Dean Acheson prefaced his collection of political essays, A Democrat Looks at His Party, with a quote from the esteemed US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: “And it seems to me that at this time we need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure.” Holmes’s quote provided an effective summary of what Acheson, writing only two years after the end of his tenure as US Secretary of State, explained in the rest of the text.
While serving as the secretary of state, Acheson carried out one of the boldest and most visionary foreign policy initiatives of an era dominated by bold and visionary foreign policy initiatives. From the inception of NATO in 1949, and until February 1952, Acheson engaged in a long process of arguing, cajoling, and eventually convincing various European allies, as well as Congress, into accepting the Turkish Republic as a full NATO partner and ally. President Harry Truman, under which Acheson served as the secretary of state, considered the decision to support Turkey as “… the most important decision he had made subsequent to the bombing of Hiroshima” (reported in a Memorandum of Conversation between Acheson, Turkish Foreign Minister Necmettin Sadak, and the Turkish ambassador to the US, Feridun Erkin, dated 12 April, 1949).
Acheson’s conviction that Turkey needed support was a testament to the clear-sightedness with which he approached foreign policy and the principled pursuit of US interests. In reality, Acheson was pushing not only Congress, but especially the various European states involved, to overcome centuries of prejudice, religious chauvinism, and outright racism in accepting Turkey to NATO.
The focused, realistic eye that Acheson trained on international relations is in stark contrast to the befuddlement that has plagued US foreign policy for several decades now. The moral crusade that had come to define US Cold War policy evaporated along with the Berlin Wall. Since then, America’s imperial overreach and the “War on Terror” have dragged the US into progressively deeper conflicts and contradictions, both in terms of policy and principles. Joe Biden claimed in his victory speech that his administration will lead “by the power of our example,” but US leadership long ago became characterized by imposition through various types of power. Now, as the world becomes multipolar, and the most important challenger to US global dominance, China, is unapologetically anti-democratic, the US finds itself unable to identify another concrete, unquestionable, and comprehensive foundation for its international relations.
Biden-Blinken foreign policy and the Turkish Republic
A prominent case is the US’ misguided and confounding behavior towards the same ally that Acheson worked with such determination to bring into NATO. Strikingly, the US has, for two decades, implemented policies that overtly, sometimes purposefully, damage Turkish interests, and that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Turkish citizens. The George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq, which opened up the regional Pandora’s Box, but it was the Obama administration that chose to do nothing in Syria except partner with the PKK’s Syrian arm.
US President Joe Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was sworn in on Jan. 26 after a short Senate confirmation process. During the confirmation hearings, as was widely reported in the Turkish press and in response to a question (read off of a crumpled piece of paper) from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, Blinken referred to Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner.” Graham is not a stranger to Turkey-US relations, so his question about the S-400 situation was not surprising. Blinken’s response cannot be seen as surprising either. The hearings were a public forum, and Blinken responded to the Senators’ inquiries in an eager manner, trying to please both parties and to avoid any sort of disagreement or tension by providing answers attuned to Washington’s current political mood.
Despite the fact that Blinken’s comments during the hearing should be understood as bromides, his response to Graham was drenched in unintentional irony. Blinken’s full statement was, “I think that what Turkey has done, as a NATO ally, in acquiring the S-400, is unacceptable. The idea that a strategic – so-called strategic – partner of ours would actually be in line with one of our biggest strategic competitors, in Russia, is not acceptable.” Beyond the fact that other NATO allies possess and utilize Russian-made weapons systems, Blinken’s comment comes after the US actively armed, funded, and trained an organic branch of the PKK – a US-designated terrorist organization that primarily targets Turkey and which has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Turkish citizens – for the past six years. Blinken toured the rubble in the bombed Turkish parliament after the failed July 2016 FETO coup attempt, so he must be aware that Turkish public perception of the US is not positive. Most Turkish citizens would respond to Blinken’s comments by stating that the US is the “so-called strategic partner” that needs to be sanctioned.
The political reality is that Blinken, as a former high-ranking member of the Obama administration and tabbed for the secretary of state position by Obama’s vice president, brings with him the dismal legacy of that administration’s policies towards Turkey specifically, and towards the Eastern Mediterranean in general. But there are no signs whatsoever that Blinken (or Biden) has taken any lessons from the disasters wrought in Turkey’s region by Obama’s ill-advised decisions and ephemeral red lines.
