Last week, a federal jury in New York convicted a Turkish banker, Mehmet Hakan Atilla of playing a role in an elaborate gold-smuggling scheme that involved bribing high-ranking Turkish government officials to help Iran evade American sanctions.
Making the case even more explosive, testimony at Mr. Atilla’s trial alleged that the scheme had the approval of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr. Erdogan, of course, is not pleased. The other day, he again voiced his longstanding claim that the Iran sanctions violation case is just the latest link in a chain of C.I.A.-orchestrated plots against him, including the 2013 protests in Gezi Park and the 2016 attempted coup. Mr. Erdogan has also tied the case — initially brought by the United States attorney at the time, Preet Bharara — to accusations of corruption against his family by Turkey’s main opposition party, saying that both were part of the conspiracy.
Relations between the United States and Turkey are already strained over issues from Washington’s support for Kurdish fighters in Syria to Turkey’s arrest of American citizens and State Department employees. This verdict risks pushing them closer to the breaking point. Mr. Atilla’s conviction, which is likely to lead to heavy fines against the state-owned bank where he worked, has already led to a new wave of anti-American invective from high-ranking Turkish officials.
Turkey’s president feels under siege. And with both the United States government and parliamentary opponents accusing him of corruption, he will continue his domestic crackdown and his anti-American rhetoric. This is dangerous. Every newspaper closed or politician arrested, like every new diplomatic spat with the United States or Europe, will further strain Turkey’s social fabric and weaken its economy.
American policy makers could soon find themselves facing an acute dilemma: As Mr. Erdogan becomes more aggressive, the means at Washington’s disposal to apply pressure on him increasingly risk destabilizing Turkey even further.
Already, provocations like the attack on protesters in Washington last spring have prompted talk of economic sanctions in Congress. When Turkey arrested a local employee of the United States consulate who was accused of assisting in the collection of evidence for the sanctions case, the State Department suspended the issuing of nonimmigrant visas in Turkey for several months. Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense missiles could set off new sanctions.
In an increasingly tense and transactional relationship, targeted steps like these can help curb some of Mr. Erdogan’s more antagonistic behavior. But getting tough on Turkey is unlikely to reverse the negative trajectory of the relationship. And it will ultimately produce diminishing returns.
There are several reasons for this. Turkey is already paying a serious economic price for measures that Mr. Erdogan feels are necessary to maintain his power, as post-coup purges and a continuing state of emergency frighten away foreign investors. Moreover, from Ankara’s perspective, the United States is already putting enormous pressure on Turkey. To Turkey, Washington’s military support for Syrian Kurdish fighters whose partners are at war with the Turkish Army, for example, makes matters of visa policy seem small.
As Turkey’s political and economic situation deteriorates, the risk grows that further pressure will be counterproductive. Any sanctions with real bite would only increase the already serious possibility of a major economic crisis in Turkey. Rather than leave Turkey more dependent on Washington, such a crisis could well empower those in Ankara who already believe that Turkey has less to lose and more to gain by breaking with the West completely.
Given the grip on power that he now enjoys, Mr. Erdogan is unlikely to be voted out, regardless of how bad the economy gets. If he decides to cling to power at all costs, even his fall would be more likely to unleash violence than facilitate a smooth return to some form of democracy. In these circumstances, pushing the country toward the brink would do little to advance America’s ideals or interests, much less those of the Turkish people.
For all of Mr. Erdogan’s anger at America, he now stands to benefit from the very American cynicism he regularly denounces. However infuriating and dangerous American policy makers find him, they will ultimately find the alternative — chaos in Turkey — scarier. Having missed the opportunity to apply pressure earlier in Mr. Erdogan’s tenure, when it might have been effective, Washington is likely to end up quietly hoping he maintains his hold over the country for the same reason it has supported many other authoritarian leaders: stability.
With this in mind, American policy should look toward helping Turkey emerge intact from an inevitable period of authoritarian rule as early as realistically possible. Congress should focus any future sanctions on concrete issues affecting bilateral relations, like the targeting of American government employees and citizens. American leaders should remain consistent in their public and private criticism of Mr. Erdogan’s undemocratic behavior, rather than withholding or deploying it selectively as a diplomatic tool.
Finally, it is important to prevent further escalation of Turkey’s Kurdish conflict. The United States can use its military and diplomatic leverage in Syria to forestall both Turkish attacks on Kurdish forces there and renewed terrorist attacks by Kurdish groups in Turkey.
Beyond this, though, Americans can do little but brace for what’s next. Turkey’s political turmoil, like its relationship with the United States, will almost certainly get worse before it gets better. In the end, the only interest Washington and Ankara share may be a desire to keep Turkey from becoming even less stable.
Nick Danforth is a senior policy analyst for Bipartistan Policy Center’s national security program.