When President Obama sent Ambassador Francis “Frank” J. Ricciardone to Turkey as a recess appointment, I was pessimistic. Ricciardone had not performed well during his tour in Egypt. So desperate to ingratiate himself with President Hosni Mubarak, he declared that the Egyptian president was so popular that, “If he had to run for office in the United States, my guess is he could win elections in the United States as a leader who is a giant on the world stage.” This statement was among the reasons why former senator Sam Brownback held up his nomination.
Turkey is a sensitive post. While some diplomats still talk optimistically about a ‘Turkey model” for post-Mubarak Egypt, the fact of the matter is that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, the AKP) increasingly pursue a Saudi model, simultaneously promoting Islamism, subsidizing anti-Semitism, and cracking down on a free press and democratic dissent. Elections this June may be the last free elections Turkey has if the AKP gets its way.
It was refreshing to see, therefore, Ricciardone appear to recognize, if not admit, his Egypt errors. At a reception on Tuesday, Ricciardone made waves when he commented: “Journalists [in Turkey] are being detained on the one hand, while addresses about freedom of speech are given on the other. We do not understand this, so we ask you.”
The AKP’s response? “Ambassadors cannot interfere with our domestic matters, they cannot design our domestic policies. There is a domain within which they have to operate and drawn limits.”
It’s a good thing that Ricciardone has diplomatic immunity. Otherwise he might end up in a Turkish prison along with Turkish journalists. At least Ricciardone now recognizes reality. The question is, will President Obama?