Trump’s foot-in-mouth attack on the phone to Erdogan

Whatever the reason for Trump’s sudden promise to Erdogan, it’s a fair bet the Turkish president won’t let him forget it.

Eager to please. US President Donald Trump (R) reaches to shake the hand of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before a meeting during the 72nd UN General Assembly, on September 21. (AFP)

2017/12/03 Issue: 134 Page: 18

The Arab Weekly
Tom Regan

US President Donald Trump has this really bad habit. He tends to tell whom­ever he is talking to at any particular moment whatever they want to hear and he seems to do this without bothering to notify anyone on his staff or in affected government departments that he’s changing significant policies.

This can cause headaches for or­dinary people but if you’re president of the United States it can cause very big problems.

A recent example of the Trumpian desire to please whomever he is talking to occurred November 24 during a conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ostensibly the two men were to talk about the situation in Syria and the conference being organised by Russia, Turkey and Iran. During the conversation, however, Trump ap­parently promised Erdogan that he would cut off supplies of weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and other Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) since the extremist group had been defeated in Raqqa, Syria.

Turkish government officials seized on Trump’s promise and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu excitedly rushed to tell the Turkish press and, through them, the world’s media. The Turks consider the YPG and similar Syrian Kurdish militias to be terrorist or­ganisations, like their counterparts in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). They were overjoyed.

There was only one problem: Trump had failed to notify his national security staff members, the State Department and the Pentagon of this plan to stop supplying the YPG, which had been the United States’ most dependable ally in the battle against ISIS.

When contacted by the US media, no American government official said anything about the president’s statement for the first few hours. Finally, a statement was released. It said the United States was “review­ing pending adjustments to military support” of its allies in the region, such as the YPG.

Three days after Trump’s conver­sation with Erdogan, the Pentagon announced the United States would continue supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group that includes the YPG. Tossing an olive branch to the Turkish govern­ment, however, the Pentagon said that any weapons supplied to the SDF would be “limited, mission-specific and provided incrementally to achieve military objectives.” That was Pentagon-speak for: “The presi­dent goofed up and we’re going to continue to do what we were doing before.”

Turkish officials were, of course, livid. They insisted that the United States follow through on Trump’s promise and cease to arm a group they consider a terrorist organisa­tion. Editorials in Turkish news­papers called on Trump to “show leadership and stand by his words.”

Welcome to the chaotic world of Trumpspeak, Turkey, where up is down, down is up and the president of the United States changes impor­tant government policy on the spur of the moment without bothering to tell anybody about it. This has hap­pened numerous times in the past year, on issues such as transgender soldiers, blocking refugees from certain countries and relations with important allies.

There is an additional problem with Trump and Turkey, however. It is not clear what prompted his promise to Erdogan. Was it a ten­dency to want to please the person to whom he is talking? Or was it concern about Trump business interests in Turkey?

In the past, Trump alluded to his “conflict of interest” regarding his businesses in Istanbul. He did so specifically during an interview with Stephen Bannon, then — and now again — with the alt-right media website Breitbart.

“I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major build­ing in Istanbul,” Trump told Bannon during the 2015 interview. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers — two towers, instead of one not the usual one, it’s two.”

Whatever the reason for Trump’s sudden promise to Erdogan, it’s a fair bet the Turkish president won’t let him forget it. Erdogan may be a megalomaniac but he’s not stupid. He’s threatened Trump once before with removing the Trump Towers name from the Istanbul buildings. Then there is always Incirlik, the base near Adana used by the US Air Force. Erdogan could use that as a pawn.

This will not be easily solved and may weaken the US position at a time when Russia and Iran, aided by Turkey, are moving to establish firm control of what happens in Syria.

Tom Regan, a columnist at, previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the former executive director of the Online News Association and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1992.

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