Apologies for not doing a better job of blogging while in Turkey, but last week was a very busy one. Now that we have left Ankara and moved on to Istanbul, it seems like a good time to set down some brief thoughts on what I found particularly interesting in our meetings with Turkish politicians of all stripes and what it means for the future of U.S.-Turkish relations. When I say politicians of all stripes, I mean it: so far we have spoken with, among others, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, AKP co-founder and MP Reha Denemeç, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Volkan Bozkir, CHP vice chairman and MP Faruk Loğoğlu, and MHP deputy chairman Tuğrul Türkeş. This is a very influential group but also a fascinating one, and taking the sum total of what they said has made for a good overview of the state of things here. All of these meetings were off the record and so I cannot go into particulars, but there have been some general themes running throughout conversations with nearly everyone we have spoken with that I can talk about in a broader context.
First, I must note that compared to U.S. politicians – and this includes private and off the record meetings I have been in with them – the Turkish politicians on this trip have been unusually open, honest, and forthright. They have defended their positions without trying to hedge or sugarcoat some of the rougher edges, and have rarely tailored their messages to what they think the audience in front of them wants to hear. Conversations with politicians from the AKP, CHP, and MHP have at times begun to approach being heated, and everyone we have spoken with has handled anything thrown their way. I myself have not shied away from asking tough questions about issues such as Israel, Patriot missiles, positions on Syria, realistic chances of joining the EU, differences between the PKK and Hamas, and others, and nearly every question has been answered in a straightforward way. Whether I agree with the answers or not, I greatly appreciate the engagement with the questions. I tend to think that politicians are the same everywhere in terms of being slippery and evasive, and that has been the case here too in some instances, but I have been pleasantly surprised so far particularly when comparing the people we have met to politicians back home.
Second, before leaving on this trip last week I observed that the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. is very much based on mutual interests rather than a sense of shared values or culture, as is the case with the U.S. and other countries in Europe or the U.S.-Israeli relationship. So far relations between the two countries have been framed exactly in the language of common interests, and while one official we spoke with talked about the importance of shared values, he failed to provide any concrete examples and went on to talk about shared interests instead. I happen to think that there are indeed values that bind the U.S. and Turkey together, whether it be democracy, secular government with fairly religious societies, etc. but on an official level the relationship is rooted in realpolitik, and everyone on both sides appears to realize that. As I noted before, what this means is that Turkey needs to be particularly careful about continuing to demonstrate its value as an ally, as it does not have a large base of support within the U.S. domestically upon which to fall back should there be a perception that Turkey is not as helpful as it could be. This is what happened following the Grand National Assembly’s decision not to allow the U.S. to use Turkey as a staging ground before the Iraq War, and another situation like that could easily crop up in the future.
Finally, the U.S. embassy staff in Ankara has an extremely clear-eyed and realistic view of the political situation in Turkey and the challenges that might crop up between the two countries, and it was extremely encouraging to be able to talk frankly with such a smart and talented group. Whether it be a keen grasp of the inherent political constraints on the Turkish government (and we all know that I can’t resist a good domestic political explanation for foreign policy moves) or an exposition of Turkey’s options for dealing with Syria, I cannot express enough how impressive I found our diplomats in Ankara. They gave me a lot to think about, including one historical angle on the U.S.-Turkey relationship from a standout State Department officer that I have been pondering all week, and I have no doubt at all that whatever issues or problems arise in the future, our embassy folks in Turkey are beyond well-equipped to handle them.
Many more meetings this week with politicians, think tankers, business people, and civil society groups, so hopefully more thoughts to come. And as always, there is nothing like being in Istanbul…