Friday, March 4, 2011
Washington hosted two high-level Turkish diplomats this week and had a chance to listen to the Turkish administration’s foreign policy vision spanning from Eurasia to the Middle East and North Africa during various think tank discussions.
One of the visiting diplomats, Ambassador Selim Yenel, deputy undersecretary for Bilateral Affairs and Public Diplomacy, was in Washington primarily for the sixth meeting of the U.S.-Turkey Economic Partnership Commission to follow up previous meetings to find ways to increase the trade between two countries. However, Yenel spent considerable time to reach members of the Congress, especially from the House Foreign Relations Committee, met some of the new members of the commission, and also talked at the German Marshall Fund, in a panel organized by Ian Lesser, senior Transatlantic fellow there. Interest in this particular discussion was high, as many of Washington’s serious Turkey watchers as well as diplomats from various European countries crowded the conference room.
During his talk, Ambassador Yenel gave a strikingly plain presentation on especially Turkey’s approach toward the Libyan unrest. Yenel appeared remarkably comfortable not only with his excellent English speaking but also while explaining some of Turkey's foreign policy dealings that have been under some criticism. When asked about Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s universalistic rhetoric especially in the Middle East, and how that particular rhetoric, (for example Erdoğan’s earlier remarks, “We call murder as murder anywhere in the world”) contrasts with Turkey’s soft-spoken language and “case-by-case” attitude toward Libya, Yenel replicated Turkey’s realist approach in pretty clear terms and articulated, “The Libyan case is a little different because of our vested interests there. Our people are working there, our companies. That is why we are taking a cautious approach on how we address this matter. Prime Minister Erdoğan talked to Gadhafi and told him, ‘Look, you have to look out for our Turkish interests there.’ And beyond that, of course we do have a holistic approach. But in real terms, when the situation becomes as difficult as it is now, as we are seeing in Libya, we have to be a realistic; we have to look out for our interests there. Frankly speaking, right now, we don’t know whether Gadhafi or the opposition can have any influence on what happens there. So, yes, saying certain things are good, but living in the real world, of course our approach and our policies have to gear toward this realism.”
Yenel’s straightforward definition of Turkey’s current foreign affairs in Washington remained very much the Nixon Doctrine in the late 60s and early 70s. Pursuer of realism, President Nixon’s basic theme in foreign affairs, which he wrote himself in February 1970 in the first annual report on foreign policy, was: “Our [national] interests must shape our commitments, rather than the other way around.” According to his foreign policy chief Henry Kissinger, “Nixon had treated American idealism as one factor among many,” while pursuing cold national interests.
Yenel, both at the GMF and later on Thursday at the Washington Foreign Policy Center where he and U.S. Assistant Secretary for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs Jose W. Fernandez, the head the U.S. delegation gave a press conference, repeated that what is taking place in North Africa and Middle East countries brought Turkey and the U.S. even closer together in the last three weeks. According to Yenel, both countries are talking to each other daily and much more often now. “The U.S. administration understands us better now,” Yenel said. "But is the attitude toward Turkey in Congress changing? It is still too early to tell.” During the congressional meetings of the Turkish delegation, Turkey’s dealing with Libya was not met with a hostile attitude, but on Israel and Iran, it appeared that the Turkish arguments still failed to make considerable gain. Revolts that are taking place in those countries created a new chance to bring us altogether together, Yenel reiterated.
According to Scott Wilson of the Washington Post, the Obama administration is preparing for the possibility of new Islamist regimes following the revolts in North Africa or Middle East. And certainly the Justice and Development Party, or AKP's, value in the region rises, considering its Islamist roots ruling still a largely secular political system, and makes its alliance even more precious and sought-out.
During his GMF talk, Yenel also heard criticism about Turkey’s approach to Iran, especially following the June 2009 presidential elections in which the Turkish administration stayed aloof regarding Iranian regime's harsh treatment of protesters. Yenel once more resorted to the “case-by-case” approach and described the overthrown dictator of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, as a “statesman” who was able to understand “the messages given to him by Prime Minister Erdoğan.” Yenel drew a contrast between situations in Iran and Egypt, and argued that in Iran there is more than one power center, while it was clear whom to deal with in Egypt. Instead, Turkey chooses to give its messages to Iran in private conversations, because the Iranian leaders do not like hearing criticism publicly.
Turkey’s bare “realist” approach to Libya, and the region, which was clearly articulated by Ambassador Yenel from different podiums this week in many ways reduces Ankara’s moral credibility. After all, simply, if Turkey’s “vested interests” in Libya do not permit Ankara to change its soft rhetoric, even after evacuating of all Turkish citizens, how would it be possible for Erdoğan to criticize any other country for double standards, considering various Western states have various levels of interest in each Middle Eastern country, including Israel.
One would hope that closer relations with the U.S. these days, as Ambassador Yenel happily stated, would also nudge Turkey's rhetoric from cold realism toward one that has a more universalistic tone, which Washington has been trying hard to strike.
US not shy on criticizing Ankara for freedom issues
I asked Assistant Secretary of State and spokesman P.J Crowley more than a dozen questions over the worsening record of Turkey’s freedom of press in recent months. Every time I had to ask, Crowley had plain responses that indicated that the U.S. administration has growing concerns over “the trend” in Turkey, which appears to be “intimidating” the Turkish press. P.J., on Thursday, added that the U.S. is urging for “any investigations or prosecutions to proceed in a transparent manner, and we will continue to engage Turkey and encourage an independent, pluralistic media. It’s critical to a healthy democracy. And we will continue our assessments of global press freedoms in our annual Human Rights Report,” which is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
However, let’s not kid ourselves. It is not the U.S. that will solve the freedom of expression issues in Turkey, and it is not certainly the U.S. that orchestrates the arrests of journalists, as conspiracy theorists, including a big part of Oda TV-type journalists, have been arguing all along.
It is important to note that Erdoğan, on the same day that another round of journalists got arrested, stated, “There is only one thing I have to say; it is these processes need to be finished quickly, in a short time. This is my wish, and I would like to especially state this.”
It is a hopeful sign, even if it comes this late. However, it is obvious that the Turkish media has to take a firm stand first, while expecting the U.S. or EU to voice those concerns. The latest events in the region displayed once more how powerful ordinary people are, and how hapless Washington is while trying to catch up with their aspirations.