Tough days ahead for Turkish-US relations

Tough days ahead for Turkish-US relations

Questions from Senator John McCain apparently turned the June 15 testimony of John Bass, the ambassador-designate to Ankara, into a nightmare.

McCain, who has a deep knowledge of international relations and who recently paid a visit to refugee camps in Turkey on the Syrian border, opened his questioning session at the Foreign Relations Committee with an expertise-level question on Syria. The question was about the flow of people and money across the Turkey-Syria border and the Turkish government’s intention of establishing a safe haven in Syria. With gestures showing that he did not like the answer, McCain then asked directly whether Bass thought Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s intention to change the Constitution to create a stronger presidency amounted to a “drift toward authoritarianism”.

Bass, as a diplomat with experience in crisis management, tried to be diplomatic by opening his sentence about Erdoğan being the elected leader of a democratic country, only to be interrupted by the veteran senator, who was making little attempt to look polite. “I’m aware of that,” McCain said, adding that he was looking for a “yes or no kind of answer.”

Bass, still trying to be diplomatic, knowing that he was going to serve in Turkey, hopefully for the next few years, started his answer with an “if,” only to be interrupted again. There were a total of five “yes or no” exchanges of words, which included an indirect threat by McCain: “You’re putting your nomination in jeopardy by not answering.”

Then came the direct threat, when McCain said he was not going to support Bass’ nomination without a clear answer. Ambassador Bass then gave in and said, “It’s a drift in that direction.”

The exchange seems to be part of a Republican plan to block the Barack Obama administration in the legislative house. Secretary of State John Kerry wrote for the website on July 8 that there were 53 nominees currently pending at the Senate, naming a number of countries including Turkey.

The testimony scene is likely to have an adverse effect on Turkish-U.S. relations, at a time when critical developments are unfolding in and around Turkey.

During the testimony, Bass was also asked whether he was planning to go to Ankara before the presidential elections. There was, of course, no answer to that question, as it is in the hands of senators to approve the nomination. However, after McCain, another source of strain in Turkish-American relations could be whether Bass will present his credentials to Turkish President Abdullah Gül, whose term expires on Aug. 27, or to the next president. This next president might well be Erdoğan, about whom Bass said his way was “a drift toward authoritarianism” upon Senator McCain’s persistent stance.

It is clear that McCain was trying to give a strong message to Erdoğan about what they think of him in the U.S. capital by beating up his own to-be-ambassador with words.

In Bass’ testimony, it is clear that promoting media freedom, the independence of the courts, the rights of free assembly, louder minority voices, civil society and the Kurdish peace process will be among the top priorities of the new ambassador. On security issues, Bass said “Turkey faces very real challenges on its own borders,” including the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Priorities also included supporting Turkey for better relations with its neighbors (including Israel, Armenia and the Republic of Cyprus), as well as the Syria, Iraq and Iran conflicts.

The difficulties of the new U.S. ambassador to Turkey (if Bass is approved) have already started even before day one, promising a tough time ahead.