Earlier this year, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega died quietly in Panama City ending a life marked by fantastic highs and lows. Noriega was Panamanian military officer and CIA informant who let greed get the best of him. He cast his lot with Colombian drug lords flooding their cocaine into the United States. The George H.W. Bush administration had enough of their former partner and client and ordered an invasion of Panama to snatch Noriega. He surrendered after two weeks, stood trial in the United States, and served 17 years of a 30-year sentence before being released for good behavior.
Meanwhile, over the years, many analysts and authors have drawn analogies between Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and various world leaders: Does Erdogan seek to become a Khomeini-like figure over his own Islamic Republic (never mind that Turkey is largely Sunni rather than Shi’ite like neighboring Iran)? Or is he just after power and wealth, like Russian leader Vladimir Putin? Or is he motivated by personal animus toward his political adversaries like the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela?
The reality is that Erdogan is his own man and has carved his own unique path as he has upended Turkey’s democracy, even as he seems to have incorporated lessons from or modeled himself after all three at various times.
Increasingly, however, it appears that Noriega may be a better analogy for Erdogan, as the Reza Zarrab case proceeds through court.
Reza Zarrab, of course, was a former business associate of Erdogan arrested on March 19, 2016, by the FBI upon arrival at Miami International Airport. The Department of Justice charged Zarrab with money laundering, bank fraud, and generally working to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions.
As the case has proceeded, more Turkish officials have come under the spotlight. On September 6, 2017, the Justice Department charged Turkey’s former Minister of Economy and the general manager of a Turkish state-owned bank. On October 30, 2017, the Justice Department filed new papers in the U.S. District Court, southern district of New York, in the case of Zarrab and his business partners. What is significant in the latest indictment is how Erdogan is mentioned. On page 17, for example, it reads:
The evidence also includes documents and communications concerning Zarrab’s efforts to develop a relationship with then Prime Minister Erdogan to garner support and protection for his business. For example, Zarrab and Erdogan both attended the April 12, 2013, wedding of another [then-Minister of the Economy Zafer] Çağlayan relative, where Zarrab spoke with Erdogan. Zarrab and [then Halk Bank General Manager Suleyman] Aslan exchanged electronic communications discussing this meeting. Thereafter, in a recorded call on April 16, 2013, Zarrab described more about his discussion with Erdogan. In response to Aslan’s inquiry about the progress of Zarrab’s efforts to buy a bank (as discussed with Iranian officials, in order to establish a conduit for transactions for Iran), Zarrab responded, "I thought about it until I begged the twenty-four prophets, but they say to only beg of God. I went to the Prime Minister ... I went to him and talked about the thing I was going to do and I explained it that day at the wedding. I will go back and will say, Mr. Prime Minister, if you approve, give me a license, I will go though BDDK [the Turkish bank regulator] even if I bought the bank anyway."
Erdogan may lead a NATO country, but his name is appearing increasingly in court documents which suggest that he was intimately involved in a conspiracy to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran for both ideology and profit. The Zarrab case may be Erdogan’s nightmare because there are signs his one-time confidant is singing like a canary to federal prosecutors in exchange for a plea deal.
Now, there’s no way the United States is going to seize Erdogan, the leader of a NATO country, the way it once seized Noriega, at least so long as he remains in power and wise enough to remain inside Turkey once he leaves power. That said, Erdogan’s involvement in Zarrab’s alleged crimes suggest relations between the United States and Turkey are soon going to get worse. Erdogan may seek to tightly control Turkey’s judiciary, but he has no power to silence the U.S. Justice Department. Nor, for that matter, do President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, both of whom might be inclined to deal with Erdogan for pragmatic reasons, have the power to curtail the investigation.
For Erdogan, the truly embarrassing aspects might be yet to come. While he imprisons any journalist inside Turkey who writes about his own corruption, the U.S. court records will become public and Erdogan’s corruption will be exposed to the world, and any Turk with an internet connection, to see. Suggesting the evidence is fake — as Erdogan implausibly does with regard to the taped phone calls implicating him in the embezzling of more than a billion dollars — won’t work when Zarrab speaks openly or pleads guilty.
It’s quite astounding to see a world leader and nominal ally so deeply and personally involved in such shady economic business. The episode should negate the arguments of any self-described realist who says that Turkey’s location and its role in NATO mandate cooperation with it as a strategic partner.
For the sake of filling his bank accounts, Erdogan has been willing to sell the West out to Iran. His greed, corruption, and cynicism should give pause to any defense official or diplomat who seeks continued partnership with Turkey on the F-35 joint strike fighter. That the British military appears so sanguine about relying on Turkey for F-35 engine overhaul and maintenance suggests that Whitehall is simply not serious about the United Kingdom’s defense.
NATO or not, to cooperate with Turkey on defense or, indeed, on any other matter of strategic concern is malpractice. So long as Erdogan leads Turkey, the United States should quarantine its former partner. In effect, it should treat Turkey as Noriega’s Panama, absent the invasion of course.
It’s long past time to calibrate U.S. policy to the reality of Erdogan’s behavior and policies rather than the image some Turkish diplomats and the U.S. representatives and senators who belong to the Congressional Turkey Caucus seek to craft. Court documents increasingly suggest Erdogan is a criminal and, like Manuel Noriega, he should be treated as such.
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.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.