WikiLeaks: The Impact on Turkish-U.S. Relations and Turkey’s Domestic Politics



Is the leaking of confidential US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks another dastardly Zionist/neo-con plot to undermine Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party)? The steady stream of vitriol from Erdo?an and the progovernment media suggests that it is.

Over the past weeks, Erdo?an and his allies have taken turns lambasting U.S. diplomats for their depictions of his government in the 20-odd cables so far that have mentioned Turkey. Yet none have provoked as much fury as a particular cable dated December 30, 2004, in which the (unidentified) author alludes to alleged corruption involving the AK Party, and conveys allegations by two unnamed sources that Erdo?an has eight secret bank accounts in Switzerland. Erdo?an labeled as “alcaklar” (scoundrels) the clutch of newspapers that dared highlight the claims in front-page headlines. Huseyin Celik, a deputy prime minister, has announced that his government will be seeking legal recourse against the diplomats who penned the cable. And much of the venom gushing from progovernment titles is directed at Eric S. Edelman, the much-respected former U.S. ambassador with close ties to the Bush Administration, who cleared (but did not write) the offensive cable. Some commentators have gone so far as to call the former ambassador “mentally unstable.” In targeting Edelman, who is Jewish and is identified with neo-conservative proponents of the Iraq occupation, AK Party circles are seeking to reduce the leaking of the cables to a conspiracy to overthrow the Turkish government. Indeed, the notion that the entire WikiLeaks affair was concocted to this end has wide currency in a country that often sees itself at the center of the world.
Impact on Turkish-U.S. Relations

The government’s response to the cables and the media’s enthusiastic embrace of conspiracy theories have triggered a fresh bout of America and Israel bashing. Yalcin Akdogan, one of Erdo?an’s closest advisors, charged in the progovernment daily Star newspaper that the cables were leaked by Israel in a bid to sabotage Turkish-American relations because “the Erdo?an government is Israel’s foremost target.” Such rhetoric will likely make it harder to publicly defend behind-the-scenes efforts to improve ties with Washington and Tel Aviv. The cables’ unflattering assessments of Erdo?an and fellow AK Party members will not be easily forgotten. For all his machismo, Erdo?an is thin-skinned. He never forgets a favor but neither does he forgive a slight. And though pragmatism will ultimately prevail — as Turkey’s decision to cooperate with NATO’s nuclear defense missile shield program shows (see Soli Ozel, NATO Summit: Implications for Turkish Foreign Policy) — it is hard to imagine that Erdo?an will be able to overcome a reinforced sense that “the Americans don’t like us.” This, in turn, may feed the current trend of framing the U.S.-Turkish relationship as “transactional”: one in which each side gives no more than it gets.

Initial predictions that the cables would spark a major crisis between Ankara and Washington have proven empty. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “apologized” to her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davuto?lu, who was chided for his “neo-Ottomanist” proclivities in the confidential missives. And in recent days, top U.S. State Department officials have sought to massage Turkey, lauding it for its role in NATO and its efforts to end the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program. Ankara’s recent overtures to Israel in the wake of the Mavi Marmara tragedy have also been welcomed; Turkey dispatched two firefighter aircraft to help extinguish the deadly forest fire in Haifa just as Turkish and Israeli diplomats met in Geneva to discuss a possible deal to end the Mavi Marmara dispute. Yet, Erdo?an continues to insist that Israel publicly apologize for the deaths of nine Turkish citizens at the hands of Israeli soldiers during the raid, and says Israel should compensate the victims’ families. Hardliners in the Israeli cabinet remain adamantly opposed to any such apology. Many pro-Israeli lobby groups in Washington share their distaste for Erdo?an and the AK Party. With each new salvo against Israel, the mood on Capitol Hill is likely sour even further. If the AK Party pursues its threats to sue Edelman, the number of its detractors in Washington can only grow.

Should further cables attacking Erdo?an and his party emerge, the rhetoric will grow louder and ruder. The steady drip of unflattering reports will continue to poison the well. Yet, the cables disclosed so far clearly demonstrate that at no point since the AK Party catapulted to single rule in 2002 did the U.S. government even remotely encourage military intervention in Turkey — and not for lack of soliciting on the part of some generals. To the contrary, they were reminded by ranking U.S. Embassy officials of the virtues of continuing along the democratic path. Still, Erdo?an and the AK Party have deliberately chosen to overlook what might have been a great selling point for improved Turkish-U.S. ties and have instead opted to play the victim. This goes down well with the AK Party’s conservative base. And conspiracy mongering is a national pastime.

Impact on Domestic Politics

For now it seems that the often-critical assessments of Erdo?an and the AK Party have served the government well. The cables provide “proof ” that the AK Party government is not Washington’s poodle, as its critics have alleged. It has stood up to American pressure and steered an inde- pendent and “honorable” course. Yet despite the government’s attempts to cast the cables as an anti-AK Party plot, the references to alleged corruption continue to resonate. The multi-billion dollar tax fines slapped on Turkey’s largest media conglomerate, Dogan Holding, had largely succeeded in discouraging the mainstream press from covering alleged graft cases linked to the AK Party for fear of drawing similar retribution. Company officials insist these came after Dogan titles began running stories about the so-called “Lighthouse Scandal” in which several AK Party protégés were said to be involved. The cables have provided cover for sleaze allegations to be renewed, albeit indirectly. Most newspapers have nonetheless been at pains to emphasize the total absence of documentation backing the claims and, much like the government, dismissed these as “malicious gossip.” Meanwhile, another taboo subject, the reported rivalry between Erdo?an and President Abdullah Gul, has resurfaced thanks to the cables. (Interestingly, Gul appeared to lend credence to conspiracy theorists when he said, “It is noteworthy that no cables incriminating Israel have been published so far.”) All of this is potentially embarrassing for the AK Party in the run up to the June 2011 parliamentary elections.

The conundrum for the opposition, though, is that without solid evidence, it is impossible to make any corruption charge stick. Worse, what if ensuing cables contain unfavorable views of them? This may explain why the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli has sided with the government in pooh-poohing the cables. The prosecular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been less circumspect. No matter that the CHP has been an avid America basher itself. Its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has challenged Erdo?an to prove his clean standing with the bizarre demand that Erdo?an get Swiss banks to declare that they do not have any accounts in the prime minister’s name. Kilicdaroglu will need to tread carefully. Record anti-American sentiment makes it less likely that the average Turk will believe anything negative about the government if it is being uttered by Americans, and far less so if by American diplomats. Of course, there is always the risk that fresh cables might contain accusations leveled against the government by sources within the AK Party itself. Then again, they could only be “Israeli spies.” “Who else?” AK Party supporters might ask.

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