Notes on the Turkish Troubles
America’s muted response is both confusing and disheartening.
28 June 2013
President Obama surely knows that the current unrest in Turkey, which has left at least four dead, 12 blind, and some 7,000 injured, many critically, does not remotely compare—as a humanitarian disaster or as a threat to American interests—to the unremitting carnage in Syria; to the urgency of evaluating the meaning of Iran’s elections and what they portend for its nuclear program; to the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq; to our imminent defeat in Afghanistan; or to at least half a dozen other foreign policy crises of greater moment, not least in the Pacific. It is entirely understandable that Turkey would not be the president’s chief concern.
What is not understandable is that the situation does not appear to be the chief concern, or indeed of any concern, to America’s ambassador in Turkey, Frank Ricciardone.
Who knows what Ambassador Ricciardone knows, other than Ricciardone himself? Perhaps a perfectly logical explanation exists for his apparent inaction and indifference. He is hardly inexperienced. His acquaintance with this region dates from 1976, when he taught at a community school in Iran. His most recent posting was to Kabul, where he served as deputy ambassador; before that, he served for three years as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt. He clearly knows Turkey well. He speaks fluent and occasionally colloquial Turkish; he was the political advisor to American and Turkish generals assisting the Kurds during Operation Provide Comfort in 1991. No doubt an able staff provides him with a daily summary of the Turkish-language press.
But Ambassador Ricciardone’s appointment here was controversial. Over the Senate’s strenuous objections, Obama installed him by means of a recess appointment. The opposition derived, among other things, from what some held to be his weak performance in Egypt. Critics believed him excessively deferential to deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on matters of human rights. In 2006, Ricciardone introduced Egyptian students participating in a model American Congress with these words: “President Mubarak is well known in the United States. He is respected. If he had to run for office in the United States, my guess is he could win elections in the United States as a leader who is a giant on the world stage.” In the same year, speaking to the Egyptian media, he downplayed concerns about the country’s treatment of its Coptic Christians. “Naturally, here in Egypt as in the U.S., there is freedom of speech, so it is possible for anyone to complain about any personal or social problem. If there is a problem, there are legal ways to deal with it, whether here or in the U.S.” These words proved strikingly unprophetic about Egypt’s future but all too familiar to those of us living in Turkey.
The president also surely knows that the U.S. relationship with Turkey is of tremendous strategic importance. Turkey lies in the middle of the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Aegean. As any visual review of the region’s history will show, the route invaders take to go from west to east and east to west is right through Anatolia—pretty much every time. Three-quarters of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves are in this neighborhood, and you can’t get oil and gas from the landlocked Caspian region to Europe—not, at least, without going through Iran or Russia—save by going through Turkey.
America has withdrawn from Iraq, which is now a quasi-Iranian satrapy, so our military ties with Turkey are particularly vital. Turkey is a crucial logistics hub, supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. It is difficult to conceive of any future military intervention in this region without Turkish cooperation. During the Iraq war, more than 70 percent of U.S. air cargo moved through Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, also the primary refueling stop for flights to Afghanistan. Turkey hosts our X-band radar station in Malatya, west of the Iranian border. Not incidentally, Turkey is also home to some 65 tactical nuclear weapons, under the control of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Also, Turkey has one of the largest standing armies in the world and the second largest in NATO. It can deploy a sizable army corps to conduct joint operations at short notice. The Turkish Air Force operates one of NATO’s largest combat aircraft fleets and can conduct air assault operations with a lift capability of up to six battalions at a time, day and night. It no longer has 20 percent of its most experienced admirals and generals (because they’re in jail), but perhaps it can manage without them. As Stalin found out, you never know until you try.
Moreover, Turkey has taken in 363,000 refugees from Syria, at great cost to its social stability and to the lives of its citizens. On May 11, 52 Turks perished in a terrorist attack in the southern province of Hatay. While many here are not entirely persuaded by the government’s insistence that the bombing was the work of Turkish far leftists linked to Bashar al-Assad, most are persuaded that it had something to do with Syria.
So yes, without a doubt, Turkey is a strategically important country, one that we very much want to keep in the American orbit, particularly since it appears that we’re about to do something mysterious in Syria—or at least so reports the Los Angeles Times, which claims that the CIA and U.S. special forces have been training Syrian rebels on Turkish bases. What is U.S. policy on Syria, and what is it supposed to achieve? Who knows?
For all of the above reasons, the United States should not alienate Turkey. And America and Turkey, allies since 1952, have stuck together through much darker times. Turkey wasn’t a libertarian paradise before the rise of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The United States has no good reason to intervene in Turkey’s internal affairs. Turkey’s problems are Turkey’s to solve.
