Biden’s choice for U.S. Ambassador to Turkey

The White House has confirmed press reports that President Biden will nominate former Republican senator from Arizona Jeff Flake to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. Such announcements rarely occur without the sending nation having already received agreement from the receiving nation via confidential diplomatic channels.

Flake is being rewarded for having supported President Biden in November 2020, and also being used to add a patina of bipartisanship to the current administration. He knows these realities and will not bite the hand that feeds him, that is, he will loyally support the Biden-Blinken policy towards Turkey.

As a former senator with strong ties to the more centrist members of both the Republican and the Democratic parties, a speedy confirmation for Flake by the U.S. Senate is most likely, if not a foregone conclusion. Though a few Democratic senators may harbour doubts about someone who voted for former President Trump’s legislative agenda 84% of the time, a Democratic senator voting against the confirmation of a former colleague who voted in November 2020 for Democratic candidate Biden is not foreseen.

Some recently elected Republican Senators may consider Flake a traitor to the post-Trump Republican Party and vote against him for his November 2020 vote, but his strong conservative voting record ensures strong support from those Republican senators, like his good friend and co-religionist Senator Mitt Romney, who focus on traditional Conservatism over Populism.

So what will Turkey be getting? Flake is a serious, conscientious politician who will bring a strong work ethic to his assignment to represent the United States in Turkey and President Biden to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is the first non-career appointee to be assigned as Ambassador to Turkey in quite some time.

U.S. ambassadors are both personal representatives of the president as well as of the state. This dual persona derives from the U.S. president being both head of state and head of government. Unlike career diplomats, political appointee ambassadors tend to be seen more in the role of representing the U.S. president of the moment rather than the U.S. government, regardless of which party controls the White House.

Too much, and too little, can be read into the appointment of a non-career ambassador. The days of regular and direct communication between presidents and “their” ambassadors passed away decades ago, with only a few ambassadors enjoying such regular and direct access. White House staff and the layers of bureaucracy at the State Department ensure that reality except in rare circumstances. (President George W. Bush’s relations with U.S. ambassadors to Iraq would be an exception that proves the rule.)

One cannot imagine that the current U.S. administration will allow Flake to bypass the system for regular direct interaction with Biden. That said, as a political appointee, his interactions with the national security advisor and the Secretary of State will enjoy a bit more regard than that routinely afforded to career diplomats by the political operatives staffing the White House and senior positions at the State Department. As a former senator who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Flake is no neophyte - he knows how to work within the U.S. foreign policy community.

He also has experience living abroad, having served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, commonly called Mormons) in the early 1980s. He was in both South Africa and Zimbabwe, becoming fluent in Afrikaans, which he would have had to study extensively before being sent out as a missionary.

We do not know whether Flake lobbied for an appointment to Turkey or that is what the White House proposed to him. Assuming he sought the ambassadorship to Turkey and not some other country, we must ask: Why Turkey? His foreign experience was most extensive in southern Africa. But, South Africa was never a possibility - the Biden Administration would never send a white Republican who opposed sanctions against Apartheid-era South Africa there as the U.S. Ambassador. And Flake likely saw service elsewhere in southern Africa as not consequential enough. So, if not South Africa, why Turkey and not some other consequential ambassadorship?

Perhaps the parallels between Apartheid-era South Africa and present-day Turkey appealed to him: consequential nations in their regions, a long history of generally (though not exclusively) positive formal diplomatic relations with the United States, imperfect democracies (though in different ways) fraught with ethnic tensions, rich with economic potential not being realised due to leadership failures, increasingly constrained civil rights and press freedom, heavy-handed responses to calls for social and political justice by the political powers, and growing isolation from the international economic and political institutions.

Too much can be made of these parallels - Turkey’s present government may manifest aspects of the Apartheid-era government of South Africa, but a few commonalities do not make them broadly similar. That said, the means and methods used to strengthen democratic governance and expand civil and political rights to all citizens of a nation are quite similar, whether employed before the autocracy is well-established or after it has established itself.

Finally, Flake may be counted on to regularly participate in LDS religious services. Will his active participation in his faith community generate sympathy for him or antipathy towards him in Erdoğan’s White Palace and the wider Turkish political community?

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.