Little advantage to Turkey in Bolton’s departure

The resignation of the John Bolton as U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security advisor on the eve of the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States came as a shock to many.  

Bolton’s departure cements the ascendancy of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo among Trump’s foreign policy team, and though Pompeo’s style is less-abrasive than Bolton’s, he is no less an advocate of an “America First” foreign policy than Trump himself. Foreign leaders will seek to discover whether they must restructure their dealings with the United States or continue business as usual.  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his foreign policy team should not expect any dramatic shift in U.S. relations with Turkey – the message will remain the same, though the tone and style of delivery may change - and they should avoid unnecessarily antagonising their NATO ally.

Put simply, Bolton resigned because he realised his advice was rarely taken by Trump over the advice of others, in particular Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Trump insists he fired Bolton, contrary to Bolton’s recollection that he offered to resign, but Trump told him to wait.  This is characteristic of Trump’s dealings with subordinates – they do not leave him, he gets rid of them.  

Bolton’s pithy letter of resignation, thanking Trump “for having afforded me with the opportunity to serve our country” underlines the men’s clashing perspective on government service. Bolton saw himself as serving the United States to the best of his ability by advising the president; Trump demands personal loyalty. All presidents expect personal loyalty to some degree, but most recognise that their subordinates’ first loyalty, like their own, must be to the nation, not to the person who serves temporarily as the nation’s chief executive.  

Trump’s desire to meet at Camp David with the Taliban on or near the anniversary of Sept. 11 attacks puts in stark relief the contrast between him and Bolton. We will likely never know whether or not the former television host and real estate developer sought to link his successful deal making with the Taliban to the anniversary of the greatest terrorist attack on the United States. We can be certain, however, that Bolton would have seen bringing Taliban leaders to the presidential compound at Camp David on or near the anniversary as an insult to the memory of the thousands who perished 18 years ago in the attacks the Taliban had facilitated by giving safe haven to al-Qaeda. 

Trump wants to keep his promise to bring home U.S. combat troops.  Whether from electoral or policy motivations, his desire to end U.S. combat operations overseas is real. The collapse of the Taliban talks reflects reality impinging on Trump’s desires. As with former Defense Secretary Mike Mattis laying out the reasons not to withdraw precipitously all U.S. forces from northern Syria, so with Bolton laying out the flaws in an agreement with the Taliban to be formalised at Camp David, Trump’s advisors showed better judgement – Trump cannot forgive them for being right.

This leaves Pompeo, the part-time children’s Bible teacher with a preference for non-military means, to leverage negotiations to the U.S. advantage. The United States last year imposed sanctions on two Turkish ministers and doubled up tariffs on Turkish metals to force Ankara to end the almost two-year detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson. As seen in the case of Brunson, and currently with Iran, Pompeo prefers reliance on sanctions against persons and government entities to compel negotiations.  His apparent working alliance with Mnuchin on the use of economic and financial sanctions bodes well for the use of the non-military option in foreign relations, which also plays well with his boss. Thus far, Pompeo has shown the ability to direct U.S. foreign policy while supporting Trump’s need to be seen as a great dealmaker that gets results via person-to-person negotiations. 

Can Pompeo keep it up? For how long? Trump puts much more emphasis on personal diplomacy than his predecessors, all of whom realised that good personal relations with foreign leaders were a means to facilitate positive relations between the United States and other nations, not an end in themselves. Even President George W. Bush took his focus on strong relations with other leaders only so far. But for Trump, whether by shaking hands with leader Kim Jung Un inside North Korea, schmoozing French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7, praising British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for Brexit, it is his efforts that produce another episode of U.S. foreign policy in which he stars.

For Turkey, not much change can be foreseen in the near term. With the end of Turkey’s participation in the programme to build and operate F-35 advanced fighter jets, and the apparent successful implementation of joint patrols in northern Syria, the most abrasive areas of friction between the two NATO allies have been smoothed over - for the time being.

But in the background loom continued disagreements: the way forward in Syria, to include dealing with Syrian Kurdish forces, possible sanctions due to Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles, penalties against Halkbank for its role in a scheme to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran, continued secondary financial sanctions for dealings with Iran, hydrocarbon exploitation in the waters around Cyprus, to name but a few. The general anti-Western attitude of Erdoğan and his anti-Israel stance also place him at odds with the current U.S. administration. For none of these issues will Bolton’s departure provide relief.

More importantly, the rise of Pompeo does bode well for relations with Turkey. Though firmly aligned with Trump’s America First policy, Pompeo’s personal style, focused on respectful discourse and team effort, should allow the working levels of U.S. and Turkish diplomacy to engage with less trepidation about how their efforts might be perceived through a Boltonian lens. In addition, for the moment, Trump is not focused on relations with Turkey, which gives Pompeo and his team more freedom of action, or at least until Trump decides to personally engage or the U.S. Congress forcefully inserts itself into U.S.-Turkish relations.

Likewise, with the F-35 issue put aside for the moment, the northern Syria safe zone being managed, and domestic politics demanding attention, Erdoğan can, and should, let lie the sleeping dogs of contentious issues with the United States. If, a very large if, Erdoğan does wish to improve relations with Trump, he could serve as a bridge to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to facilitate a meeting with the U.S. president at the next UN General Assembly. But this is likely already in the hands of others and Erdoğan’s services as an honest broker are not needed.  

In sum, Bolton’s departure will likely have little to no impact on the substance of U.S.-Turkish relations in the near term. Yet more than style will change with the rise of Pompeo as the pre-eminent national security and foreign policy advisor to Trump. Pompeo reached this position by thoroughly aligning himself with Trump’s American First policy – let us hope he lasts long enough to undo the “Only America” attitude Bolton and others in the White House seem to favour to the detriment of U.S. relations with allies and friends.