Senate hearing for new US ambassador to Ankara sparks 'authoritarianism' debate

Senate hearing for new US ambassador to Ankara sparks 'authoritarianism' debate

Senate hearing for new US ambassador to Ankara sparks authoritarianism debate John Bass, who has been nominated by the Obama administration as new U.S. ambassador to Ankara, has said Turkey is "drifting in the direction" of authoritarianism, following persistent questions at a Senate hearing.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the nomination of Bass to the position of ambassador to Turkey on July 15, along with the hearing on Jane Hartley to be ambassador to France; James Pettit to be ambassador to Moldova; and Brent Robert Hartley to be ambassador to Slovenia.

During his testimony, Bass read a written statement. “I pledge to work with all of you to protect and advance our interests by promoting security, prosperity, democracy and human rights – both in Turkey and in the many places beyond its borders where we work together,” said the former ambassador to Georgia and a special assistant to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“On this year’s Remembrance Day, Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan expressed his condolences to the grandchildren of those Armenians killed during World War I. That gesture and other positive efforts by the Turkish government in recent months indicate that the space for dialogue is opening. But more can be done, and we encourage both sides to pursue a full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts surrounding the tragic events of 1915,” he also told members of the committee.

Bass also touched on questions of Turkey’s alleged authoritarianism. “If confirmed, I will urge Turkey to live up to all universal democratic principles, enshrined in its own foundational documents and international commitments that undergird true national strength,” he said.

He also referred to the ongoing hostage crisis in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. “[The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] ISIL’s gains in Iraq pose significant dangers for regional and international security, as the group’s seizure of Turkish citizens and diplomats demonstrates, we continue to urge their immediate release,” he said, adding that the U.S. is "working with the Turkish government to mitigate the risk posed by violent extremists and foreign fighters exploiting Turkey’s geography ... If confirmed, I will work closely with Turkey and other regional partners to stem the flow of fighters, money and expertise to and from Syria.”

Unlike former U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Francis Ricciardone's confirmation hearing four years ago, no one at the question and answer session asked Bass about the 1915 event. Instead, senators focused more on the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and asked Bass what his position would be in the event of an "independent Kurdistan," to which Bass replied that the U.S. and Turkey were “working closely for the unity and stability of Iraq.”

When Senator John McCain started to ask questions, the hearing’s mild tone suddenly changed, with McCain asking about allegations of authoritarianism about the governing style of Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan.

“Are you concerned about Prime Minister Erdoğan’s desire to change the Constitution and other actions that we have seen on the part of Erdoğan as a drift towards the authoritarianism?” McCain asked.

“The prime minister is the leader of the democratically elected parliamentary democracy. We’ll obviously look closely at whatever steps he takes,” said Bass.

McCain replied by asking whether the Turkish government’s “suppression of social media, YouTube and Twitter and restrictions on the freedom of the media” represented a drift toward the authoritarianism,” adding that Bass was “jeopardizing his nomination” by not giving a clear answer to a question.

“It is a pretty simple straight forward question ... Do you believe that the oppression of social media, the desire to change the Constitution to be a more powerful president, which he obviously will be, is a drift towards authoritarianism?” McCain asked.

When Bass again tried to refrain from giving an answer, McCain replied sharply. “Mr. Chairman, I am not going to support this nomination, and I will hold it until I get a straight answer. I think it is a fairly straightforward question Mr. Bass. Is it a drift towards authoritarianism?” he said.

“It is a drift in that direction, yes,” Bass replied.

“Thank you. It took 3 minutes and 25 seconds,” McCain said in response.

Ricciardone’s tenure in Turkey ended this month, and Bass needs the Senate’s approval to be appointed to the Turkey post.

Bass served as U.S. ambassador to Tbilisi from 2009 to 2012. He also led the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team from 2008-2009. From 2005 to 2008, he served as director of the State Department Operations Center. During his tenure there, Bass led the response to over 25 crises, including coordinating international assistance in response to Hurricane Katrina and orchestrating the largest U.S. government evacuation of American citizens in 60 years.