Sunday, December 13, 2009

Erdoğan's Washington visit


Did Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the Oval Office change any of the dynamics of the U.S.-Turkey relationship? The answer is hardly. Erdoğan's visit was not a historic one, much less a turning point. The average American newspaper reader did not even sense that there was a foreign leader in town.

Though the Turkish news channels devoted hours of live debates to the visit, and tried relentlessly to make sense out of every word and action, there were hardly any references to the visit in the American media. Very few political junkies or high-level foreign-relation analysts in the United States found it interesting to spend time on it.

The visit did not attract much attention in the American media as it seems that the American people have too many problems of their own to handle at this time. They are currently struggling to pay their mortgages and their kids’ school tuitions while funding two wars, one of which hopefully is winding down in Iraq as the other is apparently escalating. The American people also need to hang on to their jobs. With more than 15 million Americans currently unemployed, succeeding in holding onto a job is, in itself, an important achievement in Americans’ daily lives. With all this other exciting stuff going on, the Turkish delegation’s presence in Washington, D.C., did not seem very exotic at this time.

I listened to Erdoğan for hours during this visit, and I was overly disappointed with his speeches. To someone who always tries to make time to listen to different government officials and head of states in the U.S. capital, Erdoğan’s speeches sounded as if they lacked visionary themes and were not equipped with universal ideals at all. As many pointed out, Erdoğan’s tone in these speeches was very much like in those he makes in the party chambers in Ankara. Also, much of the rhetoric was left over from the speeches on his prior visits, with the additions of heavy criticism of Israel and responses to the claims about Turkey’s drifting foreign policies. When he addressed Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, or SAIS, some students who were sitting in the audience did not find the speech interesting enough to stay until the end.

The U.S. and Turkish sides, according to well-placed sources in Washington, reiterated their stances on vital issues during the long Oval Office meetings. Therefore, the meetings did not come up with any strategic decisions, nor did they result in an action agenda. According to one source who listened to an Erdoğan speech that was closed to the general public, however, in answering a question, the Turkish prime minister openly advocated Turkey’s possible mediator role between Iran and the West, in spite of recent rebukes from the Iranian side. In this closed meeting, the same source said, Erdoğan almost explicitly argued for and implied Obama’s endorsement for Turkey’s mediation role. However, it is hard to know whether Obama explicitly blessed such a role.

I was especially curious how Erdoğan was viewing the street protests that were taking place in Tehran on the same day that he was visiting Washington. Though the prime minister spent a long time talking about his sincerity, honesty and humanity in the speeches he made, he did not address the part of a question that was related to the student protests and heavy-handed response of the Iranian security forces. After the moderator received one more question about the protests and forwarded it to Erdoğan, the prime minister skipped answering it once again.

Erdoğan’s last event Monday was to speak at the Seta Foundation’s opening night. I went to visit the foundation’s office a week before to learn more about its activities and aims in Washington. I must say, I found it very thrilling to see a Turkish think-tank branch whose mission is “to foster independent thinking.” At the opening, Erdoğan almost repeated the same speech he gave at Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS auditorium, but he was little harsher this time.

After Erdoğan’s speech, four apparently selected, softened and sweetened questions were addressed to the prime minister by Nuh Yılmaz, the director of Seta-DC. I was not expecting my questions to be asked, for they were about relations with Iran and the ongoing protests, but I was definitely expecting a think tank to do a better job during its official opening night, as courageous and open questioning must be the most important traits of a center of thought.

Why did the Turkish ambassador in Washington resign?

According to some sources that were very close to the visiting Turkish entourage as well as the Turkish Embassy in Washington, ambassador Nabi Şensoy’s resignation is mainly a result of the treatment that the Turkish Embassy has received from the Prime Ministry’s offices in Ankara. According to these sources, contrary to the traditions and well-established protocols, the prime minister’s programs and meetings this time around were arranged exclusively by the Prime Ministry in Ankara, with little or no consulting with the embassy. Such a direct exclusion and being left out of such an important event apparently created an unhealthy environment between the top officials in Ankara and at the embassy, an environment that led to Ambassador Şensoy’s resignation.

On the other hand, when I told this story to two different Washington sources, a businessman and an academic who have ties to the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, they both explained to me that the Turkish Embassy has not been very helpful to the AKP’s agenda, whatever that agenda might be, in Washington, and it has not been functioning as the Prime Ministry wished it to. Consequently, Mr. Şensoy, soon to be the former ambassador of Turkey, was taken out of the loop during the run-up to the visit.

3 Comments       PRINTER FRIENDLY
Guest - Mr Goksel Doganay (2009-12-13 16:11:43) :

A great article by Ilhan Tanir. I would like to comment with respect to Iran and its ties with Iran and Turkey. I think it is prudent of Turkey to establish close ties with Iran not because it is an Islamic state but because it is a neighbour of Turkey. Iran I feel is very dynamic and has a lot to offer but on the other hand development is extremely slow and frustrating as it is in Turkey. Iranian's are a smart people but they must stop bickering and get to work. The Spiritual leader should stop acting as if he has divine guidance and actually do his job which is serve his people. I think it is important to be cautious with the street protests in Iran. I do think though the Iranian leadership should treat these people humanely and with respect. These people are citizens of Iran and it is important they air their grievances. If you treat your citizens as if they are your enemies this will create a rift in society which will lead to retardation in economic growth. Also I think Turkey shouldn't be wholehearted with its relationship with Iran. It should maintain a business like relationship rather than an emotional one. Turkey should not blindly follow the words of the Iranian leadership and let them decieve people. Iran has a legitimate right to Nuclear technology but it must be done within International norms and the Iranian leadership should do its utmost to alleviate concerns and not act provocatively. Also I find the attitude of the US government attitude wrong. Unknown to many people, the Iranian leadership in 2003 actually tried to establish relations with the US government, basically it was saying we give up, we want ties. What did the US government do? They totally refused.

Guest - Amoo (2009-12-12 21:42:17) :

Mr. Tanir, as an Iranian-American who is very interested in Iran-Turkey relations, I appreciate your interest in the same subjects. Would you please write express your views about Iran-Turkey affairs in an article? Or if you have done so, please send me an email with links to those articles.

Guest - Dinos Plassaras (2009-12-12 00:36:01) :

I saw the Charlie Rose interview on the Internet: I thought Erdogan did a fine job. The translator's voice does not allow for a full appreciation of the message. Setting aside a certain affinity for ceremony (which the Turkish people consider an affirmation of importance), please be reminded that the best diplomatic accomplishments are low key and are meant to go undetected by the media.

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