U.S.-Turkish relations are mired in the worst crisis of their history. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is demanding that President Trump turn over Mr. Erdogan’s sworn enemy, Fethullah Gülen. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, seeks the release of the American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned on the pretext that he had been involved in Turkey’s July 2016 coup attempt. The U.S. government has levied economic sanctions on two senior Turkish officials, akin to those imposed on Russian oligarchs after the seizure of Crimea. Turkey responded by freezing the plainly nonexistent Turkish assets of two Trump cabinet members.
As tempers flare and accusations proliferate, it’s worth underscoring what is taking place: an unprecedented standoff between the presidents of two North Atlantic Treaty Organization member countries.
The two leaders—recognizing one’s America First and the other’s New Turkey as opposing faces of the same populism—may soon come off their testosterone high and stage-manage a spectacular reconciliation. Mr. Trump has shown himself capable of this with Kim Jong Un. Meanwhile, Mr. Erdogan, sensitive to his country’s currency woes and dependence on foreign investment, will be looking for a way to halt the escalation without losing face. The conflict nonetheless points to a deeper rift that is too serious to ignore.
As Western democracies worked to stop the spread of Islamist extremism in the Middle East, Turkey and its intelligence services engaged in a double game. Witness the government’s delivery of arms to groups affiliated with al Qaeda and later Islamic State in January 2014—several months before the latter’s pivotal siege of Kobani.
Or consider the all-out offensive by Turkish planes and artillery against a Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria earlier this year. Afrin, like the Manbij zone near Aleppo, was under Western protection. Yet the U.S. condoned the attack on its staunchest and most courageous allies in the region, even announcing the pullback of its own troops shortly after.
Between these two outrages, as if to highlight more clearly his neo-Ottoman ambitions, Mr. Erdogan posed with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and—in Ankara this April—with both! The trio met at a summit called to find a “solution” to the violence in Syria that they have fomented, spitting in the face of every friend of democracy and international law.
Mr. Erdogan’s relations with Mr. Putin are not limited to photo-ops. The sultan-in-the-making, who already had signed an agreement with the Kremlin to build massive nuclear power plants in Turkey, turned again to Moscow late last year for S-400 antiaircraft missiles that could pose compatibility problems with NATO weapons systems. Mr. Erdogan is going forward with the provocation even after the U.S. suggested it could jeopardize the Pentagon’s promised delivery of F-35 jet fighters.
At the 10th annual summit of the Brics nations, held in Johannesburg in late July, Mr. Erdogan was received as a guest of honor. There he very conspicuously raised the prospect of a strategic rapprochement with Xi Jinping’s China—and, once again, Mr. Putin’s Russia.
Mr. Erdogan’s ambition of resurrecting the ancient Turkic empire has snuffed out the secular, modern ideals of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Leaders of other illiberal states across Eurasia help him along, dreaming variously of reviving the caliphate; restoring the China of the Han, Ming, and Qing dynasties; re-creating a czarist empire; and bringing back the reign of the Achaemenid and Persian kings.
The U.S.-Turkish crisis is about much more than the egos of two phony tough guys. We must ask, calmly but unflinchingly, about the wisdom of our relations with an admittedly great country possessed of a great civilization that is no longer a friend or ally. Should the West continue to share military secrets on which our collective security depends with a capital that is forming strategic partnerships with the powers most hostile to us?
Mr. Trump said on July 11 that Mr. Erdogan “does things the right way.” The rest of us cannot say the same of a leader who increasingly opposes the West on virtually all of the issues on which liberal civilization depends.
Not long ago Europeans were debating, prematurely, whether to admit Turkey to the European Union. Now the time has come for the West collectively to demand not simply the release of a hostage, but the expulsion of Turkey from NATO.