Turkish encounter with the true face of Trumpian order

Turkish encounter with the true face of Trumpian order

Life in Ankara has never been a piece of cake for U.S. ambassadors in the last 16 years, however, some of them had particularly worse days while not officially but emotionally getting declared a “persona non grata.” One of those to still be recalled as a hate figure in Turkish government circles is retired Ambassador Eric Edelman

Edelman was sent to Ankara in August 2003 following two major crises of the time in Turkish-American relations: The Turkish parliament’s rejection to allow U.S. troops to open a front on Turkish soil for the Iraq War in 2003 and then the infamous Sulaimaniya incident which resulted in the U.S. arresting a group of Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq and putting them in orange jumpsuits reminiscent of those worn by Guantanamo convicts. The Turkish government regarded Edelman’s appointment, whom they saw as “Cheney’s guy,” part of “it is time to teach Turks a lesson” package. Edelman, who did not refrain from getting into open confrontations with the government, was pulled back before the end of his term but was given a top post at the Pentagon by the Bush administration.

Speaking at a panel at Johns Hopkins University in Washington last week, Edelman shared an anecdote with the audience, which confirmed how the animosity in Turkey has become one of the major psychological barriers for the U.S. ambassadors. Edelman said how the last U.S. ambassador in Ankara John Bass and himself used to joke on who was going through tougher times and perceived worse by Turks. They went back and forth on this, which almost turned into a bittersweet competition in years. Last year, while he was packing for his next assignment in Kabul, Bass sent an e-mail to Edelman in which an article was attached by a pro-government Turkish newspaper which exactly said this: “We used to know that Eric Edelman was the worst U.S. ambassador that came to Turkey but we know that John Bass is without a doubt the worst ambassador.”

John emailed this to me and said ‘I think this is dispositive evidence that things are worse now. I am clearly the worst. You will take solace in your long reign,” said Edelman, and the university students in the room burst out laughing. However, from a Turkish perspective this should only be pitiful and regrettable that in a country of great diplomatic tradition since the Ottomans, we ended up in a place where vilifying foreign ambassadors has become a national sport.

It would be naïve to think life would be a lot different for the next U.S. ambassador in Ankara given the new low in relations with President Donald Trump’s sanctions approach looming large. And although seasoned diplomat David Satterfield’s name has been widely speculated since winter for the Ankara job, nobody in Washington expects the appointment of a new ambassador before American pastor Andrew Brunson is released in Turkey.

Washington appointed a new charge d’affaires, Jeffrey Hovenier, to Ankara last month and he has already been very active in trying to fill the gaps. However, as Edelman argued at the Johns Hopkins panel, getting business done as an ambassador with a Senate confirmation is a different ball game. That is what Hovenier does not have.

Turkey is not the only country where the Trump administration does not have an ambassador. There are more than 30 open ambassador positions in the world. Nonetheless it is unfortunate for Ankara at such a crucial time when demarches are needed more than ever.

Though, one might find my take too old school in this Trumpian era where, let alone ambassadors, secretaries have the hardest time in exerting influence over policies.

A recent New York Times op-ed by an anonymous senior administration official confirmed everything we – as journalists working in the U.S. capital – heard and witnessed about how the silent resistors in and around the White House have been trying to prevent Trump of making grave mistakes in foreign policy. However, when Trump sets his mind on a certain issue it may become almost impossible for adults in the room to calibrate the course of action.

That is exactly why nobody in Washington is sure today when and in what form Trump will authorize a further wave of sanctions to penalize Turkey for still keeping Brunson in jail. This is larger than a mid-term election issue for Trump, according to sources familiar with his thinking. He has made it an issue of personal pride, as he is fixed on the idea that the president of Turkey did not return his favors. For those in Ankara, who in November 2016 were celebrating the arrival of an unconventional U.S. president with whom they believed they could cut personal deals, today must feel like a nightmare.