As soon as Blinken was sworn in, the State Department tweeted Biden’s claim that he will “repair our alliances,” but Biden clearly does not recognize how weak his position vis-à-vis Ankara actually is. Nearly two weeks went by before the Biden administration contacted Ankara, and even then the contact was only through Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. That resurrects ghosts of Obama’s feeble and dilatory response to the Gulen cult’s failed July 2016 coup attempt.
Even worse, immediately after the Biden administration took office, a wave of PKK/PYD violence erupted in northern Syria. The State Department, in response, insisted on the same rhetorical chicanery used throughout the past eight years in order to avoid mentioning who carried out that violence. And only a week after Blinken assumed his official duties, the State Department took another step strongly reminiscent of the Obama era by making an official statement concerning the protests surrounding Bogazici (Bosphorus) University’s new rector. Continual comments about Turkey’s domestic politics will do nothing but further inflame Turkish popular resentment towards the US, and does not serve US interests. In sum, the Obama administration’s attitudes towards Turkey and its region have picked up without missing a step, as if the past four years had never happened.
A better example can be taken from the activities of the current US Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield. Though his actions and statements have not always been above reproach, he has been a strong improvement over the embarrassing, sometimes disgraceful behavior of his immediate predecessors, Francis Ricciardone and John Bass. Satterfield has, for instance, given greater importance to sincerely and respectfully communicating through the Turkish press with the Turkish people. Recent extensive comments that he provided to the Anatolian Agency reflect this more constructive manner of carrying out public diplomacy.
The nice guy takes charge
The description of Antony Blinken that one repeatedly encounters is that he is “nice”. I find that fully possible to believe because, when I read what he has to say or when I watch footage of him, I get the same impression. Take, for instance, the promotional video for Blinken’s secretary of state candidacy, which features… Grover. That’s the extent to which America’s “Cult of Childhood” has permeated even its politics: the person who will spend the next four years interacting with Xi Jinping’s and Vladimir Putin’s emissaries, while trying to convince the Europeans to make even the simplest mutual compromises for the sake of humanity’s future, introduced himself to the global community with a Muppet.
Blinken comes to the position with the lowest public profile of any secretary of state since Condoleeza Rice even though he has spent most of the past 30 years in Washington and involved with foreign relations. When it comes to Turkey and issues in Turkey’s region, we do know some of his opinions. For example, Blinken penned an editorial for the NYT in early 2017 that urged continued US support for the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the moniker created for the PKK’s Syrian arm (PYD/YPG) in order to deceive the American public. Blinken has previously commented on US relations with Turkey, but in a manner far more circumspect than Biden’s hostile statements to the NYT in December 2019. Because Blinken does not have to worry about getting votes, he may be simply saying bland things in public but have entirely different ideas in private. For that reason, Blinken’s SDF editorial looms inauspiciously.
On the other hand, Biden’s initial foreign policy move is to put more emphasis on China and Asia, where Blinken will apparently devote most of his energy. Given Blinken’s support for the SDF, one would initially find relief in that development. But in this case, the nice guy, who asserts that he will “seek out dissenting views and listen to the experts,” would be preferable to the person that will subsequently be given more influence over US policy towards Turkey’s region, President Biden’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, Brett McGurk. If Blinken’s focus will be on Asia, McGurk will have more freedom to act because less attention will be paid to his domain.
McGurk is almost universally despised in Turkey because of the role he played in providing arms, money, and training to the PKK/PYD/YPG from late 2015 through December 2018. McGurk openly, publicly collaborated with high-ranking PYD/YPG members who are, in reality, PKK terrorists. The vast majority of Turkish citizens see McGurk as having not only the blood of Syrian civilians on his hands, but also that of Turkish citizens. For that reason, the recent series of PYD/PKK bombings that killed dozens in northern Syria was met in Turkey with the bleak pronouncement, “McGurk is back.”
Can Blinken change the course of US relations with Turkey?