But there is one small thing I do expect. I expect the American ambassador to tell the Turkish people the truth about our country. There is no earthly reason for him publicly to lie or prevaricate about what makes the United States an extraordinary country, unique in the world, for all its failures. There is a particular urgency to telling the truth in a country like this, moreover, where lies are spread daily about the United States by the government, the press, and by Turkey’s sycophantic intellectuals.
In early May, peaceful protests over the proposed demolition of a small park near Istanbul’s central Taksim Square were met with brutal police violence. Secretary of State John Kerry was reportedly “concerned” by this, as was Vice President Joe Biden. On June 6, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki confirmed that Kerry had spoken to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, expressing “ongoing concerns about the situation on the ground.” Kerry, she said, “also welcomed the update on efforts to calm the situation,” noting that “we have had concerns over the past couple of days about instances of police brutality, and we continue to call for, of course, the acceptance of peaceful protest . . . Obviously, the protests and the incidents that we’ve talked about a little bit over the past couple of days that have happened on the ground, reports of police brutality and injuries and even a couple of deaths, that’s concerning. And we continue to call for acceptance and support for peaceful protest not just in Turkey, but around the world. That’s our consistent belief and our consistent feeling.” Psaki noted that “what is most helpful is for all the officials, as some have, to encourage calm and encourage peaceful—and accept peaceful protest. And language and verbiage that’s not doing that is not helpful toward moving forward.”
All fine, all appropriate and diplomatic. But that was also pretty much the last we heard from the State Department. Since then, the situation may be summarized thus: Throughout the country, protests sparked by the sight of cops kicking the snot out of peaceful protesters have been met by more cops kicking far more snot out of (largely) peaceful protesters. It’s true that some protesters have lost their cool and broken windows, smashed cars, and—in one remarkable case—hotwired a sizable backhoe to face down the police. But even the most violent protester is no match for what is, effectively, an army. Not a day goes by without reports of protesters getting pummeled. And that is not the worst of it: Not a day goes by without reports of arrests. What this means, in Turkey, is that hundreds of families may never see some of their loved ones again.
In Ankara, reports say, armored cars patrol Kennedy Avenue constantly. People there claim to have lost count of the water cannon and tear-gas attacks to which they’ve been subjected only for walking down the street. The Internet is replete with countless images and videos of elderly men vomiting from tear gas. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been tear-gassed for the violent crime of sitting quietly in my apartment. There have been confirmed reports of thugs loyal to the AKP storming through cities with cleavers and knives. A particularly alarming incident took place the other day in Yeniköy, the Sausalito of the Black Sea, a wealthy Istanbul neighborhood known for its seafood restaurants. Locals were holding a community forum—these have sprung up spontaneously in the past weeks, open-air gatherings to discuss new ways of doing politics. AKP loyalists attacked the forum, reputedly under the watch or perhaps even on the orders of the district muhtar (an elected local official) shouting, “Allah, Allah, you’re the sons of Greeks!” Multiple videos confirm this. The reason this attack is so disturbing is that Yeniköy once was a Greek community, the bulk of which left in the population exchange of 1924 that followed the Greco-Turkish war. The mob attacks of September 1955, orchestrated by the government of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, eliminated all but the last vestiges of the Greek population here. Menderes—whom the military subsequently hanged—is one of Erdoğan’s idols.
Countless people tell me stories of outrageous treatment by the police. There are plausible (but unconfirmed) accounts of police threatening female protesters with rape. There are confirmed stories, documented with videos, of police beating women for no discernible reason. Several blocks away, the police have more than once used water cannon and thrown tear gas into hospitals. They have used heavy tear gas, as well, in other enclosed spaces, including the Divan hotel near Taksim Square, where people fled for refuge after the police, without warning—and indeed, after the governor explicitly promised that protesters there would be safe—attacked and destroyed the encampments at Gezi Park. The police turned the luxury hotel into a sea of gasping, weeping, vomiting, and wounded victims, then refused for hours to permit ambulances to collect them. The very same governor then advised medics not to treat wounded protesters. The hotel’s owner has been threatened with legal action for sheltering them.
The height of this absurdity was the arrest of protesters for standing. The “standing man” stood in front of the Ataturk Cultural Center in Taksim, just looking at the thing. It took nearly six hours for anyone to notice that he was not just standing, but protesting. Once others figured it out, they began standing silently next to him, their hands in their pockets. Finally, the police realized this was a protest and detained them. The headline in one local paper: “Police radio: Arrest all standing still.”
