The United States have poured millions of dollars and considerable amount of human capital into its public diplomacy in the Middle East. In its early days, the Obama administration was intent on overcoming negative perceptions of the United States in the region. After all, the White House put it, the Bush years and the “with or against us” era were gone. Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009 was titled, “A New Beginning” and the White House presented its translation to 15 world languages. A few months prior, as a prelude to the Cairo speech, the President had addressed Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, emphasizing the importance of Turkish-American relations. Ever since, however, relations with Turkey have gone through moments of close cooperation as well as deep crisis. When Vice-President Biden arrives in the Turkish capital this week, he will be greeted with a strong popular resentment against America. His trip will be closely monitored by an untrusting public opinion.
Today, many Turks suspect the American administration was in one way or another involved in the coup attempt. Qualitative studies from the anti-coup protests across multiple Turkish cities point out that the real or perceived US involvement in the coup emerges as the dominant sentiment across Turkish society. An overwhelming 72% of Turks in the protests also believe that the pro-coup generals were supported by foreign countries. Such perceptions matter just as much as facts, as they permeate much of the mass skepticism toward the U.S. Avoiding to confront this reality can only produce short-lived attempts at bettering US-Turkey relations and risk paving the way for another crisis between the two NATO allies.
The problem is that the current White House believes skepticism towards the United States in Turkey is an engineered phenomenon. This account continues to explain away Turkey and Turkish society’s perception of the US. In the years before Obama’s Ankara visit, the culprit behind anti-Americanism was a tv-series-turned movie, the Valley of the Wolves, and more recently the variable has become President Erdogan himself. Serious observers of Turkey know, however, that there is more nuanced, often under-studied, set of factors behind suspicion toward the US in Turkey. Regardless of the boiling crisis about Gulen’s extradition, the risk of a prolonged crises in bilateral relations will increase considerably if Biden appears tone-deaf to Turkish sensitivities during his visit.
For example, if Biden repeats the “in the US it is the law, not personal whims that will define the end-result of Gulen’s extradition” line in Ankara, he will have done a disservice to healthy communication between the two NATO allies. This approach also fails to account for the fact that American legal system is skillfully flexible when national security is concerned. This has been the case in the post 9/11 era, with wiretappings, extrajudicial killings and no-flight lists. Therefore, the “we observe the law, not personal whims” discourse in Washington is counterproductive. It is true that Turkey’s legal dossier about extradition must be clear-cut and concise and the rule of law should be observed meticulously. At the same time, however, the White House should realize that they are dealing with a national security dossier and approach the matter with utmost sensitivity.
Failing to do so could create a disastrous cycle of miscommunication. It may appear as a no-brainer but sometimes this requires honest, top-level communication between two allies. After all, added to the complexities of Gulen’s extradition case will be the anti-ISIL operations and the Incirlik airbase among other strategic issues that have been dividing the two allies. The U.S. attitude in the post-coup attempt period will be hanging over Biden’s visit and it will not be easy to reassure the Turkish public. The Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Dunford’s visit to Ankara had limited positive impact and Biden’s visit is already seen as a “too little, too late” move in Ankara. Symbolism and messaging matter in international relations and Biden’s tone will be watched closely. Both Washington and Ankara understand this and it will be critically important for both sides to reassure one another and avoid an impending make-or-break crisis.