Speaking Truth to Erdogan

By Gönül Tol | Director of Turkey Program - The Middle East Institute | Oct 17, 2017
Speaking Truth to Erdogan

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan , John Bass, for a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. The spat erupted when Turkey arrested a Turkish employee of the U.S. consulate on suspicion of links to the group blamed for last year’s failed coup. In response, the United States stopped issuing visitor visas from its missions in Turkey, prompting Turkish missions to hit back with tit-for-tat steps of their own. Even after the State Department defended Bass, saying he had the “full backing” of the U.S. government and his actions were coordinated with the State Department, White House, and National Security Council, Erdogan repeated his claim that the outgoing ambassador acted unilaterally.

Shifting the blame on an outgoing ambassador might seem like a shrewd move. Erdogan looks tough against the United States to a domestic audience that is more anti-American than ever, without upsetting his ‘dear friend Donald.’ But it also points to a more troubling reality. Like all else in Turkey, foreign policy decision-making is beset by the emotions of a man who lacks a realistic understanding of the world, particularly the West. The problems haunting Turkey-U.S. relations in the last few years are as much a product of diverging interests as they are the result of Erdogan’s misreading of Washington. 

Erdogan’s suggestion that the U.S. ambassador acted unilaterally in the recent crisis is a case in point. At least one person from the many Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) delegations to have visited Washington this year should have reported to Erdogan that there is bipartisan frustration with Erdogan’s constant bashing of the United States and his authoritarian drift. His advisors should have explained to him that the problems haunting Turkey-U.S. relations were not the doing of a few Obama administration holdovers in the U.S. government, as some in the Turkish government believe. The Turkish ambassador to the U.S. should have told his superior that Bass could not have acted unilaterally to suspend visa services in a NATO ally. He should have warned Erdogan that despite Trump’s warm remarks, there are real institutions in the United States limiting his room for maneuver. He should have said that there was not much Trump could do to extradite Fethullah Gulen since the matter was now up to the courts. He should have also added that Erdogan’s suggestion that Turkey will free the detained American pastor if the United States extradites Gulen did not go down well with policymakers in Washington.

But no one can dare to speak truth to Erdogan. He has surrounded himself with sycophantic advisors who see the world through the lens of conspiracies and are more notable for their personal loyalty than their acumen. Institutions such as the National Security Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which once played important roles in foreign policy making, have lost their functions to advise policy. According to a retired Turkish ambassador who served in important posts and did not want to be identified, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long ceased to be a player in decision making.

Even if the ministry has not been deliberately sidelined, it would have still struggled to play the role it once did. The institution lost a big part of its technocratic depth after former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, decided to restructure the ministry. New posts were created and old ones filled with young and often inexperienced people who were close to the government and linked to then A.K.P. ally Gulen. Since the coup attempt, they too have been removed from their posts, leaving a vacuum behind.

After the spat with Washington, , “Turkey is not a tribal state.” The underlying message is that Turkey inherited a strong state tradition from the Ottoman Empire and has the institutional capacity to respond to crises. Indeed, Turkey has long had a tradition that allowed the bureaucratic elite to enjoy autonomy from politicians. But in Erdogan’s Turkey, that is no longer the case. To his credit, he managed to tear down Turkey’s rigid, elitist system of government and open up the bureaucracy, which has long been suspicious of Turkey’s pious underclass. But the pendulum swung too far the other way. Meritocracy deteriorated, and the bureaucracy’s old elites were replaced with Erdogan loyalists. Deeply rooted institutions have crumbled as decision-making shifted to one man. Erdogan’s delusions of imperial grandeur and the acute absence of checks and balances set the country’s foreign policy on a collision course.

Erdogan’s penchant for confrontation with the West might play well with a large majority of the Turkish electorate. A furious Erdogan recently said that Turkey , but the sobering reality is that it does. Outgoing ambassador an increasingly anti-American Turkish press that the Islamic State was no longer able to carry the kind of attacks that plagued the country in great part thanks to Turkish-American intelligence cooperation.

Listening to sycophants around him, the Turkish president must indeed believe that the United States deeply regrets its decision to suspend visa services in Turkey, a critical ally that it needs badly, and is now desperately looking for face-saving ways to reverse it. It is time for someone to start speaking the truth to Erdogan.