Friday, August 20, 2010
It is the first time in the history of the U.S.-Turkey diplomatic relationship that a U.S. Senator blocked the president of the United States’ ambassadorial nomination to Ankara.
It was the first time in the U.S. Congress’ history when the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs conducted a special hearing on Turkey to discuss whether Turkey’s axis is indeed shifting and the country has been dramatically changing, just a couple of weeks ago.
It was a rare occurrence last week, certainly for the first time in quite some time, that the U.S. Department of State held a publicly announced high-level policy discussion on Turkey which was chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with the participation of senior State officials. For vivid observers, the summit was to signal to Congress that the State Department is not standing by idly about what is going on in and with Turkey.
Well-placed sources in Washington tell us that the U.S. State Department has been seriously disappointed by the Turkish administration’s conduct of business for sometime. One senior State Department official made the news again last week when the “ultimatum” story appeared in the Financial Times, a story that revealed some of the points of disagreement in a meeting held by President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan on the sides of the G20 meeting a couple of months ago in Canada. The White House actually denied the headline of the story, said there was “no ultimatum” and stayed mostly quiet about the context of it.
The bilateral meeting in Canada was described as one of the best yet between the two leaders in the following days by Turkish senior administration officials in off-the-record talks and it was reflected accordingly in the Turkish press at the time.
The State Department and the White House both were not happy with these “almost perfect” depictions of the meeting by the Turkish side which I noted in this column at the time. The U.S. foreign affairs team wanted from the beginning for the Turkish public and press to be aware of the “differences and disagreements” between the two countries and state in the background that the Turkish side was not doing a great job while reflecting the true state of affairs between the countries.
Still, there is also a synchronizing problem between the White House and the State Department over handling Turkey affairs. On the one hand, the White House is extremely vigilant in not publicly criticizing Turkey; on the other the Foggy Bottom pushes a more sturdy approach. The atmosphere at the State Department has not been friendly to Turkey, a source who has meetings with the State Department officials said this week, while it was described as “always helpful” other times.
Sen. Sam Brownback sent his letter to the secretary of state on Monday morning, in which he laid out why he disfavors the new nominee to Turkey post, Francis Ricciardone.
Brownback’s letter talked heavily about Ricciardone’s past service, especially when he was the ambassador in Egypt between 2005 and 2008, and accused him being too friendly with Egyptian government officials and having a distant relationship with the opposition groups. The letter also puts forward some other sticking points about his past service in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Ricciardone’s inoperative relations with opposition groups in Iraq before the war. So, the senator concludes, in a critical year like 2011, when there is general election in Turkey and the secular forces have a chance to make a comeback, Ricciardone is not the right person, despite his “extensive diplomatic experience.”
Sen. Brownback’s letter also briefly touches on the shift of axis discussion and writes, “I am also concerned that we have not fully considered the ramifications of a Turkish tilt toward Iran and away from Israel, and I will give those issues some attention before the Senate reconvenes in September.”
One former high-level State Department official who has vast knowledge about the issues that are touched on in the letter described these allegations as “serious” and “wide-ranging, implicating the rationale for the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration's commitment to democracy promotion, the responsibility of professional diplomats who carry out directives from more senior political appointees and the future of U.S.-Turkey relations. The Senator shares a frustration with many of us over the meager return on investment of the Bush Administration's democracy promotion agenda.” The letter makes it clear that the Senator, and those other Senators who think alike, have some strong reservations against Ricciardone, not just any.
The insiders in the Beltway however, following the release and seriousness of the letter, painted even a darker picture about the prospective of the confirmation. One well placed source, who knows a lot about what is going with the Senate Republicans said, “There is very stiff GOP opposition to Ricciardone and there is ‘nothing specific’ that the administration can do to resolve things...i.e. there is nothing they can do.”
Another source, who is also closely watching the unfolding confirmation saga, commented that Brownback’s ties with New York’s hawkish Republicans and the strong Jewish lobbies likely played an important role in the blocking decision. “This is a payback time,” an observer annotated the situation. “The Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has continuously hurt Israel’s standing in the region, and the opposition in the Senate could be well determined to go on with this fight for quite some time.”
I asked PJ Crowley, assistant secretary of state and spokesman of the State Department, on Thursday about the nomination impasse. Mr. Crowley acknowledged that there is not only one senator who has issues with the Ricciardone nomination, but “there might be others who have raised questions as well.” Crowley also stated that, he doesn’t know whether the secretary called the senator’s office over the issue and described the current relationship between the U.S. and Turkey as “friends,” “NATO allies” and “a country like with many other countries around the world, the U.S. government has agreements and disagreements with.” A very cold and spiritless characterization when one considers Erdoğan’s calling the same relationship “at its historical pinnacle point” just a couple of days ago.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry delegation headed by Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu is visiting Washington this week, for the second time in a row without receiving the U.S. counter-party delegation in Ankara. Sinirlioğlu is sure to deal with many of the disagreements between the countries during his high-level meetings. However, contrary to some of the news reports, Mr. Sinirlioğlu’s visit cannot effectively “advocate” for Ricciardone at a time when the main reservation against Ricciardone is his possible “too” good and close relations with the current Turkish administration, which Mr. Sinirlioğlu represents.
The diplomatic intricacies of international affairs are not always easy to read, especially if one party of any bilateral relationship tries hard to limn the relationship in various colors than what it really is. The U.S. is now de facto lacking an ambassador in Ankara. And this is a crystal clear sign of the state of affairs between the U.S. and Turkey, whichever way one wants to look at or depict it.