Issue Briefs

Winston Churchill’s 1914 Turkey Bungles Haunt Trump in F-35 Crisis

Winston Churchill’s 1914 Turkey Bungles Haunt Trump in F-35 Crisis

June 14, 2019

Martin Sieff

Currently, the United States government with the enthusiastic support of far too much of Congress appears to be on a collision course to repeat a catastrophic bungle and insult against the nation of Turkey that Winston Churchill inflicted on the Ottoman Empire more than a century ago.

Indeed, the most senior US officials in NATO, including Ambassador to the Alliance Kay Bailey Hutchison, have warned flatly that if Turkey goes ahead with its planned purchase of the excellent S-400 air defense system from Russia, then Washington will cancel its proposed sale of the F-035 to Ankara – a move that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish people alike would regard as the gravest and must humiliating insult.

US warnings to Turkey

And in June, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan formally informed Turkey that it would not be allowed to receive the F-35s fighter jets it had already purchased if it went ahead with the S-400 deal. Finally, that same month, the US Senate passed a bill banning the sale of the F-35 jets to Turkey citing Ankara’s planned purchase of two batteries of S-400 systems.

However, President Erdogan defied the immense US pressure. Instead, he went ahead and announced on June 12 that the S-400 system will be delivered to Turkey in July.

Arguments for canceling the F-35 sale

The US has expressed serious cause for concern over this purchase of a Russian air defense system by Turkey. US officials point out that the S-400 is in no way compatible with the F-035. The US Government argues that the F-35, as the most advanced US combat aircraft and the planned front-line fighter for the US armed services for decades to come, would be the primary intended target for the Russian S-400 air defense system. Washington argues that to have both systems deployed simultaneously by the same Turkish armed forces would give Russia, the manufacturer of the S-400, unlimited opportunities to access the F-35s performance data and vulnerabilities against it.

No concerns about India

Curiously, US President Donald Trump and his administration as well as Congress remain perfectly happy to sell the F-35 to India, with no strings attached, even though India is a close defense treaty partner of Russia, which Turkey is not and has had for decades the most advanced close collaboration with Moscow in developing and deploying its own Mach 3 Brahmos advanced cruise missiles.

Long ago, Britain mishandled its relations with the Ottoman Empire

It is eerily fitting that Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo share the universal adoration that American policy wonks give the deified World War II British war leader Churchill. For in 1914, it was Churchill’s personal bungling that brought the Turkish Ottoman Empire needlessly into World War I on the side of Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, inflicting endless needless suffering on the Turkish people and the British Empire alike.

In August 1914, Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, that is the political head of the British Navy, ordered the seizure of the Sultan Osman I and the Reshadieh, two state-of-the-art new Dreadnought battleships being built for Ottoman Turkey in British shipyards. The Turks had already paid four billion pounds sterling for them.

Britain did not even need the two battleships. It had a wide margin of maritime superiority over the German High Seas Fleet. But the move was the political and psychological equivalent of telling Turkey today that the United States is not going to sell Ankara the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters it had promised.

Turkey had been a loyal and major British ally at least since the Ochakoff Incident of 1791. But after Churchill’s bungle popular outrage in Turkey was overwhelming. It decisively swung the delicate balance in Constantinople that led the ruling secular Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) into Berlin’s orbit.

Germany seized the opportunity

Imperial Germany, sensing the opportunity to gain a large and still powerful ally, immediately offered Turkey its state-of-the-art Moltke-class battlecruiser Goeben which was in the Mediterranean at the time. Churchill ordered the vastly superior British fleet in the Mediterranean to locate and sink the Goeben.

Through a chain reaction of ludicrous errors in orders and command decisions, which Churchill himself was responsible for, the Goeben escaped to safety – and wide rejoicing – in Istanbul and became the backbone of Turkish naval power in the Black Sea for the rest of World War I.

Eventually, Turkey went to war on Germany’s side, cutting off the vital Anglo-French maritime supply route through the Dardanelles Strait into the Black Sea and cutting off Imperial Russia. To open that waterway, Churchill pushed the catastrophic and utterly bungled Gallipoli campaign in 1915. It cost the British, Irish, Australians and New Zealanders who fought there more than 140,000 casualties including 44,000 dead. The Turks lost 86,000 dead.

Churchill was sacked from the British government for his bungling. He then devoted the heart of his enormous six-volume postwar memoir The World Crisis to trying to pass the blame for his failures off on everybody else.

Making the same mistakes

Today, Washington’s reckless and abusive policies towards Turkey are repeating the catastrophic bungles that Churchill inflicted more than a century ago.

An increasing number of Turks no longer trust NATO: Instead, they fear it. The only other obvious international security body for Turkey to seek protection with is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which in June 2018 pulled off the extraordinary coup of expanding to include India and Pakistan at the same time.

Turkey is already a dialogue partner with the SCO. It is also considering a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). President Erdogan has also made clear he would like Turkey to join the BRICS bloc which, like the SCO includes Russia, China and India.

Will Turkey leave NATO?

If President Erdogan decides to leave NATO to join the SCO, and drops Brussels to replace it with Shanghai, even Washington and London will have to sit up and take notice. Yet the logic of the policies and rhetoric being spewed out of the Western capitals can only drive Turkey to that outcome, seeking its own security and survival.

Feckless, passive and ignorant previous US President Barack Obama allowed US relations with Turkey to deteriorate to their worst ever state.

Following the unsuccessfully military coup attempt against President Erdogan three years ago, the Turkish media has teemed with conspiracy theories about alleged US involvement. Turkish government officials have been scrupulous in avoiding such speculations in public, but these allegations of US involvement have added to the tense atmosphere between Ankara and Washington.

Faced with such unprecedented suspicions and strains in the US –Turkish alliance, Trump, Pompeo and Congress should be working overtime to build relations, cooperation and long-term trust with Turkey.

Alienating Ankara

Alas, they are doing no such thing. With stunning insouciance and crass ignorance, both parties in Congress seek out every opportunity to insult Turkey, give aid and comfort to forces traditionally hostile to the country; and now are happily supporting devastating new tariffs.

As internationally respected commentator M. K. Bhadrakumar warned last year, “The sense of indignation among Turks should not be underestimated, which makes this an exceptional rupture.”

It is not as if Washington could sanely assess that Turkey was internationally isolated. On the contrary, Ankara enjoys excellent relations with Russia, China, India and Iran. US and NATO policies once again are backfiring and isolating their perpetrators, not the countries they target.

Cultivating inconsequential allies while fighting with Turkey

Today, Washington is moving heaven and earth to integrate such major world powers as North Macedonia, Montenegro and Georgia into NATO to join those vital pillars of world security Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And at the same time, it is obsessed with imposing ruinous sanctions on Turkey.

Yet Turkey has been a major member of NATO for 64 years. It continues to play a crucial role in US strategic deployments across the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Its cooperation is absolutely essential to ensure the supply and – if war were ever to break out with Russia – the very survival of all US warships operating in the Black Sea. Ankara also has the only serious land army among all the European member nations in the NATO alliance. It is vastly more important to the survival and credibility of NATO than all its post-Cold War Balkan state members combined.

Washington’s determination today to “punish” Turkey by scrapping the sale of the F-35s to it will backfire as catastrophically as Churchill’s disastrous decision to seize those two Turkish battleships being built in British shipyards did 105 years ago.


Martin Sieff is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. He is the author most recently of Gathering Storm: The Seventh Era of American History and the Coming Crises That Will Lead to It

The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.