If we had known about the coup, we would have told the Turkish gov’t: US consul-general
Photo: Levent Kulu / HÜRRİYETPopular conspiracy theories in Turkey alleging U.S. involvement in the July 15 military coup attempt are deeply disturbing and frustrating, according to Jennifer Davis, the new U.S. Consul-General to Istanbul.
“If we had known about the coup, I can say with absolute certainty we would have informed the Turkish government,” Davis told daily Hürriyet in an exclusive interview.
The 44-year-old Davis has been appointed at a very young age as Washington’s new consul-general to Istanbul. As one of the brightest diplomats in the U.S. State Department, she has worked very closely with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State and current presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, and current Secretary of State John Kerry.
Besides her successful diplomatic career, Davis enjoys playing basketball and tennis, reads Orhan Pamuk novels, and watches the popular Turkish soap opera “Ezel.”
Davis spoke to Hürriyet at her home in the Bosphorus-side neighborhood of Arnavutköy.
You have been appointed as the U.S.’s new consul-general in Istanbul at a young age. Before joining the State Department, you were a corporate attorney specializing in media and banking law. How did you decide to become a diplomat?
I always thought as a young person that I wanted to be an attorney. My older sister said she wanted to be a doctor, so not to be outdone I announced that I want to be a lawyer. I was also fascinated by the law. But shortly after I started practicing, my father passed away. He was an army colonel. My sister was a doctor in our air force, and both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. So this has always been a big part of my family life. Right after I started practicing law, 9/11 happened. I had studied in England the year before and had met people from all over the world. I became convinced about a number of things that I wanted to be a part of. So I took the foreign service exam and started after Sept. 11.
So 9/11 had an impact on your decision to become a diplomat.
Absolutely. It was a deeply startling, traumatic event for most Americans and I’ve thought a lot about it. It is probably like the coup attempt that happened here on July 15 in terms of the impact on citizens. It was deeply troubling and powerful, and afterwards I wanted to be part of the message to the world about the U.S., its history and its ideals. So I became a part of representing the U.S. overseas.
Especially over the last couple of years, there have been several security warnings made by the State Department for staff of the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Turkey concerning terror threats. But the latest one that ordered the departure of U.S. Consulate employees’ families in Istanbul has frightened a lot of people. Why were they ordered to leave Istanbul? Is there such a big terror threat that we should all be concerned? Has your own family also left?
For many days we were following a threat and issued a public warning that we were noticing more aggressive attempts by terrorist organizations to target Americans where they live or frequent here in Istanbul. The nature of the threat was alarming. We spent a lot of time talking to our community about it and talking to Washington about it. Over the weekend, Washington ordered departure of our families from Istanbul. We had to react very quickly to that order. All of the families have departed, including my own. I put my husband and sons on a plane a couple of days ago to Washington. It is a very serious issue and one we took very seriously. It was not a decision taken lightly. We are very hopeful they can return soon.
Since the coup attempt, dozens of media outlets in Turkey have been shut down with state of emergency decrees. Most recently, the editor-in-chief, columnists and executives of the critical daily Cumhuriyet were arrested on “terrorism” charges. All these developments have raised concerns about press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey tremendously. How concerned is the U.S. government about the situation?
I would say we are following developments, including the arrest of the Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief, very closely. We are deeply concerned about it. The U.S. has consistently talked with our Turkish counterparts about our concerns. I would add that media freedom is the hallmark of any democracy. Media freedom is the way that governments hold themselves accountable to their people. There is nothing more essential to a thriving democracy than a free media. The U.S. is very eager to see media freedom thrive in Turkey and we want to emphasize as much as possible how important we think it is. We understand and support the Turkish government as it looks to prevent terrorism or focus on people who perpetrated the coup. But we also think it is fundamentally important that independent newspapers be able to thrive and offer their opinion to the Turkish people.
You have been appointed to Turkey at a difficult time. Since the July 15 coup attempt there have been a lot of conspiracy theories in Turkey alleging U.S. involvement. What do you think about these conspiracy theories and how would you evaluate the state of U.S.-Turkey relations?
First, regarding the conspiracy theories, I would say I find them deeply disturbing and surprising. There is absolutely no basis in fact. The U.S. did not in any way support, know about, or have any pre-knowledge about the coup. Sadly it is quite frustrating that anyone might suggest that we did. If we had known about the coup, I can say with absolute certainty we would have informed the Turkish government. We had no interest in the democratically elected government of Turkey being overthrown. As I mentioned earlier, our interest is in a democratic, thriving, prosperous Turkey. The idea that we would participate in or even know about this coup attempt is very disturbing and wrong. The suggestion that the U.S. was involved was even echoed in some instances by members of the Turkish government. Our relationship is so important and it is built on so many years of partnership on security issues and on our economic relationship. I think it is very important that we treat each other with the respect and the closeness that our relationship wants.
