I was in New York last week to welcome to the world my second niece, Pera. Then I went to Washington and found myself at a funeral. I will explain.
I was invited as a speaker to the annual meeting of the American-Turkish Council (ATC), which can be considered key to close relations between Turkey and the United States. Although the ATC is not well known by the Turkish public, it is one of Turkey’s most important windows to the world. This gargantuan structure was formed first by defense officials, then joined by the energy sector, all major corporations doing business with Turkey, high level diplomats, bureaucrats and politicians. In reality, it serves as a “Turkey lobby” in Washington. It has serious weight form Congress to the White House. Even more important, annual ATC meetings also determine the color of the strategic dialogue between Ankara and Washington.
But the 33th ATC meeting was a lifeless, dismal affair. When I was wondering why there was no one around, it was whispered in my ear: "The Turkish government is boycotting it." Upon instructions of the prime minister's office, there was practically no representation of Ankara in this meeting that usually hosts several cabinet ministers. Given the situation, US Secretary of State John Kerry also decided not to attend.
It wasn’t difficult to find out the reasons behind the government’s hostility to the ATC. Several months ago, the organization, in a periodic information sheet sent out to its members, referred to the Dec. 17 graft probe and even included some articles from the [pro-Gulen Movement] daily Today’s Zaman in its press summary. According to reports, an ATC executive board member known to be close to the government hastily complained to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the council’s chairman, retired ambassador Jim Holmes. Ankara began exerting pressure for Holmes to resign.
Another incident occurred a couple of weeks ago when a group of Turkish journalists close to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) were in Washington. The group, there on the government’s initiative, ostensibly to help improve its image, attended a panel chaired by Holmes at the office of SETA [Turkey’s pro-government Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research]. The group reacted strongly to a question asked by the daily Zaman. This kind of behavior, although accepted as routine in Turkey, doesn’t go down well in the West. Holmes, who was chairing the panel, insisted that the AKP columnist must answer the question. This upset the government.
I must admit that Turkey’s persistent campaign against Holmes has not helped its already dented imagine in Washington. Someone who was once an influential figure in Turkish-US relations told me, “Being a bully may work in Turkey, but not here. ATC is an American organization.” Another labeled the pressure on Holmes as “shameful."
The most salient comment came from an official who asked, "If they make ATC ineffective, how is Turkey going to voice its problems?”
For years, there were three different sources working as a Turkish lobby in Washington. The first was the Israeli lobby. The second was TUSKON [the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey] and extensions of the Gulen movement. The government, after destroying its bridges with these organizations, now blew up its last pillar in Washington.
A night before the meeting was to start, ATC Chairman Holmes quietly submitted his resignation to the executive board, hence the mournful ambiance at the meeting. But I don’t think this story will end here. From what I have heard, neither the US administration nor the giant corporations on the ATC board are happy with Ankara’s pressure. Who knows, they may even refuse to accept Holmes’ resignation.
Going to the airport I noticed the conference booklet with this year’s theme on the cover: “Turkish-US Relations: Critical Partnership in a Changing World.”
If you asked me, I would have titled it: “Changing Partnership in a Critical World.”
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