‘The most difficult portfolio’: Former ambassador discusses Turkey’s earthquakes, strategic importance

‘The most difficult portfolio’: Former ambassador discusses Turkey’s earthquakes, strategic importance
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey with Gen. Lloyd Austin, who is now Secretary of Defense, in 2010. (Courtesy Photo.)

By Denise Dunbar | ddunbar@alextimes.com

When the massive, 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6, one Alexandria resident knew exactly what people on the ground were dealing with: James Franklin Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, who did four tours there and was also a special representative for Syria engagement.

In 1999, when Jeffrey was serving as deputy chief of mission in Turkey, a significant earthquake struck near the major population centers of Istanbul and Ankara in the northern and north-central parts of the country.

“The American response is typically the same in all of these,” Jeffrey said. “First of all, it’s political support. Secondly, the United States has a huge capability through international institutions…to mobilize the international community.”

After political support comes financial aid.

“Then we promise a great deal of money. It’s about $100 million in this case. We move military forces in essentially because they can move quickly,” Jeffrey said. “It’s not their combat power that’s of any importance. It’s the fact that a military unit of any size…is like a small city. It has communications. It has helicopters. It has medical supplies. It has engineers. It has all kinds of neat things that can be used in any crisis, which is why we activate the National Guard here in the United States all the time.”

The former ambassador said this type of response is generally successful, and it’s helping now in Turkey.

“Moving in the military, it also is a symbol of America’s presence, including military presence, which allies tend to like. That’s the game plan that we essentially apply to anything like an earthquake or a huge flood in a close partner or ally. We’re doing this very effectively now in Türkiye*.” Jeffrey said.

The current earthquake, much larger than the one in 1999, took place well south of Turkey’s main population centers, but Jeffrey said the region is nonetheless important.

“While this was not a cosmopolitan part of Türkiye, it was a very economically important one, key to trade with countries in the Gulf and to the south. Therefore, this is a huge blow to Türkiye,” he added.

The size of the impacted region brings a special set of complicating factors.

“This [earthquake] is much, much greater [than in 1999] both in number of people killed – it’s probably over 50,000 now – and the area is almost half the size of Texas. …When you have devastation of cities in that big an area, you have a recovery problem that is enormous,” Jeffrey said.

Providing aid to survivors while also dealing with those who have died is a huge challenge.

“First of all, trying to get people and then bodies out of the wreckage, then trying to find housing and food and water for the survivors because even those buildings that did not collapse, you probably cannot go back into them until they’re certified. Then, finally, the long-term rebuilding,” Jeffrey said.

Turkey’s geopolitical importance

Jeffrey spent a total of nine years in Turkey during his four stints there while in the U.S. Foreign Service. His fourth tour began in December 2008, when President George W. Bush appointed him as Ambassador, a post he held until July 2010.

“[Türkiye] is the most difficult portfolio the State Department has, period. Because it’s so big, it’s so important, and it’s so controversial,” Jeffrey said.

According to Jeffrey, Turkey’s significance and helpfulness to the U.S. is poorly understood by many in this country.

“Türkiye is very important because of its size. It is, along with Iran, number two in population in the Middle East – if you consider Türkiye in the Middle East….It has a very strong economy even now, somewhere between number 17 and number 14 in the world; a very strong military,” Jeffrey said.

But there’s an undercurrent of anti-Westernism in Turkey that makes it a prickly partner at times.

“The Turks expected to get into the European Union, but they didn’t. There’s various, specific U.S. policies near abroad in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere that they disagree with, so our relations are sometime strained,” Jeffrey elaborated.

What Americans sometimes fail to understand is that Turkey’s geography means that it has to proceed cautiously, particularly with Russia.

“Generally, it is a difficult but very important ally of ours against Iran and Russia, who are seen by the Turks as long-term, major threats to their country. …While the Turks are the most effective block to the Russians anywhere in Eurasia other than us, they also have cozy relations with the Russians in trade and some other areas,” Jeffrey said.

The ambassador said our relationship with Turkey is a “glass three-quarters full” situation, where they’re with us most of the time on important issues.

“Washington, believe me, is bred to focus on the one-quarter and pound on that rather than all the good things you get from a partner, and so the Turks are resentful about that,” Jeffrey said.

One of the common misconceptions many Americans have about Turkey is that it’s not really a democracy, particularly as Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s rule has become increasingly authoritarian.

“Türkiye under President Erdoğan is an illiberal democracy. Both words are important,” Jeffrey explained. “That is, at the end of the day, votes are counted. Erdoğan can, and in some cases has, lost. He lost most of the cities in the last set of elections. He, for various reasons, has to adhere to that. That is, he doesn’t have a coup option.”

