Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has provoked bipartisan condemnation in the U.S. before. On his last visit stateside, in 2017, his bodyguards beat American citizens protesting his government in Washington. Since then, he’s signed a marquee weapons deal with Russia and progressively expanded a domestic crackdown on journalists and any form of opposition that’s horrified much of the West.
But by attacking in October the Syrian Kurds who had proved the U.S.’s best partner against the Islamic State, he may have finally gone too far. Just weeks ago, nearly every Democrat and Republican in the House of Representatives united to break a decades-long taboo by passing a resolution acknowledging Turkey’s role in the Armenian genocide. Critics are now discussing new sanctions targeting powerful Turks and the country’s economy and have set in motion a process that could end all U.S. arms sales to the NATO ally.
Erdogan is set to visit Washington this week with his standing here at a historic low ― and the network that’s supposed to help him restore it is in shambles.
Like other countries eager for American goodwill, Turkey has spent decades developing extensive relationships in Washington and working to sell its viewpoint to the policymakers whose decisions have a major impact on Turkey’s 80 million people. But today, the nation’s efforts to woo friends or even tactical partners have become weak, unconvincing and absurd to the point where they’re frequently laughable, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former congressional aides, U.S. officials, analysts and advocates who focus on the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
For many Americans, Turkey may now be best associated with violence ― from the attack on the Kurds that included the assassination of a female Kurdish politician to the 2017 incident with Erdogan’s security detail — and corruption, notably paying Trump associate Michael Flynn to push for the extradition and potential kidnapping of a U.S.-based dissident.
As his closest contacts in U.S. politics, Erdogan counts some of the country’s most notorious political figures. A prime example is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who lobbied President Donald Trump on the same issue as Flynn and represented an Iranian-Turkish businessman whose case Erdogan personally tracked.
The persecution by Erdogan’s government of many of Turkey’s most talented citizens, from intellectuals to officials with foreign policy experience, means they’re no longer able or willing to represent it and try to convince Americans to appreciate the nation’s concerns. And ham-handed attempts at persuasion by Turkish officials include bringing a delegation of U.S. reporters to Turkey with false promises of an interview with the president and then selling them conspiracy theories.
Erdogan may not understand why this matters. Turkey’s autocratic leader has come so close to establishing one-man rule that he may think little matters beyond his personal bond with Trump, who’s called Erdogan a “gentleman” and repeatedly defended him from U.S. criticism.
But American presidents don’t stay in power the way that Erdogan has, or for as long. That’s why most U.S. allies forge ties with American politicians and institutions from across the political spectrum.
Erdogan is now relying almost exclusively on one volatile, unpopular Republican president whose own party has repeatedly said he’s out of step with their view of Turkey. But while cozying up to Trump, Erdogan has enraged U.S. lawmakers by bolstering Turkey’s relationship with Moscow with steps that include conducting joint military patrols with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces in Syria and cooperating with his war criminal ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And Turkey’s government is under investigation by U.S. officials for allegedly transferring American weapons to Arab proxy fighters widely thought to have committed war crimes in the Turkish-led intervention against the Kurds in northern Syria.
Instead of moderating his behavior or trying to build sympathy for his approach, Erdogan’s doubling down on treating Trump as the only relevant decision-maker in the U.S. It’s a gamble that could cost him dearly.
Unprecedented Distrust And Frustration
In a different era, U.S. officials would do their best to deal with a Turkish leader’s bad choices and his aides’ mismanagement because of a widespread belief that the U.S. alliance with Turkey is too important to lose. Few professionals working in foreign policy want to do that now.
“The Pentagon and particularly the Central Command, is very distrustful of the Turkish military, which is unprecedented,” said Gönül Tol, the head of the Turkey program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, a think tank. (Central Command is the part of the U.S. military that manages operations in the Middle East; it was responsible for American cooperation with the Syrian Kurds now targeted by Erdogan.
“Even at the State Department, people are very frustrated… so this is a completely different era,” Tol added. “Turkey doesn’t have that many friends left in Washington.”
While the State Department’s top envoy for the counter-ISIS effort, Jim Jeffrey, is a traditionalist who’s sympathetic to Turkey, much of the department remains committed to a Syria policy that was never going to make Ankara happy, according to Nate Schenkkan, a Turkey expert at the Washington-based rights group Freedom House. Officials confirmed that in a recent call with reporters, saying that despite Turkey’s moves and Trump’s reshuffle of American forces to enable them, the broader U.S. mission in Syria ― including collaboration with the Kurds ― remains the same. Last week, The New York Times reported that Jeffrey’s own deputy had written a long memo condemning Turkey’s move and Trump’s failure to block it.
Just months ago, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was personally lobbying Congress to avoid tough measures against Erdogan over matters like Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, a former senior congressional aide recalled. Mattis’ successor has now endorsed the idea that the Turks are responsible for war crimes in Syria.
That weakening of Turkey’s ties to the Pentagon is partially a result of Erdogan’s own despotic governing style, said Sam Brannen, a former Defense Department official who worked on Turkey under President Barack Obama and is now at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. With Turkey’s leader placing many of his top military officers in prison, shuffling others around and removing much of their influence because of his fear that they might try to challenge him, “all roads lead to Erdogan,” Brannen said.
