Friday, August 13, 2010
Turkey continues to attract much heed in Washington for different reasons and developments, even in August, supposedly the dead season of international diplomacy.
Following the first exclusively Turkey hearing at the House of Representative's Foreign Relations Committee just a couple of weeks ago, which came shortly after Francis Ricciardone’s Senate confirmation meeting to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Ricciardone’s nominations for the Ankara post was blocked last week before it reached a full Senate floor vote, likely for the first time in history.
Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, placed a hold on the nomination of Ricciardone, but did not explain why he opposed the nomination in his request to the president. According to Josh Rogin, who blogs for Foreign Policy’s The Cable, Brownback’s office currently “is preparing a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explaining the reasons for his objections.”
In Washington, all relevant parties involved in this episode have different readings of what is happening and expectations of what should happen next.
The White House, for example, is confident enough to bet on the confirmation. When I noted how not only Ricciardone’s, but also Matt Bryza’s nomination to be next U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan seem seriously in trouble to many in Washington, a senior White House official responded, “I would dispute your assertion that they are in ‘serious trouble’ and we remain confident both will be confirmed and take up their important posts.” In private communications, the White House sounded even more confident that these two diplomats will be confirmed.
The State Department also believes that the issue will be resolved during the recess and they will work hard for that to happen. However, until Congress comes back from its August recess, there is no other option under the Senate rules but to wait.
The secretary of state’s daily schedule on Thursday, Aug. 12, showed a special policy discussion on Turkey, which was led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and included Director of Policy Planning Anne Marie Slaughter and Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon, according to Rogin. When State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner was asked whether “Iran will be coming up” in this meeting, Toner responded, “Other than what are the major issues in our relationship with Turkey.”
Toner tried to downplay the Turkey discussion in the same briefing, but it is obvious to many that “the meeting was easily conducted without publishing it on the daily appointments public schedule,” as one State Department watcher said. “This is a message in which the State Department acknowledges some of the difficulties in the relations with Turkey, and more important than that, with the gathering of such a high-level State Department Summit, they also wanted to prove how seriously they are working to do something about the changing Turkey posture,” the source concluded, on condition of anonymity.
As I’ve argued in recent weeks, Republicans have become somewhat more disillusioned with Turkish foreign policy than Democrats after what they saw as several unacceptable developments adding to the whole set of other issues for some time. Dr. Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, stated: “Republicans want the administration to have a clear and robust Turkish policy that goes beyond unsuccessfully pushing for Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. The Administration seems to be currently lacking a policy that would reverse Turkish strategic drift away from the West and the U.S., and the Ricciardone hearings proved that to the Republican senators. This became particularly clear after the attempted Iran nuclear deal, renewal of oil supply to Tehran and the Mavi Marmara affair." When I talked to a senior aide of one of the GOP senators on Thursday, the aide predicted that the Ricciardone fight might go for months, and chuckled when I relayed the White House’s confidence on the nomination.
A leading Armenian-American commentator who is tightly involved with the issues surrounding Turkey in Washington argued that the Armenian lobby has nothing to do with Ricciardone’s Senate hurdles, as opposed to some argued. According to this leading voice of the Armenian intellectual community in the U.S., claims over the Armenian effect on the Ricciardone block are “based on the principle that anything that the Turks don't like must be done either by Armenians or Greeks or Kurds.”
The Armenian lobbies in Washington, indeed, did not make Ricciardone’s candidacy much of an issue since Ricciardone’s appointment was announced. During the Senate confirmation hearing, Ricciardone did not take as much heat from members of the Committee as Bryza did; Bryza took heavy questions and some beating in which his private life and family also came under the spotlight.
Steven Cook, an expert on Turkish politics on the Council on Foreign Relations, made some waves last month when he talked about Ricciardone’s past service in Cairo as ambassador and how his drawing near to the Egyptian regime from the whole Bush freedom agenda put him in an awkward position. Cook stated that “Ricciardone is someone who is in high politics and best in broader public diplomacy” and the right guy for the job. “The signals from the State Department as of last Friday,” he said, make him “hopeful that the issue will be resolved when Congress comes back.”
Mr. Mitchell Reiss, a former colleague of Ricciardone at the State Department and currently the president of Washington College, backed Ricciardone forcefully and said, “It is perplexing to many, and certainly to me, that such a courageous diplomat who served his country for so long in very difficult times and places” would face such an obstacle now. Reiss said Ricciardone is indeed a diplomat who is not shy to share his opinion and this might have caused some problems in the past. However, Reiss added, “[The] absence of an American ambassador in Ankara in a time when there is much work that needs to be done with Turkey in economic, politics and security areas is a great concern.”
When I asked him what he could tell about claims that Ricciardone would be too soft against the Turkish administration which, for many, has been going out of its way to placate Iran and pick an unnecessary fight with Israel, Reiss responded that “such assertions gives the wrong signal, as they imply the U.S. can dictate policies on any sovereign country.”
According to Joshua Walker, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, even the increasing attention on the confirmation process of the U.S.’ next ambassador to Turkey tells the changing story of a more powerful Turkey. “Such hearings are supposed to only attract very limited press people and diplomats,” said Walker. “But at this time, there seems to be enormous attention to the play.”
Will the U.S. administration confidently and forcefully push Ricciardone forward, use some of its precious political capital before the midterm elections and find ways to cajole the U.S. senators, or are the Republicans just too determined against and fed up with Turkey’s foreign policy practices of recent years?
For now, in Washington, no one seems to know the answer to this question. What seems to be happening though is that the Justice and Development Party, or AKP’s, very much free and independent foreign policy ride of recent years might be coming to an end, along with the heightened alertness and suspicion of members of the Republican Party over the Turkish administration’s true, long-term motives in its region.