Even the deaf sultan knows by now – as the Turkish saying goes – that President Donald Trump’s new choice for Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, once referred to Turkey under its present government as a “totalitarian Islamic dictatorship.”
What made matters worse for Ankara was that Pompeo tweeted this remark as his response to the coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. He appeared to be suggesting that the coup may be an auspicious event.
Pompeo’s has long since deleted the tweet but, like mud, once flung it left a mark on the wall. This is reason enough for Ankara to be concerned about what the change in the State Department’s top job will mean for ties that are already strained.
The noted American historian Stephen Ambrose once said about the American system of government that “it is not the man that makes the office, but the office that makes the man.”
In other words, whatever Pompeo’s personal views are, once he moves to the State Department he will act according to the situation he finds, whether he likes it or not.
There is, however, the undeniable fact that we have a president in Donald Trump who is actively trying “to make the office” by breaking just about every rule. How this will reflect on his new choice for Secretary of State is unclear.
Take Syria, for instance… There have been a number of cases where the State Department and the Pentagon differed over Ankara’s position on Syria. The Pentagon is always more open about U.S. support for the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish group Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization and is currently fighting in Afrin.
The State Department under Tillerson, however, has always been more circumspect on this topic.
It will be interesting to note Pompeo’s reaction to Erdogan’s openly expressed determination to clear Northern Syria from the YPG – by force if necessary – all the way to the Iraqi border.
The problem is that Washington has disclosed its plans to remain in Syria for the foreseeable future as a precaution against Iran. This means staying in areas that Erdogan plans to wrest from the YPG, and where U.S. forces are also deployed alongside YPG fighters.
Pompeo is a military man with “Tea Party” leanings, which might make him more likely to listen to CENTCOM than to “cookie pushers” when this topic turns real.
The list of other sensitive issues currently straining Turkish-U.S. ties reads like a litany. It includes Ankara’s demand that Washington extradites Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of instigating the coup attempt in 2016. Also on the list is the case of the American pastor, who is in prison in Turkey charged with being a Gulen supporter, and for whom prosecutors want a life sentence.
Pompeo is no rookie on Turkey, which he has visited in his current capacity of CIA director. He is also aware of Turkey’s importance for America’s strategic interests. Even so, what his ultimate approach to a country he believes to be a “totalitarian Islamic dictatorship” remains uncertain.
Turkey needs more answers than new questions in its dealings with the U.S. presently. Trump’s choice for his new Secretary of State, however, has left it facing more questions, whose answers, when they come, may not be welcome.