Last week I spent four days in Washington, D.C. It coincided with Americas' traditional Thanksgiving Day. Roasted turkeys were carefully prepared; gravy and cranberry sauce accompanied the festive meal. Most importantly, millions of Americans enjoyed days with friends and family. Writing about Thanksgiving reminded me about Cengiz Çandar's critical column in the Hürriyet daily a few days ago. In his piece Çandar referred to and quoted a foreign policy piece written by Council on Foreign Relations analyst Steven Cook. Reading Çandar and Cook illustrated a stark contrast to what we have been accustomed to hearing in Washington about Turkey. I myself had not been in Washington for eight months and it was quite an experience to hear the strong change in tune.
Indeed, there is a remarkable change in how Turkey is discussed in Washington these days. I remember our trips to Washington from 2007 to 2010, sometimes with the prime minister, sometimes individually and mostly with the US caucus in Parliament. During those years, Turkey was generally seen as a democratizing country that enjoyed political stability, economic growth and made some important openings in the fields of civil-military relations and Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. Relations with neighbors were good; Turkey had the capability to engage with a multitude of diverse actors. Turkish-American relations were molded into a new format with the concept of a model partnership and the two countries enjoyed considerable cooperation on a variety of issues.
While Turkish-American cooperation continues to develop at the bilateral level, the relationship seems to be put on an “automatic pilot” mode by the “phone diplomacy” between the two leaders. This state of affairs has been sustainable for the last couple of years but what I heard and saw in Washington points to an increasingly complicated relationship. It seems that parliamentary contacts with Washington have radically decreased. I was told that since May 2011, not a single parliamentary delegation has visited Washington. A number of attempts to bring Turkish legislators to Washington have been canceled at the last minute. The US caucus has not visited Washington since 2011 either. One of the co-chairs of the Turkey Caucus in the US Congress is about to quit the caucus, not a good sign.
In the new session, the new chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations, as well as the ranking members of committees important to Turkey, are likely to be chaired by people who are either skeptical or are known to be very critical of Turkey. The new secretary of state is likely to be Susan Rice, a very unorthodox character who has strong views on the Armenian issue. Rice comes across as an activist rather than a stateswoman and has no particular history with Turkey. She is under a barrage of fire by foreign policy heavyweights such as Senator John McCain, but if President Barack Obama insists on appointing her, she might become the reason for a major confrontation between the president and Congress.
I heard strong criticism on the issue of press freedom. The issue came up in almost all of the meetings. Needless to add, Syria was a priority issue. There seems to be little interest in extending weapons to the Syrian opposition. The Americans are concerned about sophisticated weapons ending up in the wrong hands. The idea of a no-fly zone is generally dismissed in view of the responsibilities and potential next steps the day after it is set up. There is recognition, though, that the Syrian crisis places a lot of strain on Turkey. As was evidenced with the deployment of the Patriot missiles, Washington wants to show its solidarity with Turkey. The deployment is also extremely advantageous to Raytheon -- the company that is bidding for a multi-billion tender in Turkey.
The Turkey talk in Washington needs to be understood better. Many issues seem to be put on a back burner for now. When the new US Congress starts its work in January, we will see a lot of new faces in a number of critical positions. Ankara would be well advised to heed the “Turkey talk” and engage with the new Congress as early as possible.
(Suat Kinikliglu is a writer for Today’s Zaman where this article was published on Nov. 28, 2012)