By June 17, the government was so spooked by protests throughout the country that Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç warned that if need be, he would call in the army to put down the unrest. The markets tanked faster than journalists could type. Wasn’t the Erdoğan government’s proudest achievement “sending the military back to the barracks?” Hundreds have been detained and the markets have continued to plummet. The Turkish lira has gone into a nosedive, and with every word that comes out of the prime minister’s mouth, foreign investors turn a more horrified shade of pale. These “terrorists,” as the government calls them, include dozens of doctors, lawyers defending the protesters, and a few political opponents for good measure.
The press has been mired more or less in its usual lockdown, so it’s possible that much of the country, if they receive their news from broadcast media, has no idea that any of this is happening. Famously, during the initial days of the crackdown, CNN Turkey aired a documentary about penguins precisely as the international media showed the chaos on Istanbul’s streets to the rest of the world. Erdoğan has been holding rallies around the country, prompting journalists to join betting pools to see whether he can exceed his previous speech in insanely provocative rhetoric. No one who bets against him ever wins. The rallies are called “festivals of democracy,” or more alarmingly, “Respect for the National Will,” the latter suggesting that he has hired the ghost of Leni Riefenstahl as his campaign manager.
The Turkish Education Ministry has ordered schools to hand over the names of any teacher who has participated in the protests. The pro-government media (that is, most of it) has entered territory so bizarre that one example will suffice: The pundit Yiğit Bulut insists—in all seriousness—that foreign powers are using telekinesis to try to kill the prime minister. Alarmed Jews the world over have written to me about the anti-Semitic rhetoric emerging from these quarters, but I keep reassuring them that they are not being singled out: Erdoğan and his entourage are blaming these protests on everyone from the Masons to the Martians.
How has the rest of the world responded to all of this? Amnesty International has sent out messages to all who will hear: “Turkey: End the Incommunicado Detention of Istanbul protesters.” Human Rights Watch: “Turkey: A Weekend of Police Abuse. Many Protesters Arrested; Hospital Targeted.” Reporters Without Borders: “Mounting Police Violence Against Journalists Covering ‘Occupy Gezi.’” The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called for an investigation into “violations of international human rights standards,” which she demanded be “prompt, thorough, independent and impartial.” The perpetrators, she said, “should be brought to justice.”
The European Parliament passed a resolution expressing its “deep concern at the disproportionate and excessive use of force in response to the peaceful and legitimate protests.” This is astonishing language for that body, which has thus far reserved such terms only for the condemnation of Israel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared herself “appalled” by the violence and described the crackdown as “horrible.” The official German position was clearly expressed on the Ankara Embassy’s Twitter account: “#merkel ‘Shocking pictures from #turkey show that course of action was too harsh. Situation not consistent with freedom of assembly + speech.’” No doubt the Germans were particularly aggrieved because the police gassed their consulate, which is near Taksim Square, and followed up by attacking a delegation of German MPs, including Green Party co-chair Claudia Roth. The water cannon they used was spiked with astringent tear gas, turning Roth’s pale German skin crimson and blistered. Berlin promptly blocked the opening of EU regional policy negotiations. The Serbs, predictably, went bonkers when their consulate was gassed—so much so that the Serbian ambassador was recalled from the post for violating laws of diplomatic service. The Dutch, French, and British consulates were also gassed, and British and French cooperation with Turkey on matters Syrian is in doubt. I knew that the police had definitively lost their minds when they gassed the Russian consulate. The Russians have not commented upon this officially. No doubt they will respond, in their own way.
Leigh Turner, the British consul-general, has shone brightly throughout, responding on Twitter with wit and principle: “Tear-gas canister over wall of #British Consulate #Istanbul—all here OK. Grateful if all concerned can try to avoid gassing us if poss.” He provided regular updates, including firm diplomatic condemnation of the violence and statements of Britain’s position on the right to freedom of expression and assembly. His timeline set the standard for dry consular updates and offered clear indications that—to British sensibilities—these were by no means pleasing events.
