Commentary Magazine


Where Were Mistakes Made on Russia, Turkey, and Iran?

One of the biggest patterns that became apparent in the course of researching the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that diplomats leading the engagement never set firm metrics ahead of time to judge whether diplomacy is successful, and seldom step back after the fact to determine, in hindsight, where they made mistakes and what the key points were where a different strategy might have altered the outcome.

By the definition of rogue regime (or backlash state) laid out by Tony Lake, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, Turkey most certainly is not a rogue, Russia may have become one, and Iran certainly is. Nevertheless, all three have become increasingly problematic to U.S. national security and all may come to symbolize the failure of American diplomacy in the first decades of the 21st century. Clearly, the United States got Turkey and Russia wrong: Turkey is more a dictatorship than a democracy, and more an adversary than ally. Russia also is less a partner than a relic of the Cold War. As for Iran, recent reports that Iran is buying nuclear parts on the black market do not give confidence that Iran is negotiating in good faith.

While President Obama and his national security team react to events in the Crimea and to Russia’s bluster, there has been little or no introspection by the State Department or White House about where the mistakes were made with regard to Russia. It’s not simply a matter of partisan finger pointing, for there is enough blame to go around: President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a soul. He responded with little more than rhetoric after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Hillary Clinton pushed the reset button; Obama threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to appease Russian concerns; and his hot-microphone moment conveyed a stronger desire to reduce American arms than even Congress was comfortable with. All the while, there was lower-level diplomacy and Russian actions which in hindsight might have provided warnings, had the State Department been ready to recognize them. Perhaps it is time for an independent committee to review the last decade of Russo-American diplomacy to determine, with hindsight, where the United States should have recognized the reality of Putin and his ambitions. Only by studying past mistakes can future diplomats hope to avoid repeating them.

The same holds true with Turkey: Warning signs extend back well over a decade, but the State Department refused to recognize them. In 2004, I researched a piece—based on a lot of leakage and documentary contributions from Turkish journalists and government officials who could not speak publicly—about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s money laundering schemes and slush funds. The piece upset the Turkish government. According to Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara assured that there was nothing to the report. How comforting, except that they did not apparently do anything other than ask government officials who had every interest in covering up the financial irregularities. The ambassador at the time blindly accepted the idea that Erdoğan was a reformer; he did not ask who the sources were and upon what the allegations were based.

Hindsight, however, shows the initial concerns warranted and the specifics of the article accurate. Likewise, Daniel Fried, a senior American diplomat, described Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as little more than the Turkish version of a Christian Democratic Party. This, too, was nonsense but it would be useful to see how diplomats came to reach such a conclusion. Many other former ambassadors to Turkey, some of whom had long been cheerleaders for the Erdoğan experiment, have now come around to the recognition that there is rot in Ankara, and there is not a democratic bone in Erdoğan’s body. The question for the State Department is not about the fact that they were wrong—there is no shame in that—but, with the benefit of hindsight, what were the warning signs they missed? Where was trust misplaced? Where did sources mislead? Absent such introspection, it is unclear why anyone should expect more accurate reporting or analysis from the U.S. Embassy in Turkey or Bureau of European Affairs in the future.

Iran is a more politicized topic but, given what is at stake, a more serious one: It is wrong to suggest that there were no negotiations with Iran in the decades between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama: There was plenty, but John Kerry and negotiator Wendy Sherman seem intent on reinventing the wheel without consideration to how the same people upon whom they now rely have in the past lied and cheated. That does not mean that history is bound to repeat, but repetition is much more likely if senior American officials do not care to learn from past mistakes.

Just as to a hammer everything looks like a nail, to the State Department everything seems a subject for talks. It should not surprise that Foggy Bottom does not want to consider its mistakes, because to do so might undermine the drive to dialogue. Introspection, however, does not diminish diplomacy; it simply makes it more effective. Perhaps, however, if the State Department is unwilling to do what’s necessary, it is time for Congress to exercise its oversight.

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