Saturday, February 10, 2007

Gül in Washington: All quiet on the Western front?

Friday, February 9, 2007

Apparently the Turks are confused. And they are appealing and applying to a vacillating United States. That is the unfortunate disadvantage of Gül’s and probably Gen. Büyükanit’s visit to Washington.

The domestic political agenda and mounting tensions overshadowed the visit by Deputy Prime Minister Abdüllatif Şener and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül to Washington. Prior to Hrant Dink's tragic assassination an extraordinary importance had been attached to that visit. It will be the first in a series of visits by the highest level of Turkish officials, to be followed by a trip by Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt to the U.S. capital.

The issue at stake is not only the state of affairs between the two allies, the United States and Turkey, at a crucial period concerning the seemingly hopeless situation in Iraq and Turkey's looming battle over the presidency and in its aftermath, the general elections. The sequence of the Gül and Büyükanıt visits to Washington were expected to be determining not only the course of bilateral relations but also how Turkey would navigate the troubled waters of 2007.

To this point, aside from the usual hopeful statements and clichés about cozy relations issued by both sides, the fog covering the future of the relationship has been far from removed.

It looks as if the Turkish side is after a U.S. endorsement from Washington for a military incursion into northern Iraq – at least to release some of the steam from a prevailing nationalist sentiment in an election year. The light has still not turned green, even though it may not be a very dark red; it is somewhere between yellow and red.

The U.S. administration received Gül fairly well. He had an audience with Vice-President Dick Cheney, the strongman of the executive, concerning particularly the Iraq and Iran policies of the United States. Gül met his counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. However, there is no doubt that he has been snubbed by Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House or Representatives, where Gül's main effort had been directed to prevent the passage of a draft resolution on the Armenian genocide.

Such a happening, due to occur in April, would be extremely harmful to Turkish-U.S. relations, further poisoning the already polluted atmosphere. Gül is right to focus on that issue and warn the U.S. authorities of its consequences. Yet lobbying the executive alone might prove insufficient given the growing chasm between the Republican White House and the Congress, dominated by Democrats for the first time in 12 years.

Moreover, Ankara does not see eye-to-eye even with the Republican executive on the latter's priority, Iraq. There is an enormous conceptual gap between the two sides' perception of Iraq today and Iraq tomorrow. What the U.S. executive is trying to do at the moment is not particularly to please or appease the Turks, but damage control. Thus, in such a psychological climate it may not be realistic to expect Washington to be over enthusiastic in satisfying Turkish demands that run counter to the agenda of their Kurdish allies in Iraq and also to be drawn into an unwinnable war on the Armenian genocide issue on the floor of Congress.

Richard Holbrooke, who is expected to take Rice's seat if the Democrats win the presidential race in two years' time, was in Istanbul last week and disclosed to me that the highest Turkish officials he had met during his visit told him that they favored both the Baker-Hamilton plan and the Bush plan on resolving the Iraq crisis.

How could that happen?

The Baker-Hamilton plan was dead on arrival, while the Bush plan looked just the opposite. The Turkish leaders liked the propositions of the Baker-Hamilton plan on postponing the Kirkuk referendum and engaging with Iran and Syria. They also liked the commitment of the resoluteness of the Bush plan to bring order to Iraq and maintain its territorial integrity.

Apparently the Turks are confused. And they are appealing and applying to a vacillating United States. That is the unfortunate disadvantage of Gül's and probably Gen. Büyükanit's visit to Washington.

What is clear amongst such a lack of clarity is that the Americans want to see Turkey ameliorating its relations with Armenia, especially in the wake of the Hrant Dink assassination, and also desisting from a military incursion into northern Iraq. The brilliant interview by Milliyet's Yasemin Çongar with the Deputy Secretary of State Dan Fried, who is responsible of European and Eurasian Affairs, is an unequivocal expression of where today's Washington stands.

Fried's remarks and “friendly warnings” to Turkish authorities are much more telling than what could leak to the press from Gül's contacts in Washington.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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