Friday, October 22, 2010
Dr. Philip Gordon, assistant U.S. secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who also oversees the Turkey portfolio in this capacity, made the most memorable remarks and gestures at this week’s 29th annual Conference of the American-Turkish Council Meeting in Washington, DC. Gordon joined Feridun Sinirlioğlu, undersecretary of Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, Robert Wexler, president of the Center for Middle East Peace Cooperation and former Congressman and two Turkey experts at Monday’s opening plenary session of the conference, and drew heavy analogies while analyzing the U.S.-Turkey relations.
While referring to the image problem of both countries in the others’ public opinion, Gordon reminded the audience that at the end of the day, both countries have democracies, therefore public opinion plays a major role in the process of adjusting or making policy decisions towards one another. According to Gordon, U.S. approval ratings are at historic lows in Turkey and Turkey’s close relations with Iran are worsening the perception of Turkey both in the U.S. and especially its Congress, which creates an environment in which it is very difficult for the U.S. administration to get anything done.
The U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow, in another panel on the sidelines of the conference, gave an example what Gordon wanted to say, stating that the U.S. Congress has an important role in arms sales, and unfortunately some remarks and attitudes Turkey both made and took last spring regarding Israel and Iran created a political climate that made U.S. progress difficult in some significant projects in the short term.
Gordon also said “it does not matter that it is not true about Turkey’s turning to the East; if people think it is true, then we have a problem.” Gordon opposed Wexler’s arguments and said “we don’t do any favor to us if we say it [the discussions over Turkey’s turning to East] doesn’t exist.”
Ömer Taşpınar, another participant of the same panel and Turkey expert at the Brookings Institute, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank which was Gordon’s home before he moved to the State Department, defined the current Turkish administration as “mercantilist,” and stated that when the U.S. spends much of its time trying to figure out how best to isolate Iran, Turkey aims to triple its trade volume with it. And these very different goals in both countries towards Iran make things very hard to manage.
Gordon, when he was making his closing remarks, picked up the topic where Taşpınar left over Iran, (both co-authored a book on Turkey a couple of years back titled “Winning Turkey”) and recognized this discrepancy, labeling it as the perception of having “cross purposes” on the policies that are taken by the both sides towards Iran.
While Gordon’s “cross purposes” remarks lingered in the room, he did not wait for other participants’ closing remarks and left the panel early for a speech he was to deliver at the Johns Hopkins’ SAIS. The curious part of the SAIS speech is that the speech was only added to Gordon’s schedule a few days ago, and the Turkish press was told about it on Friday with a special announcement by the State Department, whereas the invitations for the ATC meetings reached Gordon’s offices three months in advance.
According to the ATC, Gordon, himself, made it clear that he does not want to take questions either from the audience, which is not well suited for such high level panel in front of an audience, whose significant part came from Turkey, seemed as if he “snubbed,” according to one conference attendee.
Robert Gates who initially rejected the ATC invitation to participate the council meetings, changed his position and told Richard Armitage, the ATC Chairman, 3 weeks before the meetings that he would have 40 minutes window to speak at the summit, but again will not have time to take questions.
During his remarks, Wexler, who seemed to be playing a referee role between the administrations, first vigorously argued against the notion that suggests Turkey is turning its face to the east, an argument that was opposed by Gordon right after, then turned back and sternly warned Turkey that “there will be never another U.S. President that makes a greater effort to reach out to Turkey, to the Muslim world... This doesn’t mean everything the U.S. does is right... however if we cannot make it work with this president, then heaven forbids, because I don’t think [the Turkish side] will ever see any commitment that this president has shown in terms of spending time and energy to nurture the relationship with Turkey.” Wexler, someone who personally invested much in Obama presidency and has close links to this administration, deserves to be taken seriously on this matter.
The ATC meetings have been the most significant appearance for the Turkish business elite in Washington and the Turkish government, like in the past decades, keenly supports these annual gatherings with sending its high profile administration officials.
In this sense, latest remarks of the U.S. officials should be taken seriously and as early warnings to Turkey while still assessing NATO missile defense system proposal that the U.S. adamantly argues for and asks Turkey to accept.
Speaking of “cross purposes,” on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, who was also in town for the same conference, held a press conference with U.S. reporters and defended Turkish cooperation with Damascus, described Syria as a contributor to the Middle East peace process and to the stabilization of Lebanon, and of Iraq and added “Turkey is cooperating with Syria very strongly for regional issues.”
Ben Birnaum of The Washington Times cites that the U.S. State Department lists Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism for giving Hamas external headquarters in Damascus and for facilitating the shipment of Iranian rockets to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and also it is reported that Babacan did not rule out the prospect of formal Turkish-Iranian military exercises, when asked twice.
The conference’s foremost aim is to strengthen U.S.-Turkey relations through the promotion of commercial, defense, technology and cultural relations. Though during this week’s conference, U.S. officials were not polite to their guests and their remarks were ‘perceived’ as if the tension continues between the countries.
Both Gates and Gordon’s very brief appearances at the conference, leaving the room without listening to their counterparts, and citing the thorny matters of Iran and Israel in the U.S. capital in front of a friendly audience also need to be vividly noted.
Gordon argued in the conference that the perception that Turkey is changing its direction would become reality if it persists.
In Washington this week, on the other hand, U.S. officials’ attitudes seemed not too friendly, if it was not a twist of a perception in reality.