Turkey's new U.S. Ambassador will have too many burned bridges to rebuild
Murat Mercan, who was appointed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, is no stranger to Washington D.C. He would visit the capital, especially during his term as chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Relations Commission between 2007-2011, for various reasons including lobbying efforts against Armenian Genocide recognition draft bills at the Congress. And when he was in D.C., he would attend meetings with think tanks and make visits in the Congress.
Mercan was one of the first Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies who took on the first waves of reactions in Washington against the party that were sparked by 2009’s “One Minutes” incident between Turkey and Israel, where Erdoğan told Israel’s president at the time, Shimon Peres, that Israel “knew well how to kill children,” in defence of the Palestinian cause at the World Economic Forum in Davos. When the catastrophic Mavi Marmara flotilla incident took place a year after, and nine activists were killed during an Israeli raid on a Turkish NGO attempting to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip, he was again in D.C. to listen complains and comment on the endless ‘who lost Turkey’ questions.
Current ambassador Serdar Kılıç, on the other hand, had arrived in Washington in 2014, when the Erdoğan administration’s fight with followers of Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, was reaching its first peak. He arrived in Washington after the critical March 30 local elections in 2014, following the corruption scandal that came to be known as “December 17-25,” named after the date of police operations on several ministers of Erdoğan’s cabinet and their family members.
Journalists who represented newspapers close to the Gülen movement were also invited to a meeting Kılıç held in the embassy residence during the early months of his duties as ambassador. Back then, Gülenist newspapers had not been designated terrorist and shutdown yet, as the war had not yet progressed as far. However, soon enough it did, and as Erdoğan’s government became more hawkish domestically targeting firstly Gülenists then whoever raises a dissenting voice, Kılıç became fully closed to criticism in Washington. Soon, Turkey’s Washington Embassy was only inviting people based on their love and loyalty for the government.
In May 2017, Kılıç was on the ground when a handful protesters were attacked in front of his official residence by Erdoğan’s bodyguards. The incident sparked nationwide uproars in the United States as news networks aired videos of American citizens being beaten.
It was during Kılıç’s time as ambassador that both houses of Congress passed laws to recognise the Armenian Genocide with landslide majorities - a historic defeat for Turkey. Kılıç didn’t have influence over effective and independent institutions in Washington. He almost never visited any think tanks. He isn’t remembered for a speech or an initiative.
During Kılıç’s time as ambassador, storms took over Turkey in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, for which the Turkish government blamed the Gülenists. Serious evidence has come out since, suggesting that Gülenists were indeed seriously involved with it. Nonetheless, at this point, anybody else the government could have sent to Washington would have done a better job than Ambassador Serdar Kılıç, as an observer recently commented.
Mercan has kept his cool in his Twitter account over the years, and unlike certain troll-like diplomats, he never took on an aggressive attitude where he attacked foreign governments or leaders in a manner closer to Russian tradition. As such, the new ambassador appears to be another thing brought by the tide that turned with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, and took away former finance minister and Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak.
Mercan is also known to be close to former Turkish President Abdullah Gül. As a matter of fact, Mercan first dipped his toes in politics as Abdullah Gül’s adviser at Parliament in the 1990s. Then he became one of the founding members of the AKP. Further in his political career, Mercan was sent to Japanese capital Tokyo as ambassador in 2017, at a time when two former AKP heavyweights were establishing breakaway opposition parties. Some think that his appointment to Tokyo at that time, therefore, was not a random thing. Incidentally, Kılıç had also served as ambassador in Tokyo before his appointment to Washington.
Those who know Mercan have described him as a soft-spoken seasoned politician-turned-diplomat who likes to hear all differing opinions.
Mercan will be the first appointee with a background in politics to represent the Republic of Turkey in Washington D.C. in history. But, does it really matter? Everybody knows that the boss has been making the big decisions in Turkey for several years now. A career diplomat or politician, the person serving in Washington D.C. needed to be able to have Erdogan’s ear to do the job.
Kılıç has been a career diplomat, but for all intents and purposes, he was acting as if a political appointee, a loyalist soldier who had not much time to do any diplomacy. He is known for closing the embassy doors to probably all respected Turkey experts because the Embassy did not have time to hear criticism. One would guess that wartime ambassador Kılıç would have stayed even longer in the U.S. capital, if President Donald Trump didn’t lose his re-election bid.
That said, even if Turkey found a Superman to settle in the embassy’s Sheridan Circle Residence with star-and-crescent-spangled cape flying, the climate in Washington might not have shifted much from its current sharply anti-Erdoğan standing.
The problems between the United States and Turkey that the ambassador has to confront are much bigger now than some Armenian Genocide recognition bill passing through the U.S. Congress Committees.
Coming to the fore are the purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems and the sanctions that necessitates, relations with Kurds in Syria and Turkey, the Halkbank and potentially ensuing indictments, tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey’s human rights and freedoms issues.
The fact that Erdoğan this time selected a moderate figure to send to the United States is a notable exception to years of constantly rewarding die-hard loyalists, which nowadays are plenty in stores. With that, Mercan may have a limited credibility with the new Biden administration.
There are still too many steep mountains in Washington D.C. to overcome, and too many burned bridges to be built back better. The Turkish government broke off its ties with many influential figures and institutions in recent years. Without a big promise of reform and actually delivering some sort of real change, it will be difficult to imagine things will go well for the new ambassador and for his boss in Ankara.