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Turkish Coup Attempt Hands Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel Yet Another Crisis

Johnson now faces his first big foreign-policy test.

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It was the newly minted, and newly respectable, statesman Boris Johnson who sent out the following tweet, just before 11 p.m. GMT Friday:

The tone was measured; the advice reasonable — it was as if that whole thing about potentially deposed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan engaging in a sexual act with a goat had never even happened at all.

Johnson has had an eventful first few days as Britain’s head diplomat. He assumed office on Wednesday; by Friday evening, he’d given his first speech at the French Embassy (to jeers), marked the one-year anniversary of the Iran deal, responded to an attack in Nice that saw at least one Briton injured, and dealt with an ongoing coup attempt in Turkey.

Johnson, who is one-quarter Turkish, is notoriously undiplomatic. But his poem about Erdogan — deliberately designed to offend as part of an effort to scoff in the face of the Turkish president’s thin-skinnedness — is a standout in a career built on colorful insults. The ongoing events in Turkey are simply his baptism by fire into a new role.

It’s not just a question of avoiding another diplomatic flap. Turkey is a key member of NATO and a linchpin, however reluctant, in the Western fight against the Islamic State. Johnson’s handling of Turkey’s attempted coup will have repercussions far beyond British domestic politics and could potentially shape future ties with one of the keystone countries in the region most wracked by terror and unrest right now.

Johnson was given his new office as part of a cabinet reshuffle by new British Prime Minister Theresa May that sought to bring a few leaders of the Brexit campaign into her government. Many observers believe that the foreign office has been stripped of much of its substantive responsibilities.

News of Johnson’s new role was received icily in Turkey, with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim responding with: “May God help him.” Yildirim may have spoken too soon.

Johnson’s initial social media reaction is already drawing unwanted attention. The foreign minister’s Twitter followers were quick to point out an early slip-up in Johnson’s response to events in Ankara: He’d recommended that Brits follow the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s website for advice, but forgot to include a link to its homepage.

The coup attempt is also likely to raise concerns in Berlin, where Erdogan reportedly tried to seek asylum but was rejected, according to NBC News; late Friday, he was reportedly headed to London to seek protection there. Relations between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Turkish president are, at best, strained; relations with Johnson, after the goat limerick, boggle the imagination.

Earlier this year, Erdogan condemned a German parliamentary vote recognizing the genocide of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. He said the 11 German members of the Bundestag with Turkish roots who backed the vote essentially supported “terrorism” and demanded “blood tests” to determine “what kind of Turks they are.” Merkel publicly rebuked Erdogan over his remarks, calling them  “incomprehensible.” Berlin summoned the Turkish chargé d’affaires in the wake of the comments.

Still, the powerful German chancellor has had to walk a fine line with Erdogan, who has threatened to tear up an accord on Syrian refugees meant to reduce the flow of asylum-seekers into the EU. She’s allowed Turkish legal charges to go ahead against German comedian Jan Böhmermann, who publicly read an offensive poem about the Turkish president. She faced an internal rebellion for her actions, with 77 percent of Germans wanting Merkel to stand up to Erdogan even if it affects the EU-Turkey refugee deal, according to a recent poll.

Photo credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/Getty Images

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon. @APQW

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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