When Fox News’ Trish Regan first reported President Donald Trump’s October 9 letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, some journalists and pundits wondered whether it was a joke or a hoax. But the White House confirmed: It was genuine.
“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” Trump wrote, signing off incongruously, “I will call you later.”
As it turns out, the Turkish government didn’t stop to puzzle over whether the missive was authentic or a joke: It quickly concluded that it was both.
The letter “was not taken seriously at the time, especially given its lack of diplomatic finesse,” Gülnur Aybet, a senior adviser to Erdoğan, told NPR’s Morning Edition today. The BBC quoted a Turkish source saying that “President Erdoğan received the letter, thoroughly rejected it, and put it in the bin.”
The letter’s language and the puerility of Trump’s attempt at forestalling a Turkish invasion of northern Syria are embarrassing on their own—the language and syntax resembling a tense note exchange in a middle-school classroom far more than the stilted conventions of international relations.
But Trump has long dismissed such critiques of his language as mere tone-policing, another side of the political correctness he decries. His language is, he has contended, “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL”—all caps his, and self-reinforcing. Trump may not sound like a typical president, he and his defenders contend, but his blunt style is more forceful and effective than the mannered language of po-faced diplomats and effete leaders such as Barack Obama.
The fiasco in Syria shows, however, that this style is not only unbecoming—it’s ineffective, too. Faced with a strongly worded missive from the president of the United States—the supposed leader of the free world and the most powerful head of state in NATO, an alliance of which Turkey is a member—Erdoğan snickered and tossed it in the trash. (And not just metaphorically, according to the BBC.) There are perhaps more vivid illustrations of how little respect Washington gets and how American leadership has declined in the world, but none comes to mind at the moment.
The best argument for Trump’s decision to yank American troops out of northern Syria is that Turkey was determined to invade no matter what and the president acted to get U.S. soldiers out of harm’s way. It’s not a very good argument, since Trump successfully held off Erdoğan for two years, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is true.
If so, Trump wasted more than a week of precious time. Erdoğan charged forward with the invasion without regard for Trump’s warnings. When the president moved forward with the sanctions he threatened in the letter, it didn’t rattle Erdoğan at all. American troops were fired on in the chaos of withdrawal. American planes are bombing U.S. munitions dumps to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Independent observers have identified atrocities in the fighting.
Today, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are in Ankara to attempt old-fashioned diplomacy. By now, it might be too late. “They say, ‘Declare a cease-fire.’ We will never declare a cease-fire,” Erdoğan said Tuesday. If Erdoğan sticks to his guns, literally and metaphorically, it will show how little American leadership is respected overseas. If Pence and Pompeo succeed, it will demonstrate the failure of the president’s personal approach. Not that he seems to care what happens. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there,” Trump said yesterday. “So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.” It’s hard to believe that world leaders don’t put more stock in his word.