US Ambassador Ricciardone’s blunder

The US ambassador’s remarks last week during a one-and-a-half-hour-long question-and-answer session with the bureau chiefs of major media organizations can be examined best as a case study on how to squander a perfect opportunity to tap into an unprecedented measure of sympathy and compassion towards the US against the background of the violent US Embassy attack by a leftist terrorist group. Instead of expanding on the goodwill and best wishes of the Turkish people across the board, Francis Ricciardone decided to talk about judicial woes, knowing well that his remarks would draw the ire of the host government. He certainly could and should have raised his concerns on these issues in Turkey at some other time and on a different platform.

It may have been a well-calculated decision based on various motivations by the ambassador. However to me, this looks like more of a tactical mistake on his part and the wrong choice of words that recalled specific names and court cases while he was trying to elaborate on structural and systemic problems in the Turkish judiciary. This boosted the impression that a foreign diplomat was actually putting himself in the shoes of independent judges and prosecutors in an allied and friendly country. He definitely went overboard and unnecessarily placed himself in a position that many in Turkey interpreted as a violation of the cardinal rule of diplomacy — which is non-interference in domestic matters of a receiving nation — especially when it involves highly sensitive subjects.

The question of how Ricciardone let his guard down and allowed himself to be seen as partisan to the intensely debated issue in Turkey is not easy to answer simply because this blunder definitely did not suit a veteran diplomat of his caliber, considering he has served in Turkey on two occasions in the past, not to mention other countries in the region. Exposed to different yet similar cultures in the Middle East, including that of Turkey, he must have developed extensive experience on how to navigate the fine lines that might otherwise land him in hot water. Sometimes what you say matters less than how you communicate the message or on what occasion.

He must have known that comments specifically singling out some landmark trials in Turkey, highlighting some of the names that were being tried in a court of law for aggravated felonies like plotting against the democratically elected government, would make the headlines, pushing all the other messages he intended to emphasize to the sidelines, including the bomb attack on the embassy. While he was trying to convey a strong message against the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), which is listed as terrorist group by his country, his remarks have actually played into the hands of that terrorist group. The “interference accusations” leveled against him were, in fact, one of the underlying reasons for the attack on the US Embassy by this leftist group. They were accusing the Turkish government of being a puppet in the hands of the “imperialist powers” led by the US. In a way, Ricciardone ironically shot himself in the foot.

Most of what the ambassador said regarding judicial woes in Turkey was not so different from what many senior officials in Washington, Brussels or even here in Ankara have said in the past. Although Ricciardone was careful to include reserve clauses during his long conversation, such as the US is also not perfect in its laws and Turkey is a country governed by the rule of law, those nuances were completely lost when he overemphasized specific cases.

Given that the national debate on decades-long judicial problems has been in progress in this country for many years — not necessarily limited to the current government — Turks know all the details of the discussions very well. Yet nobody in the country, including the government, likes to hear this publicly from a foreign diplomat. Surely this tendency is not unique in Turkey and is valid for all other nations. It would be absurd, for example, to hear the Turkish ambassador talking about ongoing trials in the US with a critical view, even though many in the US were bashing the justice system or the administration for the perceived faults in the legal system.

Beyond the tactical mistake that cost the US government a valuable opportunity to ease the anti-US sentiment in Turkey on the heels of the embassy bombing, Ricciardone also made it difficult for the government to hasten judicial reforms in Turkey. He gave ammunition and firepower to the opposition, which has been arguing that the government is caving in on these issues under pressure exerted by the US. No politician wants to be portrayed as acting under pressure from Washington, especially when Turkey is heading towards an election campaign year, with both local and presidential elections set to be held in 2014. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s response to the matter on Saturday without mentioning the US ambassador’s name was an attempt, in fact, to quell that prevailing perception of interference in the public eye.

Annoyed by Ricciardone’s remarks, Erdoğan has tried to place a distance between his government and Washington. Given that he is very sensitive to the conservative roots of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which branched out from a religious background, Erdoğan, already under fire for his government’s decision to allow the deployment of a NATO radar base in Turkey, will probably utter further remarks critical of the US to influence public opinion. He probably anticipates more ferocious criticism leveled against the AK Party government by the opposition during parliamentary proceedings that will zoom in on the alleged US meddling into Turkish affairs when reform laws are taken up by the general assembly.

On a personal level, Ricciardone, conscious of his own legacy, may have been trying to position himself where he could claim he was not actually cozying up to the Turkish government during his tenure in Turkey. His pattern of behavior so far seems to suggest that he tries not to miss any opportunity to criticize the Turkish government. We remember how his remarks at the outset of his posting triggered a strong reaction from Erdoğan, who described him as a “rookie” diplomat. Since his nomination was initially delayed by the Senate on the grounds that he had very close ties to the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt during his previous posting, Ricciardone may wish to position himself differently in Turkey in an attempt to set the personal record straight and to create a balanced legacy for his post-retirement era.

Another motivation on the part of the ambassador might be the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices issued by the US Department of State to be released soon. Since the US ambassador and his staff in Ankara wrote a section on Turkey in this document as what is described by insiders as a more critical report in contrast to previous years, Ricciardone may have tried to test the waters in Turkey or prepare the government and the public for flurry of criticism to be leveled against Turkey. Of course, Ricciardone’s version may be softened by the Turkey desk at the Department of State or by US Secretary of State John Kerry following pressure from the White House before final approval. In light of the latest incident, the chance of Ricciardone’s version surviving an arm-twisting in the Washington bureaucracy has diminished. What he did actually weakened his position in Washington.

Whether the latest incident was a calculated move or a mistake, I think Ricciardone has overplayed his hand by letting his guard down when speaking publicly, especially on issues with the nature of a domestic minefield that may result in charges of interference by the government of the receiving state. He should have taken his cues from US President Barack Obama, who declined to respond to four questions out of the 11 asked by a Turkish reporter in Washington. On some questions, Ricciardone replied by referring to Obama’s interview that appeared in The New Republic magazine on Jan. 27. Yet on other questions, Ricciardone talked at length with many details but also voiced opinions that no other US government official has expressed in the way he described.

Worst of all, Ricciardone’s timing was not right. Did we need the US ambassador going overboard when there seems to have been a widening divergence on a number of much more critical issues between Turkey and the US, including Iraq, Syria and others? Looking at who benefited from the US ambassador’s blunder, I can only point at the DHKP/C or those who attempted to derail the democratic functioning in Turkey. That is a pity.

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