Though the Trump administration is in limbo, the US president still wields a strong influence over conservative Americans. Matthew Bryza, a former US ambassador, explains why.
With the US President Donald Trump facing resistance from within his administration in DC, besides facing an FBI investigation over Russia's meddling in the 2016 US elections and other allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct, the country's foreign policy has been wavering, forcing several countries to look for new allies.
At the ongoing TRT World Forum in Istanbul, we spoke with Matthew Bryza, a former Obama administration official and a senior fellow for a prestigious US based think-tank, the Atlantic Council. Bryza covered a range of issues from Trump’s unpopular decisions to Washington’s worsening relations with Ankara.
TRT WORLD: An anonymous Trump official wrote a piece in the New York Times saying there were people working against the Trump agenda in the administration. Trump said this was the deep state working against him. How will Turks know who’s in charge?
MATTHEW BRYZA: Well, first of all, when you say “deep state” in the US it means something very different than “deep state” in Turkey. There is no deep state in the US like people conceive of it here with military officials, intelligence officials, criminals involved. What Trump means is that the career civil servants, people like I used to be, are resisting him because they don’t share his agenda. The career civil servants in let’s say foreign policy believe in NATO. They believe in the European Union. They believe that the US needs to work with its allies like Turkey to make the world a better place. Whereas he has a very different view. It’s all about the US first. Right? He doesn’t like those multilateral organisations. He doesn’t trust them. So people, like me if I were still in the government, resist him.
On top of that there’s a belief if you talk to well-connected people in Washington DC that he’s not competent. That he may be mentally ill, that he doesn’t have an attention span, he forgets what he said a few minutes ago. So what was happening is that people at the top of the government, not deep state but his people, people he appointed, his closest people, were saying “Oh my gosh we may need to use a piece of our constitution that allows us to remove him.” So there was no conspiracy of a so-called deep state, it’s his own senior people who know him best saying “This guy should not be president.” But he’s in charge. He makes the decisions. The US has a system, of the rule of law, and people inside can resist him but ultimately he makes the decisions. That’s it. Unless he’s somehow removed from office.
So there’s no clear future about what’s going to happen..
MB: Well there’s no clear future in anything in the universe. But I would say if the Democratic Party wins the majority of the House of Representatives in the election this November, so wins the majority in the lower house, they will vote, I believe, to impeach him, which means they will vote to accuse him of a crime or of incompetence. But for him to be removed [from] the upper house, the Senate has to vote by a two thirds majority to actually remove him. And there’s no chance now that the Democrats will win a two thirds majority.
So what would have to happen is that at some point in the future maybe this investigation conducted by former FBI director Mueller would find some allegations of crime committed by President Trump that are so terrible that you would get even Republicans in the Senate to vote to remove him from office. That is highly unlikely. If the Democrats don’t vote to impeach him I think he’s going to win a second term. He’ll be in power for a second term. I think for sure.
Why do you think so?
MB: Because he has a strong base of support. Maybe 30 to 40 per cent of the population. He will be perceived as being strong and he will be perceived as having won a second election – not a presidential election but with all of these allegations of colluding with the Russians or possible crimes if still his political party wins the parliamentary elections, the lower house. To Americans it’ll look like “OK, the people have decided he’s alright. He’s not a problem, we’ll go with his party.” Then I think we’ll see everything quiet down and I think he’ll win because the US economy is very strong as well.
I think if he doesn’t get impeached, he’ll be reelected. Yes. People who like him really like him. They like him because he seems like they are. Uninformed, they don’t care about the world, he doesn’t care about the world, they care about their own little community, their family, their country. And they think people like me, who care about the US having friends in the world, we’re too soft. We don’t fight for the United States enough. We know we’re much better off when we're allies: more prosperous, and safer.
Do you see any connection between the Trump presidency and the rise of far right movements across the world?
MB: I definitely see connections between all these far right movements. But I don’t think Trump is leading. He is following. I think Trump is a consequence of the world’s having changed rather than a cause. As you said, right-wing populists are sweeping the world from Philippines’ Duterte to Russia’s Putin, Hungary’s Orban and Poland’s Kaczynski. That’s right wing populism.
What’s populism? Populism is a form of politics where the leaders are coming up with simplistic answers to complex questions. But answers that appeal to your average person who does not know a lot about the complexity of issues. That’s happening everywhere.
Why Trump will be remaining in power is because he is delivering simple answers to difficult and complex questions, giving people what they want to hear.
Why are we seeing the rise of populism these days? Could it be because of the way we are communicating now?
MB: Today the way we communicate digitally helps us to select our own little group. Whether it be on Facebook, our newsfeed or whomever our friends are. In many of those, communication means people are just talking to themselves reinforcing their tribes, prejudices or anger or their wants. I think we have broken down into groupings that don’t talk to each other. But each one thinks they found the right answer to their problem. And if you don’t have a dialogue, or multi-faceted dialogue, you could be locked into your incorrect belief that the solutions to difficult problems are really simple. I think that’s a big part of it.
A second big part of it is wealth has become distributed more unfairly. Especially since the 2008 financial crisis, wealth differentiation is a much bigger than it was before the crisis with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. In fact a year and a half ago at the Davos World Economic Forum that was the main theme, the increasingly unfair distribution of wealth.
What does that mean? That means many people, more and more people feel that globalisation has hurt them. That these rich bankers in New York and London have benefited [and] they haven’t. So they’re mad. So they want simple answers. “I’m sick and tired of you telling me we’re all interconnected, globalisation is good and capital is flowing across borders and we’ll all be richer because of that... No! I’m getting poorer while all of you guys live in your global community and conspire against me.”
