Trump Shouldn't Play Hostage Diplomacy With Turkey

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It's hard to overstate the significance of President Donald Trump's decision to impose sanctions on Turkey's justice and interior ministers over the detention of American pastor. It's the first time the U.S. has imposed sanctions on government officials of a NATO ally.

Let that sink in. A little more than a month ago, Turkish military officers showed up at a Texas airbase for a formal ceremony marking the sale of F-35A stealth aircraft. U.S. pilots fly missions out of Turkey's Incirlik airbase against targets in Syria. In July, Turkish leaders met with other allies in Brussels for the NATO summit. Now the U.S. is treating Turkey like it’s Iran.

The reason for this sudden turn in U.S.-Turkish relations is Andrew Brunson. He is the American evangelical pastor arrested in 2016 on allegations that he was part of the failed military coup that summer. The charges against him are risible, relying on secret witnesses and conspiracy theories. The prosecutor for example notes that Brunson appeared in a photograph wearing a yellow, red and green scarf, the colors favored by a Kurdish terrorist group.

And while Brunson's freedom is a worthy goal, there is a greater risk in the Trump administration's approach to achieving it. By negotiating for the release of Brunson, the U.S. is teaching Turkey that Iranian-style hostage diplomacy works.  

The situation unraveled last week after a judge released Brunson from prison, but ordered him to remain under house arrest. Trump believed he had a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that involved a state-run Turkish bank, Halk Bankasi AS, which allegedly evaded U.S. sanctions on Iran's nuclear program.  

As my Bloomberg colleague Benjamin Harvey detailed this week, in exchange for Brunson's freedom the Trump administration was going to recommend a lenient fine against Halkbank, and to send one of its executives who is currently in a U.S. jail back to Turkey to serve out the remainder of his sentence. However, U.S. officials tell me, Trump personally surmised that Erdogan wasn't going to make good on the deal, hence yesterday's sanction announcement.

And this gets to the second problem. Brunson is only one hostage the Turks currently have. There is also Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American NASA scientist who was also arrested on charges of being in on the 2016 coup. In 2017, the Turks arrested two local employees of U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey. Would Trump allow things to go back to normal with Turkey if Brunson were released but Golge and the Turkish citizens remained in prison? 

Besides, Brunson is just a pawn in a bigger game. The Turks allege that a cleric named Fethullah Gulen, who was once Erdogan's closest political partner, orchestrated the attempted 2016 coup. Gulen has been in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999 and secured a U.S. green card in 2001, straining Turkish-American relations for two decades. While the Turks demand he be extradited, U.S. officials say they have yet to present any compelling evidence of his complicity in the failed putsch from 2016.

That said, Turkey has not limited its hostage-taking to Americans. According to a report from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the Turks have arrested 30 Western nationals for taking part in the failed coup.

Aykan Erdemir, an author of that report, told me Turkey's hostage diplomacy was a symptom of the bigger problem of Erdogan's slide toward authoritarianism. "The issue is much larger than Pastor Brunson, it's also much larger than the hostages," he said. "This is a NATO member-state that is drifting away from the alliance and its values."

Erdogan has been gradually consolidating power and criminalizing his opposition for years. This trend accelerated after the failed coup. In addition to purging thousands of alleged Gulenists from the civil service, Erdogan's government has launched a campaign to go after the coup plotters abroad. In April, Turkey's deputy prime minister said in a television interview that Turkish agents in 18 countries had brought back 80 individuals connected to the coup.

This trend has also manifested itself through Turkey's foreign policy. Erdogan has moved closer to Russia, which controls much of the airspace in neighboring Syria. Even though Turkey and Russia have technically been on opposite sides of that civil war, the Turks have nonetheless entered into agreements to purchase Russian air defense systems and a nuclear power plant. The Erdogan government says it won't adhere to new sanctions the U.S. will implement in November against banks and businesses that purchase Iranian oil.

Trump is within his rights to offer leniency to Turkish banks and other blandishments in negotiations with Erdogan. The problem is that when he does so to free American citizens, he is creating the same kind of moral hazard Ronald Reagan's envoys established with Iran, when they traded arms for hostages. The Iranians have been taking Western captives ever since.

Trump knows this moral hazard well. He campaigned against the Obama administration's cash payment to the Iranians ahead of the release of U.S. prisoners in 2016. That's why Trump must be mindful that his efforts to free Brunson don't encourage Turkey to take more hostages in the future.

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

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from Editorial Board