As you probably know, David Satterfield, U.S. President Donald Trump's pick for U.S. ambassador to Ankara, testified at a confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week and answered the questions of senators. Senate confirmation of candidates nominated by presidents is mostly a challenging process. It serves partly as a convenient platform to criticize presidential policies and provides senators a good opportunity to get their messages out to both their own public and the world. Opinions emerging during this process do not necessarily represent U.S. foreign policy. Nor do they represent the president's stance. Yet they reveal a tendency that should not be brushed aside but taken seriously. It's true that the process is prone to populism as well.
Responding to a question by senators about the S-400 missile defense system, Satterfield said: "As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at this committee yesterday, by moving ahead with its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, Turkey puts its participation in the F-35 program at risk and faces potential sanctions under CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). As Vice President Pence said April 4 on the occasion of NATO's 70th anniversary, Turkey must choose. Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history, or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our Alliance? If confirmed, I will ensure we continue to press Turkey to make the right strategic choice."
Speaking at the question-and-answer part of the hearing, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey, warned President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about the purchase of S-400 missile system, saying: "I hope that President Erdoğan understands that the United States is not bluffing. I have helped craft CAATSA. It's not a question of if Turkey will face sanctions; it will face sanctions. And if that happens, which I don't want to see happen, it's going to hit the Turkish economy hard – rattling international markets, scaring away foreign direct investment, and crippling Turkey's aerospace, aviation and defense industry. So, if you approve it too, I would like to count on you to make sure President Erdoğan understands the risks and potential implications of that deal."
The threatening language
Though the American side remarked that Turkey fails to adequately understand the determination and position of the U.S., the language and the approach they employ show that they have a more serious problem over the issue. Of course, it also appears that Turkey fails to get its point across.
James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2008-2010), once said in an interview: "Turks and Americans absolutely don't understand each other," and this is partly true. The questions from the senators and the ambassador nominee's answers reminded me of the following remarks by Jeffrey:
"If you [Turks] wheedle us like some East Asian and Arab countries, treat us as liberators, it won't be like this. When you take a confrontational approach towards us, like Erdoğan does, you won't be liked. This is so wrong. I criticize this attitude of my country. I hate this."
Whether you hear these words from Senator Menendez or from seemingly more empathetic Jeffrey, the situation and the approach do not change much. If Satterfield is found tough enough and sent to Ankara, he may be as empathetic as Jeffrey or arouse as much antipathy as [previous U.S. ambassador] John Bass. But it's obvious that these will not change the outcome. For the underlying message is more or less "Obey and feel better."
But the issue went beyond being a matter of pride. The U.S. keeps refusing to reassess Turkey and expect it to do what it wants, in an arrogant and brazen manner. Turkey is threatened on every occasion and opportunity. In other words, what rules the day is an approach stemming from the following reasoning: "The U.S. is a superpower. It has extensive political, economic and military means at its disposal. Therefore, Turkey must obey what the U.S. dictates," instead of efforts toward solving problems rationally, developing solutions and agreeing to disagree.
The regional dimensions
Turkey is a country that borders conflict-ridden regions to the south and southeast where civil wars are going on. Since it lacks an air defense system, Turkey tried to buy it first from its ally, the U.S. But its demand to buy an air defense system was rejected. President Donald Trump was surprised when President Erdoğan said this and said he did not know about it. Not only that, a Turkish fighter jet was downed by the Syrian regime with a missile, and several batteries of Patriot missiles deployed in Turkey were withdrawn. In short, the U.S. refused to sell Patriots to a NATO ally, while it supplied thousands of truckloads of weapons to the People's Protection Units (YPG), the PKK's Syrian arm.
The U.S. stance towards the July 15 coup attempt and its efforts to help the PKK's Syrian arm to become a state of sorts are viewed with suspicion in Ankara. Denying Turkey weapons that can protect it, while hurling threats when it tries to obtain them from alternative sources leads to a well-grounded distrust rather than misunderstanding.
As you may remember, after the Gülenist coup attempt, which resulted in a gruesome massacre of 251 Turkish citizens, was foiled, then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, "Many of our interlocutors have been purged or arrested. There's no question this is going to set back and make more difficult cooperation with the Turks." Again, John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State at the time, threatened Turkey with expulsion from NATO. That's to say when a NATO ally was fighting a coup attempt, let alone help it, the U.S. tacitly supported the putschists, hinting at deeper ties with them. Trivializing these incidents while pretending to criticize them, as Jeffrey did, does not change the essence of the issue. Let it be noted that there was no such issue as the S-400 purchase then.
The obligatory steps
Turkey did not decide to buy S-400s overnight. The U.S. closely watched the process as Turkey was conducting various negotiations for years with China, and French and Italian companies. As for the Patriots, Ankara has not witnessed any positive step.
To be honest, the only solution that comes to my mind at the moment is – of course, I don't know if Ankara will accept it – the U.S. striking a Patriot deal with Turkey with terms similar to the deal with Russia and bearing the cost of S-400s. It's uncertain whether President Erdoğan will accept even this offer. But the friendship of Turkey should be worth trying this option.
The U.S. administration and senators talk as if Turkey has never faced sanctions and its economy was not targeted with hostile measures. The case of Halkbank is well known. Fetullah Gülen is still being protected by the U.S., and the Syrian arm of the PKK, which continues to kill innocent people in Turkey, is given every kind of supplies and particularly heavy weapons. For Turkey, it is no different from hosting Bin Laden in Ankara or providing bases to Daesh. Ankara is feeling just what the U.S. would feel or think in such a situation.
Let's state it once more: relations between Washington and Ankara cannot be a superior-subordinate relationship. We are talking about an important and critical partnership. Turkey cannot be excluded from the ongoing regional redesign efforts in the Middle East just beyond its borders. Approaches that infringe on Turkey's sovereignty cannot be devised. The S-400 is an issue but the real problem lies in the U.S. stance towards Israel and the Middle East.
We hope that relations between the two countries will not further deteriorate and that a recovery process begins.
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