The United States has, for security reasons, moved its consulate so far away from the city center that perhaps the Americans neither smelled the gas nor heard the screams. Considering things charitably, this may be the reason U.S. officials failed either to grasp or communicate the abnormality of this situation. When one’s consulate is halfway to the Bulgarian border, it’s more difficult for diplomats to put their fingers on the pulse of the street. Perhaps that explains why, throughout this, our embassy Twitter feed consisted of nothing but irrelevant updates such as these:
"Department of State @StateDept 7 Jun (Video) #SecKerry on #LGBT Pride Month: No matter where you are, and no matter who you love, we stand with you. http://youtu.be/1KeaoB-kAGY"
Erdoğan considers his friendship with President Obama far more valuable than that with any European leader. It was clear to all that the only hope of controlling Erdoğan was a call from the White House, one that unequivocally put the hammer down. Many Turks asked me hopefully whether the United States would now “let” Turkey have a new government. (It is widely believed here that nothing happens in Turkey without the United States’ approval.) But Obama said nothing, and the embassy remained as enigmatic and aloof as the elderly Greta Garbo. Only when Erdoğan insisted that his response to the protests had been mild compared with the U.S.’s crushing of Occupy Wall Street—he claimed that American government forces had killed 17 protesters—did the embassy issue a feeble tweet saying no, that wasn’t so. Then, some hours later, for reasons mysterious, the tweet disappeared.
On June 17, the first working day after the storming of the park and the siege of the Divan, Ambassador Ricciardone paid a visit to the AKP headquarters. What remains of the opposition press indulged in some hopeful speculation. Radikal reported that he had been dispatched to issue a “strongly worded message to the headquarters of the ruling party.” If true, that message went unheeded. Speaking to reporters afterward, Ricciardone explained, “I reaffirmed our support for Turkish democracy, for the principles that we share of freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly. There is no difference between us and the government of Turkey and the governing party on those principles.” The ambassador went on: “I’m quite confident that our relations are strong and healthy. And will continue. I’m very confident about Turkish democracy. You are having a conversation within your Turkish family. The United States is not participating in it, except with full-out faith in you, the Turkish people, and the Turkish government. And we will stand by you as you have your conversation about your future. I believe this is a friendly country to the United States. It’s a good place for American trade and investment, business, visitors, tourism and I intend to enjoy the summer here in Turkey.” Asked whether he discussed the Gezi events, Ricciardone simply reiterated the United States’ support “for Turkey, Turkey’s democracy, for freedom of expression, for freedom of peaceful assembly . . . .” And that was it. Not one reference to what has been going on all around us.
Ricciardone is a diplomat. It is his job to be diplomatic. Clearly, Erdoğan is unhinged and rebuking him in public could prompt the opposite of the desired effect. And affirming that the United States has no desire to participate in Turkey’s “family conversation” was a shrewd thing to say in a conspiracy-minded country. But the rest of Ricciardone’s comments are outrageous. “For the principles that we share of freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, there is no difference between us and the government of Turkey and the governing party on those principles?” No difference? It may be true that we both support the principles of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But in the United States, we also support the practice of freedom of expression and assembly, not to mention supporting freedom after the practice of free expression and peaceful assembly. To suggest that the United States and Turkey have remotely similar perspectives about these principles is ridiculous. It should insult every American, and it should insult every Turk.
Turks are genuinely confused and misinformed about the United States. After all, they’re told daily that what they are experiencing is normal, and that this is what all “advanced democracies” do. It would have been better by far to say nothing than to confirm these lies and better still to explain that in the United States, you’re unlikely ever to be arrested for demonstrating peacefully, nor will you ever be arrested for anything you say, and that it is very much our hope that Turks will one day experience this extraordinary freedom that we cherish.
Ricciardone’s remarks caused real harm. The Turkish government immediately exploited his words. Headlines in the local papers announced, “Gezi Park protests are not exaggerated by White House.” The deputy prime minister proudly told the nation that at least the United States, unlike those bigoted Europeans and screeching human rights’ groups, had a sense of perspective—in contrast with the international media, which persisted in “exaggerating” these “normal” incidents. At roughly the same time, media outlets associated with Erdoğan’s party—and by “associated,” I mean that on one day, seven of them ran exactly the same headline—were placing the blame for the unrest on what the state-run Anatolia media agency called the “American Entrepreneurs Institute,” which it alleged had been plotting this “coup” for months. Did Ricciardone say a word about this? No. So of course the United States didn’t exaggerate these incidents. We didn’t even acknowledge them.