But the illiberal part is equally important.

“It is an illiberal one in that there is very little division of power. There’s little federalism. There’s little checks and balances. Particularly, the court system is dominated by his people. The media is under pressure. That’s all true,” Jeffrey said.

U.S. presidents are often judged by how well they handle crises, and Turkey is no different. Jeffrey said many people within Turkey are upset at Erdoğan’s handling of earthquake relief.

“The government did not turn to the army, which is very big and very effective. It has a lot of troops there. The government had a cozy relationship with major construction firms and allowed the construction code, which is supposed to prevent such things – I mean Türkiye is no stranger to earthquakes – ignored,” Jeffrey said.

As a result, there’s a very real possibility that Erdoğan could fare poorly in Turkey’s upcoming election.

“You have an election coming up now in two months that will decide the fate of the Erdogan government, which has been in power for over 20 years now.”

A life of service

Jeffrey hails from Saugus, Massachusetts. After receiving his BA in history from Northeastern University in 1969, he spent seven years as a U.S. Army infantry officer, with tours in Vietnam and Germany, during which he received the Bronze Star.

After leaving the military, Jeffrey went to Boston University, graduating in 1977 with an MBA. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service afterward, and has spent his career practicing diplomacy both in Washington and at stops around the world, becoming fluent in German, Turkish and French along the way.

“You’re constantly going from one country to another and then back to Washington,” Jeffrey said. “I specialized in the Balkans, Türkiye and the Middle East. … Essentially, it’s a Darwinian competition. If you’re successful and lucky, you rise to ambassador. I was ambassador in Albania, Türkiye, Iraq, and then chief of mission, which is a slightly different variant of ambassador, in Syria.”

The first 20 years of Jeffrey’s career were spent helping the U.S. fight the Cold War. Those years brought a clear sense of direction and overarching mission for U.S. foreign policy – and those conducting it – that was lacking once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall fell, taking the Iron Curtain with it.

“Suddenly, we were in a world of, if you will, expanding the American Western global value system: collective security, democracy, liberalized trade, free immigration, and all of that. For the better part of 30 years, from 1990 until a few years ago, that was what we were doing in places like Albania and Turkey and Iraq,” Jeffrey said.

Instead of pursuing ideological aims, the mission shifted to dealing with specific problems like terrorism, weak economies, human rights abuses, nuclear proliferation and human trafficking.

“It was specific problems, but without any overarching mission like we had during World War II or in the Cold War, beyond simply expanding our view of how the world should be globally and within countries,” Jeffrey said. “This led to two disasters: Iraq, a limited disaster, and Afghanistan, a total disaster.”

Jeffrey said with the end of that 30-year period of American dominance, “we’re faced with an existential challenge.”

Hopeful about Iraq

Jeffrey was sent to Iraq soon after the fighting ended and the dust was settling after the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein.

“I went into Iraq right as the State Department took over and set up an embassy. … I went to work with [Jerry] Bremer to do the transition. Then John Negroponte came in as ambassador. I was his deputy,” Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey served as charge d’affaires there for a few months in 2005, then returned to the State Department to become the Iraq coordinator.

“In 2004-2005, we were just trying to survive. I mean, we had bit off more than we could chew, to be frank. We were just lucky to not have had the country totally collapsed or go the route of Afghanistan,” he said.

When Jeffrey went back to Iraq in 2010 as ambassador, U.S. troops were preparing to pull out of the country.

“We all thought that was a bad idea [to pull U.S. troops out], including many Iraqis,” Jeffrey said. But the troops eventually left because Iraqis “didn’t really see the need for an American presence that they felt was a perpetuation of the British presence and colonialism.”

Despite Iraq’s many and ongoing problems, Jeffrey believes there is hope for the country’s future.

“It’s got its own internal problems, but it’s got a functioning economy. It pumps almost half as much oil as Saudi Arabia. We just had Lloyd Austin, the Secretary of Defense, there. This is not Afghanistan. In that sense, I have a good feeling,” he said.

Jeffrey concluded with a strong endorsement of the people who serve abroad and conduct U.S. foreign policy.

“The American people should know … that they are well-served by American diplomats, intelligence officers, USAID assistance people and others who are out there at the point of the spear, risking their lives, working on crises from Ukraine to Iraq, inside Syria right now and elsewhere,” Jeffrey said. “Not only trying to preserve the peace and help people and restore stability, but in the long run, keeping us all safe.”

*Last year, Turkey officially changed its name in the United Nations to The Republic of Türkiye. Ambassador Jeffrey used the revised name in his comments, but elsewhere we continue to use the traditional spelling of Turkey, as it remains the most widely used version.