As the military has changed its approach, so have the well-connected defense contractors who for years formed the third part of Turkey’s bulwark against U.S. pressure like the Democratic proposal working its way through the Senate that could cut off American security assistance.
Arms dealers and their lobbyists traditionally have tried try to deter lawmakers from such actions by raising considerations like how many jobs in various congressional districts could be lost if Turkish arms purchases were reduced, noted a Democratic congressional aide who requested anonymity to discuss the issue.
But defense firms know when a tactical withdrawal is the right call. As it became clear this summer that lawmakers wanted to ensure Erdogan’s Russian defense deal would lead to Turkey being barred from the latest F-35 program, the fighter jet’s producer, Lockheed Martin, started saying that wasn’t a big deal. “A lot of countries say they’ll take” planes slotted for Turkey, CEO Marillyn Hewson said in May.
The Splintering Of The Turkish Lobby
Erdogan once could also count on a powerful circle of stateside supporters outside the government.
The Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, the holder of a U.S. green card who lives in Pennsylvania, heads a broad, loose network of influential Turks both in his native country and in the U.S. who have focused on courting Americans. His backing was vital to Erdogan’s rise and to dispelling American concerns about an Islamist taking the reins in Ankara back in 2003.
“The Gülen movement pitch was Turkey is already or is going to be this place where moderate Islam and democracy thrive… it was premised on appealing strategically to Western frames,” Schenkkan of Freedom House said.
Then Erdogan turned on his supporter in 2013, purging Gülen allies from positions of power, laying the seeds for a paranoid campaign to have the U.S. extradite him that continues to this day. These efforts have been part of Erdogen torpedoing the idea that he would be a champion of democratic ideals.
Suddenly, the Turkish lobby splintered ― and many of its best-connected members started pushing negative critiques of Ankara. Gülen supporters, who remain frequent visitors to the Hill, now focus on telling powerful Americans about Erdogan’s authoritarian turn and how the U.S. can rein him in, said a second congressional aide who works on Turkey and also requested anonymity.
As the fight with Gülen has evolved, Erodgan’s ever-expanding crackdowns at home have alienated liberals who had previously seen his government as an inspiring example of a Muslim democracy.
And his actions also reduced right-wing support for Turkey. Erdogan’s support for political Islam abroad frusrated Israel, whose supporters in the U.S. had previously spoken of Turkey as one of a handful of key countries in the region they could get along with; his refusal to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 angered neoconservatives; and his jailing last year of an American pastor sparked unprecedented evangelical Christian fury toward his country.
As outside support has plummeted, Erdogan’s relied more on his government’s own resources. That choice hasn’t exactly paid off.
“The Lobby Reflects The Leader”
On June 6, Tol of the Middle East Institute received an unusual offer in her inbox. “Would you like to attend this event Wednesday, you would be paid honorarium of 350,” read an email apparently from a man named John Cpin. The event was a round-table session with Turkey’s justice minister. It was going to be hosted by the Turkish Heritage Organization (THO), a group that professes to be independent of Erdogan’s government but is seen by experts and U.S. officials as one of his primary mouthpieces in Washington.
To Tol, it was the ultimate proof of how the pro-Turkish lobby has become something of a joke in Washington. Those who speak at events are sometimes offered honorariums. It’s unheard of to pay people to attend.
Ali Cinar, the head of the THO, told HuffPost the offer was false but that the organization had previously employed Cpin.
Communicating with HuffPost via email, Cpin or the person controlling the email account said the invitation was sent without the THO’s knowledge to try and win fresh business by showing he could get prominent analysts to its events; the person said he planned to pay the honorarium from personal funds.
Until earlier this year, a John Cpin worked as a lobbyist at Avenue Strategies Global LLC, the firm founded by Trump associates Corey Lewandowski and Barry Bennett. The company works for Turkey’s ally, Qatar. A Qatari embassy spokesman said he wasn’t familiar with Cpin; Avenue Strategies Global did not respond to a request for comment.
That the ploy seemed plausible to Tol is telling.
The THO and a think tank called SETA (an acronym for a Turkish name that means the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research) have in recent years been “really carrying the whole weight of the Turkish PR operation,” said Nick Danforth, a Turkey expert with the Washington-based German Marshall Fund think tank. “They were never hugely effective, in part because of what they were up against and in part because… they were never given free rein to put Turkey’s case in anything but the most implausible terms.”
SETA, which describes itself as independent from Erdogan’s government, frequently contacts Capitol Hill to promote a pro-Turkish line, one of the congressional aides said. “For smart Hill people, that’s just an email you delete or ignore,” the aide said.
SETA did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the American-Turkish Council, another group officials and experts identified as key to pushing Erdogan’s line.
The groups are defensive about Ankara’s weakened influence in Washington. The real problem is that Turkey has faced a “smear campaign,” Cinar of the THO said, citing “fake news” as partially responsible and pointing to an erroneous ABC visual of a Turkish attack on the Kurds as an example. (Trump has highlighted the same slip-up.)
