Time for an honest diagnosis of the malady in Turkey-US ties
The suspension of non-immigrant visa services of the U.S. caught Turks by surprise, even though there were strong indications of Washington’s intent to respond to the arrest of a local employee at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul. U.S. officials insist that when Metin Topuz was taken into custody, Ankara was given warnings that his arrest might lead to serious consequences including the conduct of consular services. However, Turkish officials denied to this day even a hint of a change in the visa regime in advance of the official announcement.
It occurs to me that either those diplomatic warnings by Washington were taken too lightly or they fell on deaf ears in Ankara. In either case, the visa spat showed beyond doubt that Ankara and Washington are like “night and day” when it comes to complex issues facing the two countries.
Scapegoating the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Ankara John Bass with accusations of manipulating his administration through wrongful information became the only game in town for the Turkish side. In fact, this was “a very Erdoğan thing to do” for many pundits in Washington who watch Turkey closely. Pretending as if the two countries might bury the hatchet as Ambassador Bass leaves for his new post in Kabul is as ludicrous as expecting to return to business as usual even if the U.S. decides to reverse its decision to suspend visa services soon.
Even before the suspension of visa services in Turkey, there was already a huge decline in the number of non-immigrant visas issued for Turkish citizens since President Donald Trump took office. Sources familiar with records say the number of Turkish people whose U.S. visa applications were denied recently reached five times of that number under the Barack Obama administration. Thus we may well expect this trend to worsen even after the resumption of visa services through a possible reconciliation of the current crisis. Because once we are back to square one, this time it will be “The Trump factor over visas at large” multiplied by “a mistrust toward the Turkish government over its conduct of affairs concerning consular staff on Turkish soil.”
As a Turk, the saddest part of this story for me is that you cannot find a single political voice in Washington today opposing to sanctioning Turkish citizens due to the actions of the government in Ankara.
Naturally, it was the U.S. State Department who spearheaded the campaign of a need for visa suspension, with an urge to protect its staff in Turkey. However, it was not hard for them to find allies at the White House. Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) was on board all the way in coordination of the U.S. response to the arrests of local staff as well as American citizens in Turkey. In fact, Trump had just walked out of a working lunch with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis where they discussed the situation in Turkey when State Department’s Spokesperson Heather Nauert announced the consent of the White House for suspension of visa services.
Rumors say Trump, who awed everyone by saying “we are as close as we have ever been” during his meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in New York City on Sept. 21, has been uneasy with Ankara’s recent cozying up with Iran and hosting Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro. Furthermore, the repeated insinuations of members of Erdoğan’s party for the U.S. being the mastermind of the coup attempt of July 15, 2016, got Trump frustrated, according to some sources. As unpredictable as Trump is as a president, one shall not expect him to turn a blind eye to the U.S.-bashing campaign in the pro-government media in Turkey. After all, he considers himself a patriot more than anything else.
Perhaps the recent crisis might serve as an eye-opener for Ankara to stop counting on that invisible Trump factor in solving its grave problems with the United States. The Turkish government might well reverse the visa suspension by fulfilling the U.S. expectations for transparency and justice in legal cases in Turkey. However, it would not be that easy to reverse the “Let’s sanction Turkey as we did with Russia” mood at the U.S. Congress once the purchase of the S-400 missile defense systems is completed.