In other words, whatever was actually said in that meeting, the Turkish people learned that America had emerged from it saying: “Green light. We have no problem. Keep going.” And keep going Erdoğan’s government has. The next day, Interior Minister Muammer Güler announced that the government was preparing laws to fix “legislative gaps” in the regulation of social media—the one place where Turks might have a chance of finding actual news. The week prior, Erdoğan had described Twitter as the “worst menace to society.” It may well be a menace to Erdoğan. Unlike in Egypt, which had anything but a “Facebook Revolution,” rates of social-media penetration here are high—almost in the range of the United States. And unlike in Egypt, 90 percent of the tweets about the unrest here have originated in Turkey. In Egypt, 70 percent of the tweets originated outside of Egypt. No one misunderstood, despite the government’s soothing blandishments, what Güler was really saying: “From now on, watch your every word, because we’ll be watching yours.”
The Turkish press has reported that the government plans to monitor social media with U.S. assistance. Obviously, as recent leaks have suggested, the United States government has considerable experience in this department. Whether it is true that the United States plans to help Turkey transform itself into an advanced police state, I don’t know. But if it is true, shame on us. If it is not, Ricciardone should have immediately rebutted the claim. He didn’t. Nor has the ambassador objected to any other slander about the United States uttered by the prime minister, his subordinates, or their press organs—with one possible exception. In a June 18 press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki rejected the claim that any American group or individual was responsible for escalating the protests in Turkey. She offered boilerplate remarks urging all sides to “exercise restraint and avoid violence,” noted the reports about the prosecution of medics who had treated injured protesters, and said that “all of these reports are greatly concerning and we’re very focused on monitoring it closely. We, of course, deplore the use of excessive force in any of these cases.” But you would not have known she said this from the U.S. embassy Twitter feed, which issued only this: “US rejects claims Americans fomenting Gezi Park unrest in Turkey.” That tweet was promptly buried under a slew of irrelevant information: the text of John Kerry’s remarks at PEPFAR’s 10th anniversary celebration, his travel schedule in Bandar Seri Begawan, and so on.
It is not entirely Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s fault that his “zero problems with the neighbors” foreign-policy plan has resulted in a “100 percent problems with the neighbors” outcome. This is not a good neighborhood, period. But it is a fact that Turkey has only one powerful friend left—the United States. And we have been the only relevant country or entity in the world that has failed to express more than a few platitudes about what’s going on in Turkey, to say nothing of what we surely do think: that we find it repulsive to shoot out the eyeballs of peaceful protesters. And no, we don’t do this back home.
From where I sit, the United States’ flabby, indulgent attitude toward this cruelty appears both craven and strategically idiotic. It is in neither America’s nor Turkey’s interest for Turkey to go down this path. Our silence has confirmed the worst suspicions of everyone but the AKP base, hardly our natural friends. We have confirmed their fondest suspicions about us—to wit, that we’re fools.
The United States may be permanently alienating the next generation of Turks, the ones with whom we really do want to be friends. When rumors that kids who are getting brutalized have been screaming, “Please help us, Obama” circulate over the Internet, followed by statements from our ambassador that the United States and Turkey share “the same ideas” about freedom and democracy, it confirms every suspicious instinct Turks have about the gulf between what America says about human rights and what we mean. When the Turkish government publicly boasts that it has the United States on its side—well, you don’t have to live here to guess the impact.
This is hardly the first time that Ricciardone has appeared eager to take abuse from Turkish officials. It has not been widely reported in the American press that Turkish officials have rebuked the diplomat on numerous occasions for making tepid comments about Turkey’s human rights record. After Ricciardone expressed “puzzlement” that Turkey appeared to be arresting all of its generals—events in which we do have a legitimate interest, given that NATO is not a human rights alliance but a military one—Erdoğan dismissed him as a “rookie ambassador who should know his place.” When our ambassador expressed further “puzzlement” that “journalists are being detained on the one hand, while addresses about freedom of speech are given on the other,” he nonetheless attempted to express his warmth toward Turkey by means of a Turkish proverb, to the effect that this was like eating pickled cabbage on a salt-reduction diet. (Turkish proverbs lose much in translation.) Fuat Tanlay, the prime minister’s chief advisor, told Ricciardone that if he was so keen to learn Turkish proverbs, he should learn this one: Don’t piss on a mosque wall. Doesn’t that say it all? Under ordinary circumstances, one would at least expect the Turkish ambassador to Washington to be summoned and read the riot act. If he was, the news wasn’t widely reported.
Is there any strategy to American silence? Is the Obama administration making a conscious decision to alienate the Turkish people in the service of some larger and more important goal? Obviously, the United States needs to cooperate with Turkey on matters ranging from Syria to Iran and beyond. But we have an ocean between us and those maniacs. Turkey doesn’t. In other words, they need us more than we need them. So must we really be so afraid of their wrath that we behave like cowering bunnies when they kill their own children? What do the folks in the Situation Room know that we don’t?