As most of the attention in America going to the Coronavirus crisis and its effects, Turkey has activated its propaganda machine in an attempt to improve its damaged image in the United States. Of course, it still has possession of S400s, it has increased its violations of Greek airspace, it still provokes in Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that Turkey be placed on the State Department’s special watch list for severe violations of religious freedom.
Analysts that were once pro-Turkey – Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, several members of the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, David Phillips of Columbia University – have shined a light on Erdogan’s authoritarianism, corruption, and have all concluded that Turkey is not a reliable ally anymore.
Turkey used to dismiss criticisms from Congress until Congress slapped back with sanctions legislation, the Armenian Genocide resolution, and the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act. Today, Ankara deals with its growing number of critics by turning to its long-time friends to create a “counter-narrative” when it comes to Turkey.
It seems that the most loyal of these friends is The Atlantic Council and its President, Fred Kempe. This past Thursday – for the third time in three weeks – The Atlantic Council offered itself as a place for Turkey and its friends to paint a rosy picture of Turkey. This week’s special guests? The US Special Representative for Syria Engagement (and maybe future consultant to/lobbyist for Turkey) Ambassador James Jeffrey and Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ambassador Ibrahim Kalin.
Of course, whenever any think tank has a foreign government official as a guest, they treat him or her with courtesy and without excessive challenge. But there is a difference between avoiding excessive challenge and presenting no challenge whatsoever.
Before the first virtual Turkish propaganda forum at the Atlantic Council during this crisis featuring Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Hellenic America Leadership Council (HALC) tweeted: “Hey @Atlantic Council – since we are missing @MLB season, we hope you finally fire some fastballs at the #WorstAllyEver rather than your typical softballs to them. . .”
Three weeks later it is safe to say that Atlantic Council is sticking with softball when it comes to Turkey.
Kalin did not get a single tough question during his Atlantic Council love fest. Even the question on the S400s was asked in such a way that allowed him to paint the Obama Administration and then Congress as villains. Kalin’s Atlantic Council interlocutors let him disingenuously explain away Erdogan’s relations with Moscow and Tehran without challenge or follow up. Ambassador Jeffrey, who might as well have been auditioning for a contract like the ones former Speaker Dennis Hastert or Michael Flynn got (presumably he will eventually register as a Foreign Agent of Turkey), described Turkey as a force for good and peace in Syria. Naturally, there was little mention of the fate or betrayal of the Kurds, who over the years undertook most of the on the ground fighting against the Islamic State other than a terrorist reference by Kalin with regards to the PKK.
US Ambassador David Satterfield made an overly diplomatic attempt at an honest conversation before Kalin joined the briefing. On the issue of the S400s, he declared that the US has been “explicit” with Turkey that the “operation of the S400 system in not compatible” with Patriot air defense systems and American F35s. He further noted that “we [the US government] do not have in our possession the assurances from Turkey to mitigate those concerns.” There was no discussion over what assurances are needed. Is the US insisting on the return or destruction of the S400s? In any case, Kalin declared that the activation of the S400s by Turkey is a matter of time and was only delayed because of the coronavirus crisis. This statement that again received no comment from anyone in the Atlantic Council, but Kempe did follow up the statement later by declaring that he will celebrate the end of the crisis on the Bosporus. Maybe Erdogan has already invited him to the activation ceremony for the S400s.
The other noteworthy Satterfield statement was regarding Turkey’s attempt to secure a SWAP line from the US Federal Reserve. Satterfield answered that while Turkey has been “in direct contact” with Washington about such an arrangement, the Federal Reserve has financial and monetary requirements, and this decision is not political.
But even Satterfield joined the Atlantic Council’s theme of ignoring Turkey’s worst behavior. When asked how the US viewed Erdogan’s statement on closing Incirlik, he avoided the question. He detailed how the United States works out of the base and concluded that closing Incirlik “is not an issue”.
With CAATSA, SWAP and several issues still on the table, we can be sure that Turkey’s public relations tour will continue. Will the Atlantic Council continue to be their main forum here in the United States?
*** The author is publisher/editor of the “Greek News”, a Greek-American bilingual weekly newspaper