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Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford On Turkey And Impeachment


Turkey's president is in Washington today. Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets President Trump. He gets that meeting despite notably ignoring an appeal by President Trump. The American president wrote a letter warning against a Turkish invasion of Syria, including the words, quote, "don't be a fool." Turkey invaded anyway. Now the two presidents meet face to face, leaders of allies whose relations are under stress. Turkey notably agreed to buy Russian missile defense systems - awkward for a NATO nation. We have reached Republican Senator James Lankford, who's following all these issues. Senator, welcome back to the program.

JAMES LANKFORD: Glad to be with you again.

INSKEEP: Should Erdogan be getting a White House visit at all?

LANKFORD: So I think the allies do need to sit down and look at each other, do need to be able to talk things out. We have a lot of areas of disagreement with a NATO ally, someone who's been a NATO ally since 1952. So this is a longstanding relationship, but there are major issues right now.

INSKEEP: Was Turkey justified, ultimately, in invading Syria where, as we've noted on this program, they crushed U.S. allies, Kurds?

LANKFORD: No, I do not believe that they were justified in that. But Turkey strongly believes that. Turkey had military forces - their military forces on their southern border facing towards Syria preparing to be able to cross that border for months. Years ago, Turkey kept saying to the United States, and to me when I had met with Turkish leaders, why would the United States ever partner with Kurds? Kurds to them were the equivalent of al-Qaida. And saying you would never partner with al-Qaida to be able to fight against ISIS, why are you partnering with these Kurds that have crossed the border into Turkey and done car bombs and done all sorts of terrorist acts as well? So Turkey and the Kurds have had a longstanding dispute. They were uncomfortable with that group of Kurds in particular in Syria being right against their border, and they wanted some space.

INSKEEP: The president - President Trump moved U.S. troops out of the way, which was seen as opening the door for this invasion. Then he wrote that letter protesting, and then he talked of crushing Turkey's economy. And then he got a sort of face-saving agreement that led Kurds to be removed from an area instead of actually killed. Then he dropped the sanctions he was talking about. Does the president's policy at this point in that part of Syria make any sense?

LANKFORD: It does only in the sense that the Turks were coming either way. When I've spoken with Mark Esper, our secretary of defense, his statement to me was very clear The Turks weren't asking permission to come. They were notifying us after months of them being on the border, after months of us threatening sanctions if they came across. They eventually contacted the president and said, we are coming. And at that point, President Trump chose to move about 50 of our troops that were in that areas so that they would not be between two warring factions and put them at risk.

INSKEEP: But why does Turkey dictate to the United States in that circumstance? That's a part I don't quite understand.

LANKFORD: Well, they're only stating to the United States a deconfliction, that we are coming across the border and we're going to start attacking this area because we do not want a group that they consider terrorists right on their southern border. This is something they have pushed for for a very long time. Now, don't get me wrong. I do not think the Turks should've crossed that border. I certainly don't think they should have fired on civilians. But it doesn't seem like the United States was in a position to say we're going to go fight against the Turks when they were coming across the border.

INSKEEP: Do you see them still being a NATO ally in five years?

LANKFORD: They are still a NATO ally. Our challenge is that Erdogan is acting less and less like a NATO ally. But millions of the Turkish people are very strongly connected to NATO and have been for decades and decades. This is a very different relationship with Turkey than it was just five years ago. And we should pay attention to that. And we should slow down our relationship with them until we know what direction Turkey is going to go long term.

INSKEEP: Senator Lankford, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

LANKFORD: It's good to visit with you again.

INSKEEP: James Lankford of Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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