American pastor more excuse than reason for US-Turkey staredown

While the US administration continues to demand Ankara free pastor Andrew Brunson, skeptical analysts are debating whether the motivations for this are votes in the upcoming midterm elections or a reset with a Turkey whose interests no longer align with the United States'.

al-monitor US President Donald Trump talks to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Tatyana Zenkovich.
Amberin Zaman

Amberin Zaman


Topics covered

donald trump, us elections, turkish economy, turkish-us relations, us-turkish relations, andrew brunson

Aug 23, 2018

Turkey continues to accuse the United States of waging an “economic war” amid the standoff between the NATO allies over an American pastor Washington calls a political hostage and Ankara a suspected terrorist and spy.

Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin repeated the claim on Aug. 22 that US sanctions on Turkey including stiffened trade tariffs, which have sent the Turkish currency into free-fall, are aimed at unraveling the country’s once vibrant economy. “The Trump administration is targeting a NATO ally as part of an economic war,” he told Reuters in a statement.

But as Turkey works to shift blame on the United States for the crisis, another narrative is taking hold: That the Trump administration’s sudden interest in Andrew Brunson, who has remained in detention since Oct. 2016, has mainly to do with vote-grabbing in the run-up the midterm elections that are due to be held in the United States on Nov. 6. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are using Brunson, a member of the conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church of America, to shore up the Republicans’ evangelical base.

Turkey’s foreign minister made the case most recently on Aug. 19 at a conference in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya. Mevlut Cavusoglu said he had told US officials, “It seems you have no interest in solving [our] problems, that you are acting out of concern for your own domestic political needs, that you are exploiting [the Brunson case] to this end and will continue to do so until the elections."

Trump and Pence’s constant references to Brunson as “a great Christian” and an “innocent man of faith” have bolstered Turkey’s claims that they are pandering to the evangelicals. Some Western analysts agree that these are not wide of the mark.

Jacob Parakilas, the deputy head of the US and Americas program at Chatham House, said, “Evangelical voters are heavily concentrated in the Republican Party and are key to Trump’s political strategy.” He continued in emailed comments to Al-Monitor, “Essentially, there’s a (fairly cynical) deal in place: right-wing evangelicals are willing to look past his various personal indiscretions because he is working to enact conservative social policy.”

Parakilas noted, “Trump’s generally good relationship with Erdogan up until now suggests that [the crisis] is not driven by animosity. Domestic politics does seem to be the driver.”

And while Brunson “isn’t core to these voters the way the Supreme Court nomination is, Trump being willing to take unusually aggressive steps on his behalf is certainly a sweetener for them and might convince some marginal voters to come to the polls in November.”

In the absence of any professional polling on the issue, however, it remains unclear whether evangelicals beyond Brunson’s native North Carolina had even heard of the pastor until Trump began tweeting about him in May. The tweets grew markedly more ferocious after Trump personally intervened with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month to secure the release of a Turkish activist for what he believed was a trade for Brunson. She flew home on July 16, but Brunson didn’t. Pique rather than political calculations will have likely triggered Trump’s ensuing threats to sanction Turkey.

Mike Khanjian, the senior pastor at the Chapelgate Presbyterian Church, an evangelical congregation in Marriotsville, MD, said in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor, “I am on social media threads with fellow pastors and his case does come up online.” Khanjian acknowledged, however, “You don’t hear about it in the broader public too much.” The author's sister-in-law, Chapelgate worshiper Mary Pat Rallo, said Brunson had not been not mentioned during any of the sermons she attended.

A Washington-based analyst who studies Turkish-American relations told Al-Monitor, “I don’t think the majority of US evangelicals care much at all about foreign policy, even when it involves a Christian pastor.” The analyst, who shared his views on the condition that he not be identified, further noted, “Any evangelicals who are invested in this issue are probably already locked in as Trump supporters, GOP voters, and I think Trump and Pence know that. The Brunson conflict is just a flash point in a much broader decline in US-Turkish relations — a decline occurring due to the simple fact that our countries’ interests no longer really align with one another.”

National Security Adviser John Bolton insisted in an Aug. 21 interview with Reuters that Turkey could end the crisis with the United States “immediately” if Brunson were freed. So far, the United States has frozen the US assets of Turkey’s interior and justice ministers and doubled tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel. Further sanctions are likely to hit the country unless Brunson is freed in the coming days, US officials warn.

The analyst noted, “It’s possible that the administration is indeed using Brunson — not as a tool to rally evangelicals, though, but as an excuse to pursue a long-overdue realist approach to Turkey.”

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