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The Downfall of the American-Turkish Alliance
By Andrew Bernard

Americans generally take it for granted that they can travel where they want, when they want. In the "Global Passport Power Rank," U.S. passports are usually near the top, with visa-free or visa-on-arrival travel for virtually every country in the world. Only rogue states and American adversaries like Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and Syria pose much of a challenge for Americans looking to go abroad. But today, America's NATO ally Turkey joins that list. As the BBC reports:

Turkey and the US have become embroiled in a consular row, mutually scaling back visa services.

The American mission in Ankara said it had suspended all non-immigrant visa services in order to "reassess" Turkey's commitment to staff security.

Turkey's embassy in Washington replied by suspending "all visa services".

The latest spat began when a US consulate worker in Istanbul was held over suspected links to a cleric blamed for last year's failed coup in Turkey.

Washington condemned the move as baseless and damaging to bilateral relations.

In case the childishly tit-for-tat nature of the suspension wasn't immediately obvious, the statement issued by the Turkish embassy was a word-for-word copy of the original statement issued by the American embassy.

Suffice it to say, none of this is normal. The markets apparently agree. The Turkish Lira plunged 3.1 percent overnight, and Turkey's Borsa Istanbul 100 fell 2.7 percent.

We've written extensively in the past about how Turkey is drifting apart from the West. For Europe, the divide focuses on human rights concerns and the sharp differences in values espoused by liberal Europe on the one hand and an increasingly Islamist Turkey on the other. And while President Trump has made it clear that he doesn't intend to let human rights concerns get in the way of U.S. relations with strongman-led governments, more concrete questions of national interest, like U.S. backing for Syrian Kurdish groups and Turkey's support for Qatar in the Gulf crisis, remain points of diplomatic friction.

But merely looking at the differences between U.S. and Turkish interests doesn't get to the heart of what's going on here. Turkey has also been suffering from a kind of national nervous breakdown since the failed coup attempt of July 2016. Paranoid conspiracy theorizing, a traditional feature of Turkish discourse, was supercharged when the coup revealed that some of the conspiracies were actually true. Erdogan himself narrowly missed death at the hands of a hit squad sent to his hotel on the night of the coup.

As if this weren't enough, Erdogan's constitutional project aims at a fundamental reinvention of the Turkish nation comparable only to Atatürk's forging of modern Turkey itself. Turks of all political stripes see themselves as under siege by conspiracies from within and without, whether by foreign governments, dissident coup plotters, Islamists, secularists, Kurds, the West, and, yes, the United States.

This conspiratorial logic helps explain why Erdogan views American prisoners as potential hostages with which to bargain for Fethullah Gulen, the alleged architect of the coup attempt. Last week, Erdogan made that view explicit in reference to a detained American pastor, Andrew Brunson: "We have given you all the documents necessary [for the extradition of Gülen]. But they say, 'give us the pastor.' You have another pastor in your hands. Give us that pastor and we will do what we can in the judiciary to give you this one." Such is the logic of the post-coup purge, which, among thousands of other targets, now includes anyone caught wearing a T-shirt with the word "Hero" on it. It's the logic of a man who, when confronted with dissent of any kind, even in a foreign country, resorts to violent thuggery against protesters, no matter what the cost to his country's reputation.

It's entirely possible that the visa spat will be resolved quickly. Turkey could decide to back down and release either the U.S. consulate worker (whom, it should be noted, is a Turkish national) or Pastor Brunson as a show of good faith. But even if these specific situations are resolved, Turkey's highly volatile foreign policy, especially toward the United States and Europe, will remain. Turkey, planning yet another incursion into Syria in cooperation with Russia and threatening joint action with Iran against Iraqi Kurdistan, risks a much deeper split with the United States. The possibility of a total collapse in U.S.-Turkish relations cannot be ruled out.

Erdogan, displaying an unusual degree of restraint, described the recent U.S. visa decision as "saddening." He's right, but what's sad is less the visa situation itself and more the downfall of a once-thriving democracy, along with the decline of a once-close alliance.


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