Sen. Lindsey Graham explained on Wednesday that his decision to block the U.S. Senate’s consideration of a bill recognizing the expulsion and extermination of more than a million Armenians by Turkish forces in the early part of the 20th century was born out of a sense of decorum. “I objected to the Armenian resolution yesterday, not so much on substance, but I did not want to have that resolution passed while the Turkish president was in town,” Graham said, according to Fox News Channel reporter Chad Pergram.
By all accounts, Graham has no love for Turkey’s autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the modern sultanate over which he presides. As Axios reporter Jonathan Swan related, Graham was one of a handful of senators invited into the Oval Office with Erdogan. There, he admirably chided the Turkish leader over his invasion of Syria’s Kurdish-held territories and the atrocious behavior displayed by soldiers under Ankara’s command.
Graham’s effort to preserve the high-flown choreography that typifies diplomatic relations between heads of state is noble but misplaced. Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial and anti-Western president does not deserve the honor.
Erdogan used the dubious 2016 coup attempt against him to imprison tens of thousands of dissidents and journalists, as well as to purge the military of elements still beholden to the institution’s secularist past. Amid Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown, the Turkish regime cut off power to and surround the American-manned airbase at Incirlik. The West protested but took no further action, and Erdogan consolidated his power. The full effect of his campaign against dissenters was on full, grotesque display in the White House on Wednesday, when so many of the Turkish press in attendance prefaced their questions for both presidents with obsequious praise.
The following year, Turkey—frustrated by the Trump administration’s refusal to extradite an exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania who Erdogan that blames for a laundry list of woes—began harassing and even arresting U.S. diplomatic personnel. After the United States protested, Turkey announced a halt to all non-immigrant visas from the United States and suspended future weapons purchases from Washington. In 2018, Erdogan was inexplicably rewarded for his behavior with a visit to the American capital, where his security detail was implicated in the brazen assault of otherwise peaceful demonstrators. Many of the charges against Erdogan’s bodyguards were dropped, but only because Ankara would not cooperate with American prosecutors.
Amid its incursion into Syria in October, Turkish forces launched a barrage of artillery rounds so near to known U.S. positions that U.S. officials did not believe it could be an accident. If the “bracketing” of U.S. positions with artillery was intentional, it would serve Turkey’s interests. The American president had signaled his intention to withdraw U.S. forces from the northeastern border with Turkey but dithered in the execution. Ankara was not taking any chances that the aggressive effort by Trump’s Republican allies to get the president to change his mind would be successful. The prospect of armed conflict with Turkish forces in those fraught hours was very real. “That’s an area weapon,” one U.S. soldier said of the 155-millimeter shells exploding around American positions. “That’s not something we ever would have done to a partner force.” But Turkey is not a “partner” in any conventional definition, even if it remains a nominal member of the NATO alliance.
In Washington this week, alongside the president, Erdogan took the opportunity to castigate House Democrats and praise Trump for struggling on despite inheriting “the burden of Obama’s flawed foreign policy.” You don’t have to be particularly enamored with either the 44th President or his party’s House majority to look with contempt upon Erdogan’s manipulative effort to leverage America’s domestic political squabbles for his own cynical gain. Moreover, the productive outcomes that Graham’s defense of Turkish dignity was designed to preserve did not materialize. Turkey did not commit to abandoning the sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries it purchased from Russia in naked defiance of NATO’s demands, and Trump received no guarantees about the status of the safety of Kurdish forces with whom America continues to work.
There’s a lost virtue in practicing the art of diplomacy in public while reserving more contentious issues for behind closed doors. But Erdogan is due no deference from American lawmakers. He is due an embarrassment. It’s tragic that, when American lawmakers had the chance to hand him one, they passed.