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Marty Judge: Why Joe Biden’s first foreign trip as president should be to Turkey

The first visit of a new American president to a foreign country indicates the importance of that country to the United States. President Barack Obama’s first foreign trip was to Turkey in an effort to stem the deterioration of his relations with the United States, NATO and the European Union. President-elect Joe Biden may well follow his example.

Turkey is important to the United States because it is geographically positioned to control Russian movements south to the Mediterranean Sea, and it provides a strategic air base for American aircraft and their tactical nuclear weapons. It has also served as a hub for American reconnaissance flights to Russia and to transport our troops to trouble spots in the region since the 1950s.

When the United States championed Turkey’s NATO membership in 1952, there were high hopes that the secular Muslim country with its great military force would be a bulwark against an aggressive Soviet Union and an ideological bridge between the West and the Middle East. And that was the case until 2003, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected prime minister and began his endorsement as Turkey’s undisputed strongman and eventually its president.

There are two driving forces in Erdogan’s agenda. The first is to spread the Turkish brand of Sunni Islam throughout its nation and export it around the world. As the fiery mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan was so outspoken about his Islamic views that he was convicted of inciting religious hatred and served four months in prison. As president and self-proclaimed supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, he pays $2 billion a year to his government’s Religious Affairs Directorate. The leadership writes a weekly sermon which is delivered to 85,000 mosques in Turkey and more than 2,000 mosques abroad. It’s like sending weekly tweets that carry the imprimatur of Allah to 90 million followers.

But Erdogan’s export of Islam has not always been welcomed. In France, the Turkish president wants to build what would be the largest mosque in Europe in Strasbourg. France is home to around 5 million Muslims and is reeling from a series of horrific attacks by Muslim jihadists, and the project has faced opposition from the mayor of Strasbourg to President Emmanuel Macron. The mayor fears that religion will be used “to achieve political or territorial domination”. That same fear no doubt prompted President Macron to schedule a meeting with European leaders to discuss a coordinated crackdown on Muslim radicalization.

The Turkish president’s second driving force, according to some academics and political analysts, is to recreate the Ottoman Empire, bringing Muslim-majority countries under Erdogan’s control as sultan. Professor Alan Mikhail, chairman of Yale University’s history department, believes that Erdogan’s role model is the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, whose strongman politics led to “regional wars, the attempt to annihilation of religious minorities and the monopolization of global economic resources”.

In an attempt to establish Turkey’s primacy in the region, Erdogan has mounted a variety of diplomatic and military missions in neighboring countries. It established military outposts to train local troops in Qatar and Somalia, sent military units to Libya to help quell its civil war, backed Azerbaijan in an armed flare-up with Armenia, and deployed its tanks in Syria to deal with terrorist forces. Erdogan also claimed oil and gas fields in Mediterranean waters which are being developed by a consortium of countries, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian territories. And this summer there was a minor collision between Turkish and Greek frigates in the disputed area.

One of the most troubling developments for NATO is Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system, the S-400, which could be used to learn the capabilities of the F-35 stealth fighter, the organization’s most advanced aircraft. In response, the United States canceled the delivery of its F-35 fighters to Turkey. The sale of the missile system is seen as deepening relations between Ankara and Moscow and further distancing Turkey from NATO.

While Erdogan has tried to polish his image as a world leader, Turkey’s economy has struggled to maintain its typical strength. GDP, which has averaged 5% over the past decade, is expected to be flat for the year. Unemployment is at 13 percent. In 2017, a dollar could be bought for 2.5 liras; today it takes 8.5 lira to buy a dollar.

Turkey’s economic problems are set to worsen significantly as it battles the coronavirus over the winter, which could prompt Erdogan to shy away from overseas adventures and a dismissive attitude toward his partners in NATO and trying to consolidate its economy. A well-respected US president could help turn the tide of an important ally that has gone astray.