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The High Cost of Diplomatic Nicety

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of addressing the World Affairs Council of Houston on the question of Turkey. My basic theme was that there has been a transformation in Turkey, and so it is important that U.S. officials recognize that when discussing Turkey as a model. In the question-and-answer session which followed, a young diplomat from the Turkish consulate who was unhappy with both the choice of speaker and the speech pushed back on one part of my talk, in which I suggested that the United States was unhappy with Turkey’s support for the Nusra Front in Syria.

I’ve discussed previously at COMMENTARY both the Nusra Front and its designation as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, as well as Turkey’s willingness to arm the radical Islamist group in the belief that an al-Qaeda affiliate controlling territory in Syria is better for Turkey’s national security than the secular but Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) doing likewise. When challenged in parliament about Turkish support for Nusra Front, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s increasingly shrill foreign minister, castigated negative descriptions of the Nusra Front as the work of “neo-cons and pro-Israelis in America,” his code-word for Jews.

Lest anyone have any illusions about for what the Nusra Front stands, here is an excerpt from their latest press release, which SITE Monitoring has translated: “Praise be to Allah, who made jihad in His Cause to be the pinnacle. Peace and prayer be upon the one sent with the sword to raise the banner of Islam….”

The diplomat said that U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had recently talked to Turks and had nothing but praise for the Turkish position. Ergo, the diplomat suggested, suggesting that Washington was concerned with Ankara’s position on the Nusra Front was off-base.

Now, it’s quite possible—even likely—that Ford praised Turkey publicly. Obviously, a Turkish diplomat jotted down Ford’s comments and circulated them in a cable sent to various Turkish missions. Privately, however, there is real concern—expressed reportedly by Ford and many others—about the Turkish support for al-Nusra and its increasing radicalization.

Ford—like many diplomats—likes to assuage concerns with politeness and exaggerated praise. This may be what the State Department preaches, but it has a downside: Adversaries will seize on the praise as reason to avoid dealing with fundamental problems. When it comes to al-Nusra, and Turkey’s support for that radical terrorist group, an unwillingness to address the situation directly may ultimately be counted in American lives. Sometimes it’s important to call a spade, a spade, whether or not it adds tension or aggrieves the diplomat across the table.


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