Sanctions on Turkish Officials Are a Necessary Risk
(The Bloomberg View) -- The decision by the U.S. to level sanctions on Turkey’s interior and justice ministers is the latest blow in relations with an important but troublesome ally. There’s a risk in escalating the dispute, but the measure is justified.
The Trump administration says the action is a targeted punishment for Turkey’s continuing detention of a U.S. pastor, who has worked in the country for many years, on suspicion of supporting groups hostile to the government. The U.S. says the charges are baseless. President Trump had demanded the pastor’s release, threatening sanctions otherwise.
In the background, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds the U.S. partly responsible for the foiled 2016 coup against his regime. He’s angry that Washington won’t deport the cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former political ally who now lives in exile in Pennsylvania. The tension worsened last year when Turkish citizens working for the U.S. consulate in Istanbul were arrested, and Erdogan’s security team assaulted peaceful protesters while he visited Washington. Turkey has also imprisoned a Turkish-American scientist who works for NASA.
Stepping up the conflict with sanctions is admittedly a gamble. Turkey is a longtime NATO ally. It borders Iraq and Syria, where U.S. forces have been engaged, and Iran, led by one of the world’s most dangerous regimes. Turkey might be driven further into the arms of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has struck up an unlikely friendship with the Turkish leader. Russia is selling Ankara advanced S-400 anti-missile systems — weapons not compatible with NATO hardware — and will help build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant and a gas pipeline through Turkish territory.
In the quarrel over the pastor, the U.S. tried diplomacy first. Getting nowhere, it threatened sanctions — and, having done so, was left with little choice but to apply them. Backing down would have rewarded Erdogan’s obstinacy.
Repairing the relationship won’t be easy, and it’s Erdogan who needs to change. He’s chosen a disturbing and dangerous course, acquiring vast new powers after the recent elections and stomping on the rule of law by purging judges and civil servants and jailing journalists. He is waging war on U.S.-supported anti-regime rebels in Syria and collaborating with Iran and Russia in efforts to keep the murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad in power. He reportedly imprisoned more than 30 citizens of other Western countries following the coup attempt.
Erdogan’s choices aren’t doing much for his country. The lira has reached a record low, the stock market has plunged by 35 percent this year, external debt has soared, inflation is high, foreign investment is drying up, and wealthy Turks are fleeing.
The faltering economy gives the U.S. and its allies some long-term leverage. And Turkey is unlikely to quit NATO. To be sure, that would be a huge blow to the alliance — but a far bigger one to Turkey’s national security.
The narrow sanctions just imposed are the right approach for now. The Senate should also further proceed with legislation to block a planned sale of advanced F-35 fighters if Turkey goes ahead with its purchase of the Russian air-defense system. Erdogan needs to be told there’s a price to pay for the course he’s on.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.
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