. House of Representatives late last month may make Turkish-American relations difficult to mend. One was on a resolution to “recognize the Armenian genocide,” and the other was on sanctions following Turkey’s military operation in Syria…. The bill provides for sanctions against Turkish Cabinet members, including Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law. Following these moves in the U.S. Congress, Turkish leaders made dismissive statements, saying that they consider them null and void. This may be a sign that the real consequences of these moves are not properly grasped by Ankara. These initiatives in the U.S. Congress are pushing Turkey toward a new bottleneck in its relations with Washington.”

Mr. Erdogan, for his part, has struck a defiant tone with regard to Turkey’s role in the region and more broadly. In a recent event commemorating the founder of the modern Turkish state—Mustafa Kemal Atatürk— the Turkish president insisted, “The best way to understand and commemorate Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding leader of the modern Turkey, is by making Turkey one of the top countries in the world, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said, citing his government’s 17-year rule as the best example of it…. The Ottoman and Seljuk eras of Turkish history should never be ignored and should be glorified as the basis on which the modern republic was founded, the president said. ‘We have established our republic on the legacy of the Ottoman. Would there be a tree without a root? No. We have risen on it. This legacy is not only about the lands but our institutions and traditions.’”

The message, albeit seemingly aimed at a domestic audience, has alarmed Turkey’s neighbors. Reacting to another rather incendiary statement by Mr. Erdogan where he is reported to have expressed his eagerness to “confront the Jews… if they have the courage to deal with us,” a Jerusalem Post editorial urged President Donald Trump to “add another issue to his agenda: getting Erdogan to stop his blatant antisemitism and anti-Israel policies and rhetoric. Simply put, he needs to rein in the Turkish dictator…. While Trump seems to have an affinity for Erdogan, he needs to take steps to ensure that Turkey stops its slide to Islamic extremism.”

Others, including The National’s Simon Waldman, have called for a more introspective approach on the part of the Turkish government and society in order to address historical grievances charged against Turkey: “Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that recognized the First World War deportations and slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman authorities as genocide…. Until now, Congress has resisted recognizing the Armenian genocide in order to avoid rupturing ties with its NATO ally Turkey. However, this time not only was the motion successful, but the House also passed sanctions over Ankara’s invasion of Syria several weeks ago…. An open and public debate about the past is needed in Turkey without scholars having to fear for their careers or livelihoods. Surely, this would make Turkey stronger in the long run and less likely to repeat its historical misdeeds.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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