Atlantic Council's Turkish links cast shadow over Washington think tank industry

The Atlantic Council (AC), one of Washington D.C.'s best-known think tanks, has been in the news once again for its questionable panels, articles and ties to foreign governments. 

The Washington Free Beacon website published an article by its editor-in-chief Eliana Johnson on Friday analysing the AC's recent murky history with lobbyists and autocratic foreign leaders.

The piece is quite damning. It starts with a reminder to readers that it was the AC's president Fred Kempe and AC members who were going into an off-the-record meeting in May 2017 in Washington D.C. with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the Turkish president's bodyguards were “attacking a crowd of protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence”.

The AC continued its meetings with Turkish officials and lobbyists to do their PR, even after the assaults and as the Turkish authorities continued to arrest, beat, torture and crackdown on domestic critics of the government. Since 2017, Turkish officials were continuously hosted by the AC’s polite moderators, who neglected to ask their guests any questions on human rights issues.

The AC’s publications on Turkey “sidestep some of the most contentious issues in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, including Ankara's troubled ties with Europe and the country’s adventurism in the Middle East,” Johnson said.

“In April, the organisation hosted an event featuring, among others, Erdoğan’s spokesman, İbrahim Kalın, whom Atlantic Council president Fred Kempe praised as 'an intellectual force'.… And a recent event highlighting Turkey’s 'refugee resilience' was moderated by a news anchor for TRT, Turkey’s public broadcast station, which has registered as a foreign agent in the United States.”

The AC has also partnered with the government’s Turkish Heritage Organization, a newly established Washington D.C. lobbying arm to give platforms to Turkish officials with soft-ball panels, often moderated by experts with long-time lobbying ties.

And Kempe’s relationship with Erdoğan-linked companies is so close that his own book “Berlin 1961” was promoted at a 2019 meeting organised by the Atlantic Council and Çalık Holding, a Turkish firm with close links to the Erdoğan family and which sponsored the translation of the book.

So while the AC describes itself a bipartisan think tank, its relationship with Ankara appears to be transactional: fund us and we will boost the Erdoğan government’s image in the United States. The think tank has received millions of dollars in funding from the Turkish government.

The AC has taken more money from undemocratic and corrupt governments than other American think tank, Johnson said, citing information from foreign policy analysts.

“The institution publicly discloses the money it has taken from unsavoury governments and foreign businesses and insists that money has no influence on its scholarship - a claim that insiders dispute, pointing to Turkey as an example. The think tank’s operations also provide a window into how the sausage gets made in the nation’s capital, revealing how lobbyists, government officials, wealthy donors and independent experts are often inextricably intertwined,” she said.

The AC’s PR activities have hit such a level that Washington’s respected Turkey experts, such as Henri Barkey, have called out the organisation by name on Twitter, accusing it of engaging in “such egregious behaviour” that “they damage everyone’s reputation, other think tanks & their own folks.” 

“But they probably will be laughing all the way to the bank at the Atlantic Council, Foreign Money Talks,” Barkey said.

Ahval contributor and another Turkey expert Axel Corlu, echoing Barkey’s tweet, said the AC’s activities have become so outrageous that it not only damaged its own credibility but the credibility of “the entire think tank and NGO ecosystem”.

Ahval has been covering the AC’s Turkish governmental connections for years. Last April, Ian Lynch reported:

“One of the United States’ biggest think tanks, the Atlantic Council, hosted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in a live virtual conversation this week that amounted to little more than a public relations spot for the Turkish government. The Atlantic Council has received financial support from several Turkish state-institutions including the Turkey Army College and the Petroleum Pipeline Corporation (BOTAŞ).”

The AC appears to be making sure to give a good return for Turkish investment. In doing so, the AC is giving a bad name to the entire Washington D.C. “think tank” industry.