Worldview: Holdouts put politics before U.S. relations

President Obama talks with Turkish President Abdullah Gul at the United Nations. Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) is holding up Obama's nominee to be ambassador to Turkey.
President Obama talks with Turkish President Abdullah Gul at the United Nations. Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) is holding up Obama's nominee to be ambassador to Turkey.

GOP senators blocking Obama's picks thwart peace.

Posted: September 26, 2010

At a time when America is beset with intractable foreign policy problems, you wouldn't think Republican senators would want to make things worse.

Or would you?

Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) is holding up President Obama's nominee to be ambassador to Turkey, skilled career diplomat Frank Ricciardone, at an extremely sensitive time in U.S.-Turkish relations. And several Republican senators are holding up confirmation of Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria, even as Obama is promoting new Mideast peace talks that require buy-in from Arab states.

The two posts remain empty at a time when deft U.S. diplomacy has never been more needed in the greater Middle East. It's hard not to conclude that these senators are so eager to trip Obama they don't care if they harm U.S. interests as well.

The case of Turkey is particularly egregious. Despite strains between Washington and Ankara, Turkey remains a NATO ally and an increasingly important player in the region and in the Muslim world. Our two militaries have close relations. And Turkish President Abdullah Gul insisted last week, in New York, that "Turkey will remain a strong ally" of the United States.

Moreover, Turkey has a strong economy and sits at the crossroads between Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Its current leaders come from a political party with Muslim religious roots that has been bolstered by recent electoral successes.

Yes, Turkey's ambitions can cause frictions. Its growing closeness to Iran and its overconfidence that its diplomacy can resolve the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program are worrying. Its veto of the latest U.N. sanctions on Iran angered Washington. And Turkey's deepening rift with Israel, which was once a close ally, is cause for concern.

All the more reason to have Ricciardone hard at work in Ankara, trying to bridge the gap between Turks and Israelis and coordinate U.S., European, and Turkish diplomacy toward Iran. Having served three tours in Turkey and followed events there for 30 years, he can hit the ground running.

"You have to have an ambassador at this critical point in U.S.-Turkish relations," says Lehigh University's Henri Barkey, a specialist on the issue. "Turkey is one of the most important countries for U.S. foreign policy, and not having an ambassador is a disaster."

So why is Brownback blocking the way?

In an Aug. 16 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the senator charged that Ricciardone had failed to bolster the democratic opposition in Egypt when he served as ambassador there in 2005-08.

Surely Brownback can't be penalizing Ricciardone for following the lead of his bosses in Washington. During that period the Bush administration switched from promoting democracy in Egypt to fully backing autocratic President Hosni Mubarak as a supporter of the war on terrorism. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Cairo in 2007, she didn't even mention the name of jailed opposition leader Ayman Nour.

A more likely explanation is Brownback's expressed fear that Turkey is moving away from its "secularist roots" and that Ricciardone would give short shrift to Turkey's secular opposition parties. "We cannot let our desire for a strong bilateral relationship translate into de facto support of the ruling party," the senator says.

Excuse me? Turkey is not Egypt, where elections are a sham and Mubarak has held power for decades. Its government won a fair election. Any U.S. ambassador to Turkey should meet regularly with opposition leaders, especially if their rights seem threatened. But that doesn't mean we can ignore elected officials and push for a return of secular parties to power.

We must deal with the Turkey we have, not the (secular) Turkey we may want, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld. Now, more than ever, we need an ambassador in Ankara who firmly expresses U.S. concerns but works hard to keep our relationship on track.

Ditto for our approach to Damascus. The ostensible reason for the hold on Ford is that Syria has been sending missiles to Hezbollah. But when senior Israeli officials talk of the necessity of a peace deal with Damascus, why are we shying away from contacts with the Syrian regime? It makes little sense to have no ambassador in Damascus when we're embarked on a peace process in which Syria must ultimately play a role.

It's time for certain Republican senators to stop gumming up U.S. diplomacy in order to hit at Obama. That's a shameful misuse of the confirmation process, and it harms our essential interests in the Middle East.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.

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