Ali Halit Aslan
Ambassador James H. Holmes (Ret.) is one of the most competent names in Washington, D.C., with regard to Turkish politics. He served as president of the American-Turkish Council (ATC), a high-profile civil society organization that has enjoyed support from the Turkish and American governments as well as business circles.
He held this position up until last week. Holmes is one of the most recent victims of the witch hunt being conducted by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the face of growing pressure from the Ankara administration over the last months, Holmes submitted his resignation to former White House National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones, who now serves as the chair of the executive board of the ATC, just before the ATC annual meeting. Holmes' mistake was not to praise the Turkish government.
The Turkish government did not send a minister to the ATC meetings this year, though Turkey is usually represented at the ministerial level. The decision to lower the tone of relations as well as participation in the ATC, the highest private platform of Turkish-American relations for 33 years, shows that the government will not hesitate to undermine foreign relations just because of its own struggles. The only high level participant from the American side was US Trade Representative Michael Froman. However, last year, the US administration was represented by Vice President Joe Biden.
Turkey's national interests were undermined in this case because of a boycott of the ATC meeting where Washington did not send a high profile figure. But who cares? The only thing government officials care about is if Prime Minister Erdoğan is happy. My sources told me that former and current members of the Erdoğan Cabinet mobilized a campaign against Holmes upon instructions from the prime minister. Some Turkish businessmen also contributed to this campaign.
What was Holmes' mistake?
But what did Holmes do to make the prime minister and his friends so angry? There are different rumors. However, the most frequently cited “mistake” was his critical stance regarding the corruption allegations in the aftermath of the Dec. 17 investigation in a bulletin delivered to ATC members where he also quoted a lot from Today's Zaman. And I am sure that some of his press statements did not please the government either. Furthermore, during his service as chair of a conference organized by the Washington office of the pro-government, Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), he urged participants and pro-government intellectuals to evaluate Turkish democracy; this might have been the last straw.
ATC conference participants tried to give the impression that they were not affected; however, it was impossible to overlook the Holmes incident. Holmes, whose resignation had not yet been endorsed by the board, was there. He introduced most of the speakers. However, he turned down journalists' requests for exclusive interviews due to his politeness. The ATC staff must have been depressed by the pressure of being asked not to make strong remarks at the meeting. However, when former US Congressman Robert Wexler made excessively exaggerated remarks in which he praised the Turkish government, Hürriyet Daily News Editor Murat Yetkin responded.
The government's recent attitude in the Jim Holmes case is an example of bullying. This is a term frequently used in American education literature to refer to students who physically abuse their classmates. Referring to the Gezi protesters as looters and spraying tear gas on them at every demonstration; insulting the members of the civil society group the Hizmet movement, calling them assassins and traitors and subjecting them to a witch hunt and being disrespectful of Alevi funerals are some recent examples of bullying in Turkish politics. The government, which is now displaying similar acts of bullying in the international arena as well, relies on different methods ranging from complaining about its own citizens abroad to trying to shut down Turkish schools.
Ordinary citizens are trying to protect themselves against these acts of bullying; other states and societies are now also experiencing the repercussions of these acts. What happened to the Germans is already known. In the past, Turkish governments used to pressure the US regarding the fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Well, this threat was erased as a national security issue and so a new threat was invented: Fethullah Gülen and his followers in the Hizmet movement. The government forwards a number of unethical and unsubstantiated requests to Washington through different channels in order to deal with the Hizmet movement. Americans are amazed in the face of such bullying. If they bow to these demands, the government will escalate the tone of the demands. If they respond harshly, bilateral relations and the strategic partnership may be damaged; they are aware that they are dealing with a Nero-like mentality that could dare to destroy Rome.
American criticism of witch hunt
The escalation of harassment and bullying from the Erdoğan government may become a turning point for the American administration. Almost all American officials, including the outgoing American envoy to Ankara, Francis Ricciardone, who participated in the ATC conference, have relied on a constructive style. However, the ATC is traditionally a platform where Turkish-American relations are strongly praised. Criticisms are not made in this venue. In private talks, the Americans expressed resentment about the government's attitudes. For instance, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland reportedly asked Turkey's envoy to Washington, Ambassador Serdar Kılıç, when this witch hunt would end. Apparently, everybody who is targeted by the Erdoğan government needs to learn how to protect themselves against bullying.
Published on Today's Zaman, 09 June 2014, Monday