New Balance in Turkish-American Relations

T.S. Eliot, in his famous poem The Hollow Men, says: “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / … / Those who have crossed / With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom / Remember us – if at all – not as lost / Violent souls, but only / As the hollow men / The stuffed men / … /This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”

The American leviathan’s end has been predicted for several decades now, but the U.S. remains the single most important global economic, military, and political actor.

On the other hand, multipolarity has been a reality for 10 years or more.

As Vladimir Putin figured out how to play the game, and the Chinese leadership cautiously began to assert their rapidly growing strength, the European project lost its leadership, rudder, and unity.

The grotesque violence and overextension of the George W. Bush administration’s foreign activities gave way to the naiveté, dovish idealism, and irresponsible international policy preferences of the subsequent Obama administration.

Under President Trump, the State Department was added to the deconstruction of everything that once made U.S. foreign policy powerful — Trump purposefully eviscerated it and put a career oilman at its helm.

Turkish-American relations have followed a similar trend in that time span.

After the Turkish parliament refused to allow U.S. forces to invade Iraq through Turkish territory on March 1, 2003, relations between Washington and Ankara stayed tense.

In Bush Jr.’s second term, relations remained calm but did not significantly improve either.

When Obama kicked off his presidency with a speech in Turkey, the future seemed much rosier, but his foot-dragging on Syria, and inexplicable second-term foreign policy choices turned the trajectory of the two states’ relationship steeply downwards. As was predictable, the change in administrations last January did nothing to improve the situation.

Just the opposite. In early October, Turkish investigators arrested Metin Topuz, a 35-year employee of the U.S. Istanbul Consulate on suspicion of collaborating with Fetullah Gulen’s organization in regard to the various crimes they have committed in Turkey over the past several years.

Turkish society had been aware for several months that someone at the U.S. Consulate had been in frequent contact with Gulen’s operatives.

But U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass, whose tweets, public statements, and actions over the past two years had already made him unwelcome, chose to completely ignore the Istanbul Consulate’s cloudy and deeply disturbing communications with Gulen’s adherents.

If those conversations were simply a part of Topuz’s responsibilities at the Consulate, then the Ambassador could, at the very least, have explained that to Turkish society.

Bass, however, chose to condescend to Turkish society in relation to a matter that all Turkish citizens care greatly about.

Gulen’s followers took 250 Turkish lives in July 2016, but the former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey did not deem the issue important enough to take the necessary and logical step of informing Turkish society why Topuz had been on the phone with Gulen’s operatives so frequently. No attempt was made to provide transparency or soothe Turkish public sentiment.

Instead, Ambassador Bass decided to make a diplomatic gaffe of monumental proportions.

Without advance notice to Turkish authorities or to Turkish society, he suspended visa application procedures late on Sunday, Oct. 8, for Turkish citizens, claiming that the arrest of Topuz constituted a security threat to U.S. missions in Turkey.

Conveniently, this was on the cusp of a U.S. national holiday, so no official contacts would be possible the following day.

Turkey, no longer the U.S.’s patsy, immediately implemented the same restrictions for U.S. citizens, and a full-blown crisis erupted between the two countries.

To top off the disgraceful situation, U.S. officials demanded that Turkish authorities return Topuz’s telephone, claiming that it is a security threat for them and that the phone is protected under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

That is despite the fact that Topuz is a Turkish citizen and has no diplomatic immunity; in other words, he is subject to Turkish law.

Secondly, Topuz’s phone activity was connected to events carried out by Gulen’s operatives even as they were happening.

That is, Topuz was in contact with Gulen’s people not only at random times, but at specific moments when they were involved in carrying out plans designed to undermine Turkish society and state.

In fact, the situation has little to do with diplomacy and is intricately wrapped up in Gulen’s efforts to subvert the Turkish government.

Despite Ambassador Bass’s claims otherwise, Turkish authorities have followed normal legal procedures in relation to Topuz’s detention, and he was afforded the appropriate access to legal counsel.

Probably to the great consternation of U.S. officials, Turkish investigators also have managed to crack Topuz’s phone, and information began to appear in the press.

The first impression from those leaks, which was a series of WhatsApp messages with an unnamed U.S. diplomat about the Reza Zarrab case in New York, is that Topuz was delighted to be involved in operations aimed at the Turkish government.

As if all of that was not sufficient, in the past month, Turkey-U.S. relations have been further eroded by a series of frustrating incidents.

At the beginning of October, for example, Michael Rubin, content-manufacturer for the extreme right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute, let slip that he had been tipped off about the pending coup attempt in Turkey earlier in 2016.

Rubin reversed his previously antagonistic stance toward Gulen’s organization several years ago, and has been associating with Gulenists since.

Imagining who tipped him off about the coup is consequently not difficult.

To compound matters, when questioned on Twitter regarding his article, Rubin responded by insulting the English language abilities of the Turkish journalists and Twitter users who criticized him.