In the end, the next four years of Turkey-US relations will depend on whether Blinken, first of all, will be able to recognize that current US policy towards Turkey is not only mistaken, but duplicitous, and disastrous not only for US interests, but also for Turkey and other regional societies. In his promotional video, Blinken mentions the typical clichés about “American values,” and “enlisting allies” to meet global challenges. Turkey is a democracy, has been since 1950, is a NATO ally, is currently the only regional bulwark against Russia, and is perfectly willing to cooperate as much as possible with the US if the US would simply recognize Turkey’s interests.
If Blinken wants to enlist his Turkish ally, he will have to listen to and work with Turkish officials. Turkish officials, besides being the representatives of the region’s only truly democratically-elected government, understand this region far better than US officials do. US officials need to be willing to understand the regional situation from new perspectives, and to compromise with Turkey. Most importantly, they need to realize that US interests are in close alignment with those of Turkey – as has been the case since WWII.
Second, even if Blinken is able to recognize that US policy towards Turkey must change, would he then be able to fight for a change of direction? He will be in charge of only the State Department, and other US institutions have proved themselves to be highly independent in carrying out policy in Turkey’s region. Donald Trump, for example, decided to go against those institutional actors on several occasions, but achieved only limited success in seeing his decisions implemented. Would Blinken, and his niceness, have any chance in arguments against institutions, such as the Pentagon, which proved impervious to Trump’s blustery posturing? Would Blinken consider violating the strange anti-Turkey “oath” that Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez made Blinken recognize near the end of his Senate confirmation hearing?
Education in the obvious
As difficult as it may be for US officials to accept, the US’ time in the spotlight seems to be winding down. Other powers will rise and eventually replace the US. The fundamental concern in this situation is the preservation of democracy and its viability as a political system that provides better lives for human beings. That is why it is vital for the US to recognize Turkey’s importance, and to make the compromises necessary to work with Turkey. In an era when US influence visibly wanes, the EU’s future is beset by storm clouds, and the other rising powers are anything but democratic, the continued viability of democracy is at stake. Turkey’s officials and, most importantly, its citizens are committed to democracy. But current US policy towards Turkey, and its region, constitutes a threat to a democratic future for everyone involved.
What is worse, the mistaken, disastrous course that US policy towards Turkey has been on for the past decade should not be difficult to identify or apprehend — Turkish officials have been trying to explain this to US officials the entire time. Meanwhile, Turkish public anger grew steadily as Turkish security personnel and citizens continued to fall victim to PKK/PYD/YPG violence, and as successive US administrations refused to extradite FETO members sheltering in the US. The regional stalemate also deepened as Turkey and Russia faced off in an increasing number of regional conflict zones. But Turkey, by supporting Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, and by supporting Kiev against Moscow, gained its first clear, independently-achieved military and diplomatic victories against Russia in 300 years.
This entire setting points to the need for Justice Holmes’s “education in the obvious.” Turkey remains as vital to US global interests as it was 70 years ago when Acheson exerted such intense effort to convince NATO allies to accept Turkey as a partner. Turkey is a vibrant, industrializing democracy, and a prime example of a society that has been influenced in positive ways by the American democratic model since WWII. If the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and Secretary Blinken can understand that the “Chinese model” imperils the US democratic model, then why are those same officials not able to discern that supporting a designated terrorist organization (the PKK/PYD/YPG) that threatens Turkey can never serve US interests in this region? Why are those same officials unable to comprehend that harboring a violent religious cult that aims to subvert Turkey’s democracy and state institutions can never serve US interests in its relationship with Turkey?
Later in A Democrat Looks at His Party, Acheson discusses the two vital ingredients necessary for successful foreign policy — America’s will to achieve a goal, and the will of foreign societies to achieve that goal together with the US. Even when the will of a foreign state and society to work for a common goal with the US is present, Acheson cautions, “the problem of leadership in a coalition of free nations” still persists:
“Such a group operates on the basis of consent. … Leadership is accorded where trust has first been given. And trust is dependent on conduct. … But what do we mean by trust? We mean that we inspire confidence that the interests we are safeguarding embrace the interests of the people who trust us” (pp. 96-97).
Acheson’s explanation makes the fundamental, recurring problem in Turkish-American relations unquestionably clear.