American pastor imprisoned in Turkey is a pawn for Erdogan -- and Trump should call him on it

The nearly yearlong imprisonment of an American pastor by the Turkish regime underscores the danger of appeasing – and, by extension, lavishing praise upon – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as he determinedly charts his authoritarian descent.

To say that Andrew Brunson is behind bars solely for being a Christian is missing the full, accurate picture. Brunson, who lived and preached among the country’s 150,000 or so Christians of varying denominations for more than two decades, was seized as a victim of opportunity – much like the nearly 60,000 Turks who have been arrested since July 2016 on some vague assertion that they were all part of a fantasy plot with an exiled cleric in Pennsylvania to usurp Erdoğan’s rule.

Brunson was also seized to send a message to the United States. Just before a then-unknown transition in U.S. leadership, a month before our presidential election, Brunson and his wife were summoned to their local migration management office. Both were detained, with Norine Brunson quickly freed – and with the pastor’s incarceration, the Turkish regime had itself an American hostage.

In captivity, Brunson can be used by Erdoğan as a bargaining chip to extract concessions – which is why, incidentally, Iran continues to seize and hold several U.S. hostages as well – such as Turkey’s long-demanded extradition of Fethullah Gülen. Or, quite simply, Brunson is a symbolic captive in Erdoğan’s obsessive need to project might to the world.

Either way, this is a man’s life in the balance – like the nearly 60,000 Turks also arrested in Erdoğan’s tyrannical purge – and, charged with bogus counts such as attempting to overthrow parliament and trying to destroy Turkey’s constitutional order, he faces a potential life sentence in hellish conditions.

One would think that Erdoğan isn’t used to being told what to do.

We supposedly chided the Erdoğan regime for sending their goons to beat up peaceful protesters across the street from the ambassador’s residence in May, as Erdoğan enjoyed the spectacle from his armored sedan. Under intense pressure from Americans furious over Erdoğan deploying his thug tactics on democratic soil, the ensuing investigation yielded arrest warrants for several Turkish security officials.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

So what happened when Erdoğan was in New York last week for his U.S. encore? First, Erdoğan claimed that President Trump apologized to him for the May beatdowns. Then, protesters who crashed the Turkish president’s speech at a Times Square hotel were roughed up as Erdoğan tried to shame "a few impertinent hall terrorists” from the mic. Terrorist, in Erdoğan vernacular, roughly translates to anyone he feels challenges his rule, be they secular Turkish dissidents, an apolitical American pastor, a Turk who merely lobs an insult in his direction, or Kurds who are currently smashing ISIS.

We’re not in a good spot right now. If we buy or swap for a U.S. hostage’s freedom, Erdoğan will only be motivated to seize more Americans (see: Iran) before inventing their supposed Gülenist links. If NATO acquiesces to a totalitarian member who gleefully purges perceived foes by the tens of thousands in civil service, the judiciary, universities and the media, the institution and its commitment to democracy and basic human rights are forever degraded.

As Brunson pleaded to Trump in a March letter, “Let the Turkish government know that you will not cooperate with them in any way until they release me.”

First, do no fawning praise of the ruler who commits such offenses. During his May visit to the White House, Erdoğan confidently predicted that their meeting would “mark a historical turn of tide." The terms Trump bestowed upon Erdoğan at their United Nations sidelines meeting – “great honor and privilege,” “very high marks,” “great friendship,” “close as we’ve ever been” – should be reserved for friends of the U.S. whose presence honors us. Not the proud jailer of an American pastor and 60,000 Turks who wouldn’t bow for the authoritarian.