by Michael Rubin,
There is little question today that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an anti-Western dictator. During his 17-year-tenure, he has facilitated the rise of the Islamic State, smuggled weaponry to Boko Haram, exposed Israeli spies in Iran, pivoted both to Russia and China, cheered Hamas, deniedgenocide in Darfur, and engaged in an ethnic cleansing campaign in Syria.
And yet, Erdogan seldom pays the price for his actions. President Barack Obama, for example, described the Turkish leader as one of his most trusted friends and even said he took advicefrom the Turkish leader on how to raise daughters — never mind that, under Erdogan, the murder rate of women has grown 1,400% and Erdogan declared that a woman’s duty was to raise children, and nothing more.
Erdogan’s charm offensive continued with President Trump. Whether it is dissident cleric Fethullah Gülen’s extradition, avoiding a multibillion-dollar penalty for the sanctions evasion scheme at the heart of the Halkbank case, or ending the U.S. partnership with the Syrian Kurdish fighters crucial to the defeat of the Islamic State, Erdogan seeks to leapfrog over the judiciary and normal diplomatic processes and instead work out private deals directly with Trump and his inner circle.
As anti-American as Erdogan is in practice, he is not willing to leave to chance the establishment of a personal connection with the U.S. president.
Trump campaign proxy Michael Flynn unintentionally shone light on how Turkish agents of influence cultivated him when he authored an Election Day op-ed in The Hillabout a detailed Turkey-related topic in which he had never demonstrated expertise and which contradicted his previous statements. Simply put, it is disingenuous to believe that Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin would have approached Flynn with a $500,000 offer to put out under Flynn’s name research provided by others had Flynn not been within Trump’s inner circle.
Erdogan, however, is not a risk-taker. He is more akin to a gambler who goes to the roulette wheel in the casino and puts down million-dollar bets on both red and black. He has crafted a network of organizations — the Turkish Heritage Organization, the SETA Foundation, the Diyanet Center of America, among others — which effectively act as unregistered foreign agents on behalf of the Turkish government, not only seeking to amplify the Turkish government’s influence but also reportedly conducting espionage and intimidation campaigns against Erdogan’s political opponents. (Turkey’s state broadcaster, TRT, formally registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in March 2020.)
At the same time, Alptekin was cultivating Flynn to influence Trump. Leaked emails show other Turkish agents were supporting Clinton. In 2016, the FBI interviewed members of the U.S.-based Turkish American National Steering Committee about their political activities and ties to the Turkish government. Hacked emails reported by Chuck Ross at the Daily Caller show board member Halil Danismaz (who would later become Turkish Heritage Organization president), bragged in emails and presentations to Turkish government officials about having constructed a network of front groups and operatives disguised as journalists to influence policy debate in Washington. Ross also reported that treasurer Murat Güzel had bragged in emails to Erdogan’s son-in-law and top aides that he had indirectly contributed almost $300,000 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, an admission that also led the FBI to his door. Michael Werz, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, reportedly warned Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta about Turkish dark money efforts to influence Clinton.
The same pattern is now in play with the Biden campaign.
Güzel has donated maximum amounts both to Biden and, during the primary campaign, several other serious Democratic contenders. Or consider Elvir Klempic, who, until recently, served as the executive director of the Turkish Heritage Organization. His bio at that organization listed previous work at the Department of Energy and the Democratic National Committee. In 2016, he served at the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Council. At the Turkish Heritage Organization, he promoted the Erdogan regime’s talking points uncritically. A Bosnian website’s profile shows how his activities working on behalf of Democratic candidates and the Turkish Heritage Organization overlapped. He has not only publicly endorsed Biden, but his Twitter account now lists his current position as National Affinity and Ethnic Engagement Director for Joe Biden. In effect, Klempic appears to have jumped from an organization that acts as a Turkish government proxy directly into the Biden campaign.
And so Erdogan’s long game as outlined years ago by Danismaz appears to continue.
The Turkish government first cultivated Obama with great success; the relationship between the two leaders only soured five years into Obama’s presidency. Turkish proxies invested in the Clinton camp when it looked like Hillary would succeed him. Not to leave anything to chance, Erdogan’s team simultaneously cultivated those in Trump’s inner circle. Today, Erdogan feels confident he has Trump’s ear but does not want his access or influence to decline should Biden unseat Trump, and so hedges his bets.
Erdogan knows he has lost the Congress, the Pentagon, the U.S. intelligence community, and much of the State Department (with Special Envoy James Jeffrey the notable exception). The Turkish leader has therefore leveraged an array of organizations his lieutenants crafted, perhaps control, to influence Biden and his campaign. So far, as the Biden campaign lets its guard down, it appears the Turkish strategy will again be successful. That would be a tragedy, however, because Erdogan’s agenda is fundamentally corrupt, and his goals to leapfrog over the U.S. legal framework are corrosive to U.S. national interests no matter who occupies the White House.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.