The annual Washington conference of the American-Turkish Council (ATC), perhaps the best-known group lobbying on behalf of Turkish interests in the United States, is usually an occasion for both sides to boast about the strength and importance of the Turkey-US relationship. This year's conference, though, turned out to be a showcase for the deep divisions and political dysfunction gripping Turkey.
On June 1, the day the annual conference started, the ATC's long-time president, former US ambassador to Turkey James Holmes, submitted his resignation along with several other top executives. As reported in the Turkish press, Holmes -- whose organization counts among its members numerous corporations, especially in the defense industry -- had been feeling some heat from Ankara in connection with the political divisions currently gripping Turkey. In particular, it appears supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were upset that the ATC had sent out a news bulletin which included articles from Today's Zaman, the English-language newspaper affiliated with the Gulen movement, which is currently locked in an intense political battle with the AKP.
Moreover, as the pro-government Daily Sabah reports, Holmes further angered AKP supporters when he suggested during a recent conference in Washington that the actions of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were undermining Turkey's democratization. To show its displeasure with Holmes, Ankara this year refrained from sending any high-level government officials to the ATC's conference. In turn, the US government also kept its top officials from the event. The result was not only a lackluster gathering, but also another reminder of how Turkey's domestic political battles are working their way into Washington (a subject I covered in this previous post).
Writing in Milliyet, columnist Asli Aydintasbas, who spoke at the ATC conference, saw the politics surrounding Holmes's resignation as yet another strike against Ankara's "already dented" image in Washington. From her column (as translated by Al-Monitor.com):
Someone who was once an influential figure in Turkish-US relations told me, “Being a bully may work in Turkey, but not here. ATC is an American organization.” Another labeled the pressure on Holmes as “shameful."
The most salient comment came from an official who asked, "If they make ATC ineffective, how is Turkey going to voice its problems?”
For years, there were three different sources working as a Turkish lobby in Washington. The first was the Israeli lobby. The second was TUSKON [the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey] and extensions of the Gulen movement. The government, after destroying its bridges with these organizations, now blew up its last pillar in Washington.
A night before the meeting was to start, ATC Chairman Holmes quietly submitted his resignation to the executive board, hence the mournful ambiance at the meeting. But I don’t think this story will end here. From what I have heard, neither the US administration nor the giant corporations on the ATC board are happy with Ankara’s pressure.
Delivering the keynote address at the conference was Serdar Kilic, Turkey's newly arrived ambassador in Washington. Considering the bad taste left behind by the way Holmes was pushed out of his job, it would appear Kilic will have to start his new job doing some damage control work and making sure Turkey's internal political squabbles stop finding their way to the American capital.