Whirling Dervish of a Desk Officer

Posted by Danielle Garbe
November 13, 2007
Blue Mosque and Bazaar in Turkey

Danielle Garbe currently serves as the Turkey Desk Officer.

My first four months as the Turkey desk officer in Washington who covers the political dimension of our bilateral relationship has felt at times like the dance of the whirling dervish. I started in July when Turkey was spinning on the political currents of historic parliamentary elections that resulted in the return to power of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by a 14 percent higher margin than it had received in 2002. Prime Minister Erdogan resumed his office and the parliament elected his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, as the next president. Some in Turkey had questioned whether Gul could be president because his wife wears a traditional Muslim headscarf. Turkey resolved the issue through a free and fair election that demonstrated the strength of its democracy and rule of law.

I experienced the excitement of Turkey during an orientation trip to Ankara and Istanbul the week of September 10. Though you can learn much by reading about a place, there’s nothing like experiencing it first hand. Turkey is a beautiful and fascinating country with centuries of history that are particularly evident in the minarets and domes of the Sultans’ mosques and palaces that punctuate the Istanbul skyline and the banks of the Bosporus. The Bosporus itself is an amazing waterway that unites two continents. It is at once an avenue for the container ships of global industry as well as a diversion for the thousands of Turks who line its sides and perch over its bridges each day to try their luck at fishing. While Turkey’s impressive history is well known, its future is even more promising with modern, dynamic cities and an average of 7 percent GDP growth over the past five years that is seen in new construction sites and increased trade throughout the country. The Turkish government officials, think tank members, academics, and community leaders I met described this new landscape for me and painted a much broader picture of Turkey and its citizens, its interests, and its views of the United States than I could have seen from my desk in Washington.

One of the things I was most interested in understanding better was why Turkey, which has been a strategic ally and partner of the United States for decades, has such a low public opinion of the United States. The 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey shows only 9 percent of Turks have a favorable attitude towards the United States. One reason for those opinions became evident in the blazing headlines in Turkish newspapers during my visit – the lead story emblazoned across the front pages on September 11 was the erroneous claim that U.S. soldiers were meeting with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists in northern Iraq.

Our Embassy in Ankara denounced these fabrications with a strong statement. I raised the issues as well during my meetings, working to reassure our Turkish counterparts that the conspiracy theories about U.S. support for or involvement with the PKK are patently false. The PKK has killed over 30,000 Turkish soldiers and civilians in the last two decades, and the United States joined Turkey in declaring the PKK a terrorist organization in 1997. The United States has since worked to disrupt the PKK’s criminal and financial networks in Europe and its operations in northern Iraq.

I returned from my trip just as our Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns was arriving in Turkey to engage with the new government. He had outlined his goals for his visit and the strategic importance of Turkey in a speech at the Atlantic Council just prior to his departure for Istanbul and Ankara. At the United Nations General Assembly just a few days later, Secretary Rice had her first meeting with the new Turkish Foreign Minister, Ali Babacan. I was able to go to New York to take notes for that meeting, in which they reaffirmed the Shared Vision statement Secretary Rice and then-Foreign Minister Gul had signed in 2006.

Just as the United States was working to increase our cooperation with Turkey, so too, was Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki visited Turkey in August, and his Minister of the Interior followed in a visit that resulted in the September 28 signing of an agreement on counterterrorism cooperation. We welcomed these developments, but the PKK did not. On September 29, the PKK attacked a bus in Sirnak province near the Iraq border, killing 12 innocent civilians. On October 7, the PKK attacked and killed 13 Turkish soldiers near Sirnak. The PKK followed those attacks with another on October 21 that left at least 12 soldiers dead and took hostage another 8. In a three week period, over 50 people had lost their lives to terrorism.

We cannot allow the PKK to drive a wedge between Turkey and the United States or between Turkey and Iraq. The last few weeks have been a whirl of diplomacy as we have worked with our counterparts in Turkey and Iraq to facilitate increased cooperation and concrete actions to stop PKK terrorism emanating from northern Iraq. Secretary Rice traveled to Turkey November 2 and 3 for meetings with her Turkish counterparts. She then held a meeting with Iraqi FM Zebari and Turkish FM Babacan in Istanbul on the margins of the Expanded Iraq Neighbors Ministerial to further support and facilitate our trilateral counterterrorism cooperation. PM Erdogan was in Washington November 5 to meet with President Bush and to underline the importance Turkey places on its strategic partnership with the United States and our coordinated efforts to combat terrorism around the globe. As President Bush said, the PKK is an enemy of Turkey, an enemy of Iraq, and an enemy of the United States.

The dazzling sights of Turkey, the vibrancy of its culture and its economy, the passion of its people and their government as they work to improve their lives inspire all of us who are responsible for fostering our relationship with Turkey. I am only a small part of a large team of diplomats here in Washington and in Turkey who work every day on a number of issues including countering terrorist threats, assisting Turkey on its path towards EU accession, fostering political and economic reforms, increasing trade and economic development, and strengthening cultural ties between our two countries. Though I am now far removed from the sights and sounds of Ankara and Istanbul, I think of the wonderful people I met in Turkey. We owe it to all our friends there to make sure that they can live their lives in peace and prosperity, free from terrorism.



November 15, 2007

Murat in Turkey writes:

I personally thank you for your comments about our country and our people, and your encouraging remarks against the terrorist organization. According to my observation, Turkish people have long felt sincere friendship and sympathy towards America. When I was a child, even there were young people wearing clothes with U.S. flag on them. However, this positive mood was reversed in the last years due to some disappointments.

Now, a majority sees America as a friend to whom we have given all our support within our democratic processes but received much less support than we expected (Note: this is what I observe). In my opinion, this is partly due to some foreign policy conflicts and partly due to the anti-American propaganda that is deliberately conducted by extremist evil forces all over the world.

On the other hand, still there's no severe antipathy towards American brands, businesses, people or way of life here and the negative mood is limited to current political affairs. Anyway, I still believe that the current mood is temporary and common long term interests and sincere friendship between our countries will help us overcome this situation.

Maryland, USA
November 16, 2007

Steve in Maryland writes:

Do you really think that public opinion in Turkey can be blamed on bad media?

Is there no sense that maybe our failed policy in the Middle East (i.e. Iraq, Israel/Palestine, etc) might be to blame?

I was a high school in Turkey in the early seventies and I remember a lot of goodwill back then, even after our disgraceful response to the Cyprus crisis.

As a former FSO, I look forward to hearing some vigorous debate on this site.

Ohio, USA
November 21, 2007

Lemane in Ohio writes:

I would like to express my opinion about the guys from department of states who speak Arabic and started recently writing in some Arabic blogs.

I think that it is a great idea to start a communication with Arabic world myself I read a conversation on one of those blogs and added a comment I realized how it could correct the image in the mind of Arabic people about America.


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