Turkey gets a new U.S. ambassador

During the Trump administration, there was a long period during which US-Turkish relations proceeded without an American ambassador. Although the failure to appoint an ambassador is sometimes employed as an instrument to communicate messages to the other side that there are problems in the relationship, in Mr. Trump’s case, it was more one of indifference, as confirmed by the fact that there was a lag in ambassadorial appointments to countries with which the United States had very good relations. In mid-2019, Turkey got an American ambassador, David Satterfield, an esteemed professional diplomat, but his tenure ended recently with the appointment of Jeff Flake, a retired Republican senator, as the new ambassador to Ankara. He has already arrived and started his mission.

Turkey is not used to getting political appointees as ambassadors to Turkey. In the republic’s history, there has been but one ambassador who was not a professional diplomat: Robert Strausz-Hupé, an Austria-born, dedicated Cold War scholar closely involved in policymaking with a fondness for anti-Communist Turkey. Ronald Reagan’s appointment of him as ambassador to Ankara was not perceived as an unusual choice. He was a part of the foreign policy crowd with expertise in matters of security, which was the strongest bond of the bilateral relationship. Jeff Flake’s appointment, on the other hand, has raised some questions. Mr. Flake is an Arizona Republican who has served in Congress as a representative and senator. He was a rare Republican legislator who supported Mr. Biden as Trump forces mobilized a motley crowd of marginal elements to sabotage Mr. Biden’s inauguration. His appointment may be more of a political reward than the outcome of his previous achievements in foreign policy. Some observers, however, have expressed concern that a political appointment is a way of downgrading the relationship between the US and Turkey.

It is well-known that several of America’s ambassadorial appointments go to personalities whose main qualification is having contributed generously to a president’s campaign. It is expected that as ambassadors these personalities will expend some of their resources to discharge “representative” functions while the deputy chief of the mission will perform the more standard duties of an ambassador. Since American diplomatic missions tend to be reasonably well-staffed, the shortcomings of a non-professional ambassador may be compensated by a team of professionals. Not all professional appointments, however, go to persons whose outstanding virtue is wealth. It would be erroneous to make a summary judgment that Mr. Blake’s appointment is a signal that the US is the intent of reducing the importance it attaches to Turkey.

To evaluate Mr. Blake’s appointment, it is important to examine the context in which the decision was made. Turkish-American relations are going through a difficult stage. As a response to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-built S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, Turkey has not only been eliminated from the production process of F-35 aircrafts but has also been deprived of the privilege of buying them. To compensate for the loss such a ban will impose on the future defense capabilities of the Turkish Air Force, Turkey has asked that it be sold newer models of the F-16s that already constitute the backbone of Turkey’s air power. They have also asked that part of its current fleet be modernized and refurbished. While Mr. Biden has already indicated that he views the request with favor, a positive reply necessitates Congressional approval, a requirement the fulfillment of which appears to be problematic. Turkey has very few friends left in Congress and Mr. Biden is in a weak position to persuade representatives and senators that Turkey ’s request should be in order to granted to avoid a fundamental rupture in the relationship. Such an outcome is bound to generate global security consequences.

This is where the experience and the skills of Mr. Flake may be particularly relevant. As a Republican who is also respected by Democrats, and as a former member of Congress familiar with its ways of doing business, he is likely to have the knowledge, experience, and skills that would contribute to guiding the F-16 proposal through Congress. Looking at it from a Turkish perspective, Mr. Flake has voted against the resolution recognizing the so-called Armenian Genocide, an issue on which Turkey is extremely sensitive. His position may inspire certain appreciation, if not full trust, that he is well-intentioned toward Turkey.

There is no question that there are many issues of disagreement between the United States and Turkey. A set of challenges await Mr. Flake, but there seems to be no immediate reason to suspect that his not being a professional diplomat will undermine his performance as ambassador. Some of his experience and skills may well be exactly what is needed to bring the relationship back to less adversarial and more friendly terms.

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