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Erdogan's man takes on mission impossible in Washington

Turkey's incoming ambassador to Washington has surprised observers by being a political appointee, but his perceived direct line to the Turkish president may prove a major asset.

If all goes to plan, Turkey will soon have a new ambassador in Washington.

Murat Mercan, a founding member of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), is poised to become the first ever political appointee to hold the most coveted position in Turkish diplomacy.

Mercan’s appointment to Washington came as a big surprise. Relations between Washington and Ankara are at an all-time low over a range of seemingly intractable issues. But none has proved as toxic as Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles. The fallout has been huge. Turkey has been kicked out of the consortium to produce 5th generation F-35 fighter jets, which the S-400s are designed to shoot down. Its state defense procurement agency was slapped with sanctions by the previous US administration. It was therefore expected that Turkey would send an experienced career diplomat to replace the current ambassador, Serdar Kilic, who has been in Washington since 2014. The Turkish ambassador to London, Umit Yalcin, was together with Mercan on a short list drawn up by Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, well-placed sources told Al-Monitor. But Erdogan will have had the final say. So why did he plump for Mercan? And what can Mercan realistically achieve?

The conventional wisdom is that Erdogan wanted someone he fully trusted, a like-minded Islamic conservative who shared his worldview but also had experience of the United States and of foreign relations, too. Moreover, a political appointee with a direct line to the Turkish leader might carry added weight, or so the thinking goes.

Gonul Tol, founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program, believes Mercan has his work cut out for him. “The problems are too deep to be resolved by a new ambassador, especially if Turkey stays on course with its current policies, and particularly the S-400s."

“Second,” Tol noted, “If it's Erdogan’s way of saying, ‘I am sending a political appointee for the first time and let’s keep things personal,’ as he did with Donald Trump, it’s not going to work. The [Joe] Biden administration values institutions and has pledged to rebuild the credibility of institutions.”

Alan Makovsky, a leading Turkey expert and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, concurred. Mercan’s “challenge is immense if not insuperable. Washington — Congress, and now the administration as well — has made up its mind that bilateral relations are stuck and will only get worse unless Turkey divests itself of the S-400s or does the functional equivalent thereof.”

Makovsky believes that Mercan’s assumed in with Erdogan may prove useful, though.

“If he’s perceived to have a pipeline directly to Erdogan and especially if he can influence decision-making at the top, his status as a political appointee will be seen as a plus,” Makovsky told Al-Monitor.

Mercan has in fact long been associated with Abdullah Gul, the former Turkish president and Erdogan’s chief rival within the AKP, another reason many were surprised to see Erdogan pick him for Washington. Unlike Erdogan, whose hero is Necip Fazil Kisakurek, an anti-Semitic dilettante turned Islamist firebrand, Mercan’s views hew closer to those of Sezai Karakoc, another highly influential Islamist poet, though markedly less radical and far more intellectual. “If you want to understand who [the disciples of Karakoc] are, think ‘not like the Islamic State,’” explained Levent Gultekin, a prominent Turkish commentator and former Islamist. “Islamic intellectuals like Karakoc are not as dogmatic when it comes to Sharia, to women.”

Mercan has always had a foot in both camps from the days since Gul and Erdogan were members of the now defunct Islamist Welfare Party. Mercan worked with Erdogan on his election campaign in 1993, when he became Istanbul’s first Islamist mayor, a critical marker in his meteoric ascent. In the mid-1990s, Mercan accompanied Gul, then a Welfare party lawmaker, on foreign trips, including to the United States, where Turkey’s militantly anti-Islamist generals were held in high regard.

Tensions between Turkey's secularists and Islamists spilled over to the United States when Welfare took power in 1996 in a coalition with a center-right party. Gul’s job, with Mercan in tow, was to persuade the Bill Clinton administration and Congress that Welfare was hostile to neither the United States nor Israel. Cevik Bir, Turkey’s then-deputy chief of staff, would make the same rounds to argue the opposite. In February 1997, Welfare was pushed out of office in the generals’ so-called “Velvet Coup.”

The need to present a Western-friendly face — critics call it pure deception — endured. When the AKP first came to power in 2002, Mercan would scold foreign journalists who described the AKP as Islamists in their stories. “We are conservative democrats — you know, like the Christian Democrats in Germany — not Islamists,” he would snap, then throw in a joke to disarm his prey.

He is personable and approachable.

“The previous ambassador [Kilic] was terrible. He only spoke to people who repeat the AKP line and at places like SETA,” Tol said. She was referring to a pro-government Ankara-based think that frequently organizes panels in Washington. “The DC think tank community could use a more personable ambassador. Murat Mercan is a different personality and he will have a different approach,” she predicted.

“After an era where Ankara almost seemed to want to antagonize Washington, taking a more diplomatic approach to diplomacy is still a good sign, even if it won’t be enough to restore US-Turkish relations,” commented Nicholas Danforth, a non-resident senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. Mercan will also have to navigate the toxic world of Turkish-American politics, which is polarized much along the same lines as Turkey itself. There will be no lack of pro-Erdogan snitches eager to undermine him if he proves to be unmalleable.

The 62-year-old former academic honed his diplomatic chops chairing the Turkish delegation at the Council of Europe, where Turkey is under constant attack over its shoddy human rights record. Mercan went on to become president of the parliament’s external relations commission.

In 2012, he became deputy energy minister. Mercan quit when Erdogan was elected president in 2014. In 2017, Mercan landed his first ambassadorial gig in Tokyo, where he was extremely active, hosting numerous events at the residence with his wife, Inci. The Japanese like their drinks, and they were always on offer save for during Ramadan and other Muslim holidays. He proved a big hit, particularly among children.

Two of his own, a grown daughter and son, are American citizens. The Mercans had them while he earned a doctoral degree in information science at the University of Florida in Gainesville, in the mid-1980s. His wife earned an MBA at Cleveland State University. She will be the first Turkish ambassadress to Washington who wears an Islamic headscarf.

While secularists back in Turkey air disapproval, Tol believes her headgear will be irrelevant, “especially for this administration that places great value on racial, ethnic and religious diversity.” Makovsky agreed it's largely a "non-factor," but said it could occasionally even prove to be a plus. “For some contacts aware she's a 'first' it might increase her ‘interesting quotient’ and might even make some people solicitous of her,” he said. As for her husband, Makovsky concluded, “Murat knows a lot of people and has friends here from his past work. His problem is the product that he's sent here to sell. Right now there aren’t many buyers in Washington.”

Editor's note: Jan. 29, 2020. This article has been updated since its initial publication to correct Makovsky's quotes.

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