Bad timing for US ambassador

No matter how good your intentions are, we sometimes find ourselves confronted with the bitter reality that the image we are trying to project actually defeats the very thing we are trying to accomplish. That is what is happening in Turkey while we search for a solution to decades-long Kurdish problem in the Southeast.

The government has even discussed changing the name of the initiative from “Kurdish reforms” to “democratization package” in order to allay the fears and concerns growing in sections of society, especially in the north and the west, thanks to the opposition, which is partly to blame for inflaming sentiment on the issue.

Over a breakfast conversation with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) parliamentary group deputy chairman Oktay Vural, it struck me that the problem of appearance for the government is more serious than I originally thought. Vural, the most outspoken critic of the new Kurdish initiative, was accusing the government of laying the groundwork for concessions to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that could divide the country along ethnic lines.

At one point in our discussion, Vural pulled out a 1992 CIA report on the Kurds from his briefcase and started reading some of the suggestions made there. Incidentally, some of these recommendations, such as restoring village names, providing more freedom in exercising language and educational rights are frequently voiced by many today. His point was that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was being dictated to by a foreign power to initiate Kurdish reforms, not for the benefit of the country.

Though I do not agree with his assessments, I must admit that the MHP and other parties opposing the government initiative on the Kurdish issue are making headway with the public by playing up nationalist sentiment, especially in the western parts where I grew up. The government should devote more resources to better informing the Turkish people and explaining how leaving the problem unresolved poses a threat to the very fabric of social order in this country.

As appearances may overcome and easily distract from the real substance of an issue, I found the meeting of James Franklin Jeffrey, the US ambassador to Turkey, with pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) officials over a dinner last week unwise and untimely. The meeting came shortly after another with main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal. Though he may have had the best of the intentions, the image actually hurts the advancement of Kurdish reforms as it added fuel to the conspiracy engine run by certain circles in the country.

I guess that is why he was strongly warned and advised against continuing such meetings at a time when the government is trying hard to frame the debate, which takes national dynamics into consideration, as homegrown rather than as an imposition from outside. “We told him the meetings create an impression that the recent initiative is driven by the US and as such goes against the national interests of Turkey,” a senior AK Party official who wished to remain anonymous told me last week.

Frankly, I’m puzzled by Jeffrey’s moves amid the ongoing debates over the highly sensitive Kurdish issue. As a career diplomat who has served in Turkey three times in the past and who speaks fluent Turkish, he should know better. I understand Americans also have a stake in the resolution of the Kurdish issue as the US army is scheduled to pull out of Iraq by the end of 2011, but the ambassador could easily communicate his government’s views through back channels rather than public appearances that may well defeat the very purpose he was trying to serve. His moves boost the perception that the US is meddling in Turkish affairs and a diplomat is interfering in domestic politics.

I remember how the visit of Israeli Ambassador Gabby Levy to the Turkish Parliament sparked speculation in June when the deputies were discussing the Syrian border land mine clearance bill. Though Levy was visiting CHP deputy Şahin Mengü who said, “There was no talk on the mine issue,” another CHP deputy, Ahmet Ersin, claimed that Israel was trying to win support for the bill. The opposition accused the government of handing over fertile Turkish lands to Israel using this new bill.

Levy once told me over a lunch how he was puzzled to read the comments and criticism following his visit and said he had never imagined it would create such a sensation. He explained that his visit was related to the repair of an old synagogue building located in Akhisar in the province of Manisa, Mengü’s constituency. “We discussed how the restoration of this building can improve ties with Turkish and Jewish people,” he said.

Well, no matter how commendable and admirable your intentions are, sometimes you may be well advised to pursue another path just to avoid giving the wrong impression. I think we should let the people of this country figure out how best to work out a “Turkish Model” as coined in the historic press conference held by Interior Minister Beşir Atalay last month. Everybody else should keep a low profile and use back channels when it is deemed necessary to convey their thoughts.

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