Diplomacy is about more than one ambassador sitting down with another. Imagery is often as important as content. When Tony Blair met Muammar Gaddafi in a desert reception tent, Gaddafi pointed the sole of his shoe at the British prime minister, a symbolic humiliation of the grinning British politician that was lost on neither Libyans nor the larger Arab world. As former Pentagon official Chuck Downs chronicles in Over the Line, a study of diplomacy with North Korea and hands down the best study of the interplay of culture and diplomacy I have ever read, the North Koreans would go further, often sawing the legs of Americans’ chairs so the North Koreans could televise themselves looking down on American negotiators. When Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry defied Bush administration requests to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad isolated, they deflated Syrian dissidents and convinced Assad not to take seriously U.S. demands to stop supporting terrorism.
Alas, now former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has shown that some Republicans have just as poor a sense of timing. The last week has seen Istanbul’s worst protests in a quarter-century. Demonstrations spread across Turkey after police attacked with excessive force protestors seeking to preserve an urban park. Two people have now been killed, thousands detained, and even more injured. U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis (“Frank”) Ricciardone, about whose sycophancy toward dictators I have often been critical, has carried himself well among the protests.
So what does Armitage do? As gas wafted through the streets of Istanbul and nearly every Turkish provincial capital, Armitage decided to party with Turkish ambassador Namik Tan. The venue was a conference at the Ritz-Carlton to promote U.S.-Turkish relations. Now, Namik—a talented diplomat—may be a very nice fellow, although he is, alas, a political chameleon lacking any firm principles.
Imagery matters. It would be nice if Turkey and the United States enjoyed good relations. It would be even nicer if the Turkish government did not embrace Hamas, support the Nusra Front, a group which the United States considers an al-Qaeda affiliate, defend Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir in the face of genocide charges, imprison dozens of journalists, and beat people in the street. Let us hope that Armitage, in his position as chairman of the board of the American Turkish Council, finds some benefit to his actions. If he truly wanted to improve U.S.-Turkish relations, partying at the Ritz with Erdoğan’s man in Washington is not the way to do it.