But HuffPost’s conversation with Cinar reflected how weak Turkey’s narrative is. Erdogan had to go into Syria to let refugees in Turkey, including displaced Kurds, return to their areas, Cinar claimed. Yet the 3.6 million refugees hosted in Turkey are from across Syria ― and aid groups say the humanitarian crisis has worsened as tens of thousands of Kurds have recently fled their homes. Cinar’s response to that argument was to deny Turkish responsibility: the PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish authorities are pushing their own community out of its towns, he said, adding that fighters have been disguising themselves as civilians and killing Turkish soldiers.
Turkey’s official outreach isn’t much more compelling.
A former senior congressional aide who witnessed meetings with top Turkish government figures in recent years called them “terrible” and “inappropriate.” (The former aide requested anonymity to preserve relationships at their new job.) Ankara’s envoys would become defensive when lawmakers would raise concerns about Turkish behavior and pivot to attacking the U.S. as a bad ally, the former aide said.
Lobbying giant Greenberg Traurig was usually responsible for setting up such meetings, even though their Turkish clients were borderline incompetent, the former aide said, adding, “Any good lobbyist knows if you don’t have a good interlocutor, don’t bring them.”
Greenberg Traurig did not respond to a request for comment. Venable, a firm representing Turkey through its contract with Greenberg Traurig, declined to comment.
Mercury, another major Washington player working for the Turks, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Capitol Counsel, which recently prepared talking points for Erdogan’s advocates that were obtained and publicly released by the Armenian National Committee of America.
No improvement has been seen in the lobbying efforts, according to one of the congressional aides. “The Turks at multiple meetings” with either a lawmaker or congressional staffers “will get uncomfortable or adversarial,” the aide said, adding that that’s different from other governments in the region which send Congress representatives who appear well-briefed and prepared by their American firms.
Staffers will cut short the sessions with the Turkish lobbyists “after 20 minutes and say that wasn’t a useful meeting,” the aide said.
Erdogan’s embassy in Washington, meanwhile, is largely insular — though it, too, reflects Turkey’s current prickliness. A former employee at a Washington think tank who asked not to be named to protect their current position described how they often asked the embassy to send over representatives to provide balance during discussions on Turkey. They said they would never hear back but would without fail receive messages afterward complaining that the event had been biased.
The Turkish Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
A serious, years-long decline in Turkey’s outreach to powerful Americans is clear to Aram Hamparian, who as the head of the Armenian National Committee for America has battled Ankara for years over U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide ― a campaign that recently scored its biggest-ever success.
Where previously advocates for Turkey would speak of shared experiences with the U.S., such as the Korean War and American priorities like the Incirlik military base in Turkey, they now describe the relationship as transactional — Washington doing something for Ankara because Ankara has helped it recently — and focus on justifying controversial decisions.
“They’ve fallen back on more of an Erdogan style,” Hamparian said. “The lobby reflects the leader.”
And that leader has now spent years confident he is dealing with a kindred spirit.
“Trump Himself Is Doing Erdogan’s Bidding”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Erdogan and his inner circle became convinced that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was close to Gülen and shared what they believed to be the Obama administration’s tacit support for a failed coup attempt that year that they blame on the cleric, according to Merve Tahiroglu of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy.
So they focused on her rival, Trump, hiring Flynn and exploring how to exploit his clear tendency to fall for strongmen.
Trump had already shown them an even more direct route to influence. “I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump said of Turkey in 2015. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers — two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.”
Spending money at the president’s properties is a favored tactic of foreign governments seeking U.S. favor today, and “in some ways, no country has done that more than Turkey has,” said Robert Maguire of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a Washington-based watchdog group.
He has identified four instances of Turkish government or government-linked figures spending often major amounts of money at Trump businesses ― two of them soon after the violence by Erdogan’s bodyguards in Washington.
Ankara and its associates have also established relationships with Trump-world figures like Lewandowski, Giuliani and Bennett. The Turkish government previously employed Ballard Partners, the most connected of the Trump-era lobbying firms, but that relationship ended last year, company official Jamie Rubin told HuffPost. (Rubin served as assistant secretary of state in President Bill Clinton’s administration.)
Trump, during the course of his presidency, has consistently batted away critiques of Erdogan’s heavy-handedness and made decisions like his move to pull out U.S. troops in Syria based directly on interactions with his Turkish counterpart.
“Trump himself is doing Erdogan’s bidding when it comes to transmitting Ankara’s propaganda to the American public,” Tahiroglu said. “He does it better than Erdogan can in The Washington Post.”
It’s quite possible investigations and lawsuits targeting the president’s personal interests and new scrutiny of friends like Giuliani will reveal a darker reason for his approach.
“Is Trump himself making these decisions because it’s in the best interests of the American people or because it’s in his financial interests? That is far from clear in a lot of instances and it’s a question that the American people should never have to ask of their elected officials,” Maguire said.
For Erdogan and Turkey, the risk is that their bet on a narrower base of support will backfire.