Activists clashed with the Turkish government in Washington—literally—in May 2017. A group of protesters confronted Erdoğan outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence at Sheridan Circle with shouts of “long live the YPG” and “baby killer Erdoğan.” In response, counterprotesters and the Turkish security detail broke through a DC police line to beat several of the demonstrators.
“Anarchists and antifascists are clear in our opposition to Erdoğan’s fascism and cruelty. That’s why I was out protesting in May 2017,” Lacy MacAuley, one of the activists attacked that day, told the National Interest. “I was in Turkey in 2015 and early 2016 and I saw with my own eyes how Erdoğan is wrecking democracy, women’s rights, and the basic freedom of the people.”
The Turkish embassy accused the protesters of supporting the PKK and “aggressively provoking Turkish-American citizens who had peacefully assembled to greet the president.”
The incident caused a diplomatic uproar. The House of Representatives unanimously demanded the prosecution of Turkish security officials, and a bipartisan group of senators asked the State Department to strip Erdoğan’s guards of their diplomatic immunity. A federal grand jury indicted fifteen members of Erdoğan’s security detail and four others in the attack.
Erdoğan called the U.S. reaction “scandalous.” A few weeks before a meeting between Erdoğan and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the U.S. Department of Justice quietly dropped most of the charges. But a hate crimes lawsuit by several protesters injured in the attack is still working its way through U.S. courts.
A group of pro-Erdogan demonstrators shout slogans at a group of anti-Erdogan Kurds (foreground, back to camera) in Lafayette Park as Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan met with U.S. President Donald Trump nearby at the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Left-leaning activists have butt heads with Turkey on other issues as well. Humanitarian interventionist Samantha Power and liberal dove Ben Rhodes, both veterans of the Obama administration, came out last year in favor of recognizing the murder of 1.5 million Armenian Christians during World War I as a genocide.
The Armenian Genocide is a taboo subject in Turkey, and politicians across the Turkish political spectrum have stoked fears about Armenian demands for reparations.
“The old paradigm was: Turkey’s our ally, they’re on our team, and we basically give them an across-the-board deference to Turkish sensitivities, and in return, Turkey is supportive of our regional priorities. That was the peace that persisted for over a century,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America. “Given Turkey’s adversarial, even anti-American conduct, the talking points they were once able to play against us are basically useless now.”
Hamparian singled out the left-wing People’s Democratic Party as a rare ally within Turkey.
In recent years, however, an unexpected demographic has taken interest in Turkey’s human rights situation: evangelical Christians.
“Some on the Left are focused on human rights or genocide prevention, and they've traditionally been the supporters of the Armenian community’s efforts to get the Armenian Genocide recognized,” Hamparian told the National Interest. “You have on the Right also a diverse set of constituencies, including hawks who are increasingly critical of Turkey, and you have religious freedom folks who are increasingly critical of Turkey.”
Erdoğan has introduced a new brand of Muslim populism to Turkish foreign and domestic policy. He used his platform at the United Nations this year, for example, to draw attention to Muslim causes around the world: Kashmir, Palestine, the Rohingya crisis, and the anti-Muslim terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The Turkish leader’s fiery rhetoric now worries evangelical Christian leaders in America, nervous about their own ability to evangelize in the region.
In a 2016 tweet, evangelical favorite Mike Pompeo had called Turkey an “Islamist dictatorship.” A senator at the time, he deleted the tweet after becoming Secretary of State.
Evangelical fears came to a head when Turkey arrested Pastor Andrew Brunson, a Presbyterian missionary, on a litany of espionage and terrorism charges in October 2016. Brunson’s case soon became a cause celebre.
Facing increased pressure from Christian advocates, Trump asked Erdoğan to release Brunson in May 2017. Evangelical leader Johnnie Moore told Religion News Service that “we [were] able to make the President and Vice President aware that this was a priority of ours” through the “clear and open lines of communication between evangelicals and this White House.”
A year into Brunson’s detention, Erdoğan offered to release the Presbyterian pastor in exchange for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher in Pennsylvania accused of ordering the July 2016 coup d’etat attempt.
“You have a pastor as well,” he said. “Give him to us.”
At the first ever State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in August 2018, evangelical heavyweight and Vice President Mike Pence shot back that there is “no credible evidence” against Brunson and threatened economic sanctions against Turkey.
With a tweet praising Brunson as a “great Christian,” Trump soon delivered on the sanctions threat. The new sanctions exacerbated an ongoing trade war that was threatening to plunge the Turkish economy into chaos. Finally, in October 2018, the Turkish authorities sentenced Brunson to time served, allowing him to walk free.
It was the first time the U.S. had imposed sanctions on a NATO ally.
But as far as the Trump administration broke with precedent for Brunson, it has not touched any of Turkey’s core red lines.
Reversing a century of U.S. policy on a sensitive topic could be the ultimate bridge-burner. And many U.S. policymakers might not ever believe in divorcing an ally, especially in such a dramatic way.
For now, the “blob” is still trying to manage the global order through alliances. It will be just a little less comfortable than before.
“Everybody would like the other side to move faster, to be even better. That’s not something unusual in diplomatic affairs, but again, we are generally satisfied,” Jeffrey said at the September press conference. “We listen to the Turks’ concerns. We try to respond to them when we can.”
Matthew Petti is a national security reporter at the National Interest and a former Foreign Language Area Studies Fellow at Columbia University. His work has appeared in Reason and America Magazine.