And so Trump comes and says, “That’s bad. I’ve got a good simple answer. Let’s break away from globalisation. Let’s just worry about fortress America.”
What do you think about current US-Turkey relations?
MB: They’re frozen, and frankly, in the worst state that I’ve ever experienced in my career. I’ve worked in the middle of US-Turkey relations for a long time at the White House, the State Department. We went through difficult periods, the time right after the US requested to invade Iraq through Turkey was a very difficult period, but this is much worse.
And I think what is happening is the sides got very close to a breakthrough agreement on multiple issues that were on the agenda. Legal issues, finding a way to work together in Syria, and then President Trump decided to make this issue of Pastor Brunson a personal issue, an issue of his pride, a test of political will and that test of will is blocking the improvement of US Turkey relations in a broader sense.
That said I hope that the military to military cooperation is now going to proceed in Manbij. A workable good plan, and we learned just today the training is finally going to begin, the joint training, so that Turkish and US troops can work together on the ground. So that’ll be a step forward but overall the relationship is frozen because of this Pastor Brunson issue. I think it’s terrible. Outrageous.
Do you think it’s because of Pastor Brunson that Turkey-US relations are the worst you’ve seen in your career?
MB: No, I think that’s just a symptom. You know all the issues on the agenda. The big problem I think originally was the US partnering with the YPG in Syria. That created disappointment, mistrust. You’ll recall of course there was great hope that the Trump administration was going to behave differently than the Obama administration. The Turkish government hoped the Trump administration would end cooperating with the YPG. And that hasn’t happened. To me that was the big problem that the most important one that needed to be resolved.
But simultaneously we know there were other issues. Fethullah Gulen remains resident in Pennsylvania, it’s impossible for pretty much anyone in Turkey to understand how that could be. How clearly a man who was behind the coup attempt has the ability to be a resident of the United States. That’s extremely difficult whether or not the Turkish person supports the Turkish government or not. I don’t know anybody who can understand how that can be. So that problem needed to be resolved.
I think there’s a way to resolve it. I think that the US government is now investigating the Gulenist organisation as an organised criminal organisation and I think had the Turkish side really focused on building a case based on evidence against Gulen himself you can see some progress on the issue.
Then the other issue of course is Halkbank. The accusations that it was violating US sanctions against Iran, the conviction of Hakan Atilla. All of those issues though could be resolved. Gulen, more difficult.
Why is the Gulen issue more difficult?
MB: Because the United States believes that the Turkish side has not provided sufficient evidence to prove in a court to convince a judge that Gulen [is] the coup organiser and therefore can be extradited to Turkey. So in the United States there really is separation of powers. You really do have to convince a judge that this man is guilty of a crime. Unless the Turkish side is able to provide more additional convincing evidence the issue will remain unresolved. But I think the Turkish government could provide that evidence; it just hadn’t done so yet.
So the issues can be worked out like Syria where I said already there is progress, but then President Trump decided he would not let there be any movement on any of these issues. There will be no high level meetings until Pastor Brunson is released. Whereas before the idea was the Brunson release would be in conjunction with progress on some of these other issues. So the deal is off. And President Trump is saying “Take it or leave it. Release Pastor Brunson or don’t have relations with the US.”
Do you think Turkey-US relations will get better after the release of Pastor Brunson?
MB: I do. I do think so. If he’s not released, for some period of time, we’ll see the two countries in limbo, like they are now. I think we’ll see the military operation proceed in Manbij, but the Halkbank case will still be dangerous. Because there’s a fine, who knows how big it could be, and there could be a criminal indictment against Halkbank. My worry is that if and when that indictment were to happen, of Halkbank, European banks that provide credit to Halkbank and other Turkish banks may react negatively. So it would be best to get this all resolved – right now. As soon as possible.
What is your take on Turkey-Russia relations?
MB: Number one, with relations with the US getting worse, what’s Turkey’s alternative in Syria? Russia is there, the US has decided really not to be there. Russia and Iran are present. If you’re Turkey you have vital national interests in Syria. You’ve got 3.6 million Syrians in your country, you have to work with who’s there.
Number two, Turkey feels the US really mistreated Turkey. And didn’t treat it as an ally but instead decided to work with a terrorist organisation rather than an ally. That’s a very complex issue because in Washington DC, at the very top of the political system, in our military, people believe when the United States had asked for being helped in Raqqa in Syria Turkey wasn’t willing to offer the number of troops that were needed. So there’s a dispute about that. But still Turkey is in the same position left alone here.
And also by the way Turkey is trying and succeeding to some extent in improving its relations with key European countries. Germany, the Netherlands, and France.
The EU sees the United States as being hostile in trade and sees the US as being unsupportive of the EU. The European Union is seeking to protect itself, too. Turkey and the European Union could then end up coming together.
But then on the flip side, every person who knows his country’s history knows Turkey has fought more wars against Russia than any other country, and never successfully. That makes you be careful [about Russian intentions] as a Turk.
Do you see any possibility that Turkey is going to break up with the United States?
MB: I don’t, I really don’t see any possibility. Of course NATO needs Turkey and everybody knows that. Look at the size of Turkey, it’s got the second biggest military in NATO, look at where it is on the map. I think Turkey very much wishes to remain in NATO. NATO is the most successful security alliance in history, right? It’s a miracle how well it’s worked, it prevented a third world war, the level of tension, of conflict was so high, in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, NATO succeeded in deterring the Soviet Union, now Russia, from being even more aggressive.
So I think Turkish high level thinkers who worry about Turkey’s security know that being inside of NATO is a lot better than being outside. Not to mention that being a member of NATO carries great prestige. It really means you’re one of the world’s great powers if you have the second largest army.