Ankara in search of constructive ambiguity with Trump
Just as expected, it has been a week of wonders in the U.S. capital for civil servants who have struggled to keep pace with new President Donald Trump’s executive orders, which have included his infamous campaign pledge to construct a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. The cafes in the president’s neighborhood were full of faces looking like the character in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” You could tell that most of those people wandering around like a lost soul in downtown D.C. held critical positions under the Barack Obama administration.
While Trump took actions that will change the fate of global relations on some major policies, such as in withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), the bureaucracy has been sitting on the fence. The transition of power is never an easy task, but Trump’s first week proved that his transition would be a lot more chaotic and painful. According to the Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service, of all 690 key political positions which require Senate confirmation, only four are confirmed. Some 27 are awaiting confirmation, while 659 are awaiting nomination.
Some 261 of the political appointee positions that are awaiting Trump’s nomination are in the Department of State. Perhaps more important than in terms of America’s new foreign policy will be Trump’s magic formula for the National Security Council (NSC). Obama’s White House went down in the country’s history as producing an overbearing NSC. At some point, the NSC staff reached over 400 people, which was taken as a symbol of Obama’s obsession with micromanagement and centralization of power.
Trimming down the number of bureaucrats might not ultimately be a bad thing. However, the problem for the Trump administration is more to do with the lack of experienced staff who will preserve institutional memory.
While this scattered outlook is a source of concern for many U.S. allies, Ankara believes this new phase of ambiguity might somehow positively serve Turkey’s interests. For starters, Turkish officials feel safer with the devil they do not know than with the devil they do. According to them, there was no chance of any positive developments taking place with a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Ankara believes that if the Democrats had continued to hold power, there would have been less room for progress on Fetullah Gülen’s extradition file and almost no room for progress on Turkey’s demands from the U.S. to cut support for Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) fighters in Syria, which Turkey sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Moreover, Ankara does not hide its expectation that the Trump administration will remove the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, from his office. In a press conference in Washington D.C. only an hour after attending Trump’s inauguration, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu targeted McGurk, saying: “You know he wore a YPG uniform and put on its badge. These steps furthered anti-Americanism in Turkey.”
After having briefly met Trump’s picks for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and secretary of defense, James Mattis, the night before the inauguration, Çavuşoğlu left Washington D.C. with cautious optimism that some confidence-building measures to restore strained ties would come from Trump.
However, just a few days later came disconcerting rhetoric and actions from Washington. Trump had one of his very first calls in office with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu and invited him to the White House in early February. Then the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said the administration was in the beginning stages of even discussing moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Then Trump called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and invited him to the White House, too. Then his plans to sign an executive order to suspend the issuing of visas for people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen came to the limelight. All these steps inevitably carry the potential for friction in Turkish-U.S. relations.
What could be even more worrisome for Ankara is removing the Turkey file at the State Department from the European Bureau and moving it to the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, which basically deals with the Middle East. There has been corridor gossip that Trump’s NSC might even consider such a drastic change. Traditional American diplomacy always mapped Turkey under Europe and Eurasia, primarily because of its NATO membership. Although this seems like a very long shot now, maybe after all, one should not be shocked by this sort of an ignorant proposal given Trump’s pledges to undermine NATO.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, they’ve always said for American presidents. We will see if this will also apply to history’s most unconventional and unexpected U.S. president. However, with so many unknown variables, it will not be so easy for Turkey to turn the ambiguity of the Trump White House into constructive ambiguity for Turkish-American ties. Godspeed!