There is every reason President Trump should not have hosted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey at the White House, including Turkey’s attack on America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, its purchase of antimissile systems from Russia and the brutal continuing crackdown on Turkish journalists and opposition figures. That was obvious to legislators from both parties who wrote Mr. Trump, urging him to disinvite Mr. Erdogan, and it was no doubt obvious to most members of Mr. Trump’s administration, who are now scrambling to justify the visit as bridge-building to a critical ally.
But in Mr. Trump’s world — the world we are increasingly living in — Mr. Erdogan is “a tough guy who deserves respect.” In fact, the tougher the guy, the more respect Mr. Trump seems prepared to show, whether it’s a secretive tête-à-tête with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Finland, meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or protestations of admiration for Xi Jinping of China and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
There are probably many ways to explain this weakness for ruthless authoritarians, including the affinity of a real-estate wheeler-dealer for men who have the power to deliver what they want — something American democratic institutions have often blocked Mr. Trump from getting. In any case, the real question is not what drives Mr. Trump, but whether his dealings with the tough guys benefit the United States in the way that Cold War relations with the Soviet Union or China were believed to lower tensions or improve lives in police states.
At the joint White House news conference Wednesday, Mr. Erdogan showed little reciprocity for Mr. Trump’s bonhomie, making no pretense of taking seriously Mr. Trump’s famously fatuous Oct. 9 letter (“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool. I will call you later.”). And hearing Mr. Trump say “I’m a big fan of the president” did not prevent Mr. Erdogan from raising pet peeves against the United States, including the vote in the House of Representatives to recognize the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as “genocide,” or the refusal of the United State so far to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a rival Mr. Erdogan holds responsible for a failed coup in 2016.
There was no evidence that the meeting had been “wonderful and productive,” as Mr. Trump proclaimed, beyond talk of a $100 billion trade deal yet to be negotiated. Mr. Trump conceded that Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, which would provide a sophisticated Russian weapon for a major NATO ally, was a “very serious challenge,” one that evidently was left unresolved.
On the Syrian-Kurdish front, Mr. Trump once again celebrated the cease-fire that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence negotiated with Mr. Erdogan last month as a “tremendous” breakthrough, purportedly ending what he described as a centuries-old conflict. He again overlooked the reality that his own withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria had triggered the Turkish offensive, and that it truly settled nothing there except that America’s influence is diminished.
Mr. Trump appeared fully satisfied by Mr. Erdogan’s claim that he was only combating terrorism in his drive to push hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds back from Turkey’s border, naïvely noting that “many Kurds live currently in Turkey, and they’re happy.” And, as he often does when cozying up to a tough guy, Mr. Trump took a gratuitous swipe at America’s European allies. Europe is “not helping us,” he groused, apparently referring to the war on the Islamic State.
Mr. Trump will no doubt tout the meeting with Mr. Erdogan as a great success. It played out against the backdrop of a congressional impeachment investigation into another “perfect” foreign-policy incursion by the president, his attempt to compel Ukraine’s new president to do him a political favor in exchange for an invitation to the White House and the release of military aid.
Mr. Erdogan apparently got his visit without any quid pro quo, and that is the problem. A White House meeting with an authoritarian thug like Mr. Erdogan should have a clear and tangible foreign-policy benefit for the United States and the world. By contrast, a White House invitation to an ally, like Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, should be a demonstration of generous support. The difference seems to escape Mr. Trump.