What did you think when you first learned about your appointment to Istanbul? Did you think this was going to be a tough assignment?
Yes, I did. First of all I was very honored. When I was assigned here I had been working for State Secretary John Kerry for two-and-a-half years. I spoke to him and a number of mentors in the department about what would be a challenging and good assignment. I had worked at NATO in Brussels and I love living in Europe, having studied in Europe and being very interested in European affairs. I have always followed Turkey very closely and traveled as a young person with my family and with my mother to Istanbul. I also spent a week in Istanbul with my mother while I was serving in Brussels, around 2009-10. I fell in love with Istanbul. My mother and me, in total we have both been to about 80 countries, and both of us would tell you that Istanbul was our favorite trip of all. It was magical. There was something very powerful for both of us. We visited almost every sight in Istanbul. Istanbul felt so alive, chaotic and colorful, and the food was magnificent. The people were so authentically warm - I am from the south in the U.S. and people there are also very warm. So I feel at home here. Because people talk about their families, people ask about families, people greet you on the street and talk to you.
What surprised you most after you came to Turkey?
I came right after the coup attempt and I have to say that what surprised me is how normal everything felt right after the coup attempt. It shouldn’t have surprised me because I think of the Turkish people as deeply resilient. They have been through great deal and they very quickly return to normal their way of life. Even shortly after something as traumatic as the coup attempt Istanbul was thriving and well-functioning. I guess that’s what surprised me. Everything has such a normal feel.
Which part of Istanbul have you liked most so far?
Sultanahmet. My favorite place is the Hagia Sophia. My first weekend here, I asked my husband if we could take our sons there. It is a place much like Jerusalem to me, it feels very holy. When you stand there you feel humble because so many centuries of human beings have lived there and worshipped there, fought there. You have a sense of place and time. I wanted my children to stand there and feel there.
What will be your priorities during your post in Istanbul? What plans or projects do you have?
I spent a lot of time talking to my team when I arrived here about being strategic about what we do. It is very easy in modern society to lose focus because of so much information. So I have asked my team to come up with three or four ways we could do the most to promote the relationship between Turkey and the U.S., which I think is so fundamentally important. We also want to promote U.S. investment in Turkey and the commercial relationship between U.S. companies and Turkish companies.
Because we are the consulate in the commercial capital of Turkey, the first priority we established was that we would be very focused on trying to promote U.S. business and investment here in Turkey, talking a lot about the economic ties between the two countries. I think what gets lost in some of the political debates is how many companies there are doing business in Turkey, how many jobs they provide, how many Turkish firms invest in the U.S., and all of the important economic ties that bind us. So I wanted to promote those.
I also want us to look at the ways we could be helpful to Turkey as it hosts 2.7 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The U.S. has been a very active donor to the refugee community internationally, and I wanted us to be as proactive as possible in assisting the Turkish government. Turkey has experienced the greatest burden from the Syrian civil war and hosting so many refugees. You have done that with open arms and I want our mission to consider how we can assist you.
I also finally wanted to focus on youth. Turkey is a very young country and the Syrian and Iraqi population here is very young. I want to talk about ways that we can talk to youths, especially the ones who may feel disadvantaged. I want to talk about ways that we can help promote economic opportunities for them and talk about the importance of contributing to society - especially young people in southeastern Turkey who are looking for economic opportunities.
What do you think will be the most challenging issue during your post in Istanbul?
We are very close in terms of our international goals, our economies and as NATO allies. But sometimes we are not communicating as well as with each other as we should. Of course, I was troubled by some of the anti-American rhetoric following the coup attempt. That’s quiet challenging and troubling and I hope we can work hard to diminish that and talk very openly about how the U.S. is very supportive of a stable, prosperous, democratic Turkey.
Are there any Turkish artists, writers or celebrities that you heard about before you came to Turkey?
Of course I read “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk and I loved it. When I was studying Turkish, I got addicted to the TV show “Ezel.” I watched it through the internet. It is fantastic! I have been watching it for the past two years. My husband makes fun of me because I was sitting with my tablet, watching “Ezel” and eating my nails. I am trying to learn Turkish so I was learning words like “Abi” [brother] “N’oldu?” [what happened]. It helped my colloquial Turkish but I was also fascinated because it has interesting cultural references.
So you are familiar with the leading actor of Ezel.
Kenan? [İmirzalıoğlu]. Yes, of course. I see him on commercials now sometimes too. I think he is a fantastic actor. The woman who plays in the series [Cansu Dere] is beautiful. And she is such a complicated character that I find myself falling in love with her but then being disappointed in the character, and so on.
Who is Jennifer Davis?
Before joining the Foreign Service, Jennifer Davis was a corporate attorney specializing in media and banking law. She has a B.A. with distinction and J.D. with honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a BCL (LL.M.) in international law from the University of Oxford in England. She is the wife of fellow U.S. diplomat Nick Harris and the mother of two boys.