Another prominent U.S. think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), two weeks ago welcomed a known and influential Gulenist, Abdulhamit Bilici, for a conference closed to the press.

When challenged about this on Twitter, the event’s host, Steven A. Cook, tweeted that they had hosted prominent Turkish politicians previously, implying that Bilici was an equally valid guest.

He ignored the fact that the politicians he mentioned were all democratically elected, whereas Gulenists tried to violently assume control of the Turkish state.

The CFR is one of the oldest U.S. policy think-tanks, and Cook is their most prominent Turkey expert. The amorality displayed by both the CFR and Cook on this issue is appalling.

The efforts of Turkish investigators to continue decoding the communications of Gulen’s cultists resulted in another extremely worrying development the same week.

Reports in the Turkish press revealed that, according to decoded ByLock transcripts, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden knew that some sort of coup preparations were occurring in the Turkish military.

Biden came to Turkey in early 2016 and visited the family of Can Dundar, a Turkish journalist/intellectual suspected of collaborating with Gulen’s organization; at that time, he was being held in detention pending trial.

Dundar was later released on his own recognizance and then used the opportunity to flee abroad before the July 15 coup attempt. In Turkey, it is widely assumed that Dundar had foreknowledge of the coup attempt.

According to the decrypted messages, Biden told Dundar’s family that he was aware of some sort of preparations going on in the Turkish military.

The writer emphasized that Biden meant that a coup was in the works.

The person making this claim, Ridvan Kiziltepe, was a high-level employee for a Gulenist media outlet, Samanyolu TV, until the Turkish judiciary closed its operations two months before Biden’s visit.

Naturally, it is impossible to know whether Kiziltepe’s claim is true or not, but the messages were exchanged between two known members of Gulen’s organization, with important positions in that hierarchy, and on an encrypted messaging application used almost exclusively by Gulen’s believers.

That means that there is little reason to think that Kiziltepe was exaggerating or lying for the benefit of the message’s recipient.

If Kiziltepe’s claims are accurate, they provide context for the Obama administration’s snail-paced response to the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.

I truly wonder what was going through Biden’s mind as he toured the rubble in the Turkish parliament building when he finally arrived several weeks later.

For his part, Bass’s already-planned final departure from Turkey occurred less than a week after he triggered the visa crisis, enabling him to evade responsibility for, and public reaction to, his actions.

Thousands of citizens on both sides were the immediate victims of Ambassador Bass’s petulance, but in the long term, the damage to relations between the two countries will be difficult to remedy.

This is not because diplomatic relations will not return to normal; they will, eventually, and citizens of both sides will resume traveling freely between the two countries.

The damage is in the approach that Turkish citizens and officials will be forced to maintain towards the U.S. from now until well into the future.

Turkish-U.S. relations have weathered many storms in the past: the Johnson Letter, the late 1970s arms embargo, and Washington’s ugly reaction to the March 1 (2003) Turkish parliamentary resolution are some examples.

But the current situation is different. Ambassador Bass’s action stemmed from malicious spitefulness, and little more.

Imperial hubris has long been apparent in the U.S. approach towards Turkey, but rarely has it been so overt.

For relations to regain a semblance of the closeness that existed 20 years ago, U.S. officials will be forced to display much greater respect for Turkish citizens, their elected representatives, and for Turkish sovereignty — the respect that should naturally be accorded to an equal and an ally.

As a whole, the events surrounding Topuz’s detention remind one of the scandals that erupted over the CIA spying on Germany in 2014, but the damage from that situation was quickly contained out of necessity.

The Obama administration’s lame and tardy response to the failed Turkish coup last year, plus the U.S.’s stubborn determination to arm a branch of the PKK, is the larger context for the current scene in Turkey-U.S. relations.

Instead of working hastily to contain damage, as they did in regard to the 2014 CIA spying scandal in Germany, U.S. officials do not seem to have felt urgency as relations with Turkey disintegrated over the past five years.

Because of the other problems plaguing Turkish-American affairs, official U.S. behavior in regard to Topuz’s arrest has caused far greater harm to relations between the two NATO allies than might have been the case otherwise.

Look at it this way: at the exact same time the U.S. has sent hundreds of truckloads of weapons to the PKK’s Syrian branch, the U.S. claims to be highly concerned about a telephone used to help Gulen’s cultists carry out extralegal activities, essentially sabotage, intended to harm Turkish state and society.

What do Turkish citizens understand from that? That Turkish lives and security are not as important to U.S. officials as a single cell phone.

And then U.S. officials express surprise that anti-Americanism rises in Turkey?

Unable to discern their own hypocrisy, they are the hollow men of Eliot’s poem, stuffed full of arrogance and self-deception, the lost violent souls doomed to be forgotten as the American Imperium whimpers to its end.

* This article was first published at aa.com.tr in 7 November 2017

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About the author

Adam McConnel

Adam McConnel

Mr. Adam McConnel is a Professor of History at Sabanci University, based in Istanbul

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