Washington’s hot potato

Washington’s hot potato

The United States appears to have limited options regarding Fethullah Gülen. As the Turkish saying goes, it is caught with a stick that has dirt on both ends (read “dirt” here as a euphemism for what is obvious). In other words it is faced with a situation where it is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t. 

If Gülen is extradited for purely political reasons, this will be an unwelcome precedent for the U.S. legal system, which Washington clearly does not want to see happen. If he is not, then it is clear that the U.S.’ ties with Turkey will take a hard blow, given the way this issue has become the criteria of friendship for Turkey.

One might call this Washington’s “Carter dilemma.” When President Jimmy Carter refused to return the shah to Iran where he would undoubtedly have been killed, radical students raided the U.S. embassy and held 52 U.S. staff members and citizens hostage for 444 days. 

This also cost Carter his second term, and the U.S. and Iran became deadly enemies. This is not to suggest for a moment that the situation between Turkey and the U.S. today is the same.  

It is patently clear, however, that Washington has a problem that will not go away. If Gülen had slipped out of Pennsylvania silently after it became clear that the coup attempt would fail, and went to Canada or Mexico, for example, the situation for the U.S. would have been easier to handle.

No doubt the CIA has been following Gülen, and perhaps even supporting him as many in Turkey, including former Chief of the General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ, believe. It should have seen the writing on the wall and encouraged him to “disappear.”

Many in Turkey would still blame the U.S., but Washington could have argued it was caught unawares, just like Ankara was caught unawares by the coup attempt. That window of opportunity was lost though. 

Should Gülen disappear today, no one in Turkey will believe any excuse provided by the U.S. Washington must be mulling over worst-case scenarios now, especially with regard to the İncirlik Air Base from which it is conducting a key element of its war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levent (ISIL).

Operations out of the base were suspended as the coup attempt was ongoing. It is unthinkable that the U.S. military is not factoring this possibility into its plans regarding the base now, and seeking alternatives in case the worst comes to pass.

For the U.S. military to move out of İncirlik, or be forced to do so, would, many believe, also spell the end of the “strategic partnership” of over half a century between the two countries. The mood in Turkey is ugly and the “unthinkable” is gradually becoming “thinkable.”

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, no doubt got a clear sense, during his visit to Turkey earlier this week, of just how serious Ankara is over this matter.  

So what are Washington’s options if it wants to save its ties with Ankara? Not much, to speak frankly. There seems to be only one way it can go and this will ultimately require an executive decision. 

To start with, it can cite the mistreatment – some say torture – of the alleged coup plotters, who were paraded in front of cameras with bloody and bruised faces, and make Gülen’s extradition contingent on a guarantee that he will not be mistreated, and will receive a fair trial. 

It can also make it clear in advance that if the talk of reinstating the death penalty in Turkey, as the government seems to want after the failed coup attempt, is not repudiated, there will be no extradition.  

It can cite Turkey’s position on former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi who Ankara refused to extradite to Baghdad to stand trial for allegedly establishing Sunni death squads because he faced the death penalty.

Whatever the two countries decide in the end, it is clear that unless a solution is found, the U.S. will be left with a very hot potato in its hand.