Tuesday, December 13, 2016

American Diplomacy in Turkey by James W. Spain (Book Review #75 of 2016)



American Diplomacy in Turkey: Memoirs of an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

I read this book after reading the 1893 memoir Diversions of a Diplomat in Turkey by American Minister Samuel S. Cox (available at archive.org, and see my review). Spain is writing 90 years later, as a true Ambassador, and from a different capital, but much of the observations and meanderings of the pen are similar. Diplomacy is boring. I write this review as a conditional hire of the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer; it's been my lifelong dream to work in diplomacy. I happen to also aspire to live and work in Turkey, which I did for a year once. Hence, this out-of-print book was a must-read and I gladly bought it used for a decent price. This book is a good read on life in the Foreign Service and how the staff of an embassy serves their Ambassador, and what he does all day/night. (Page numbers are missing from most of my citations because my camera did not capture them.)

Anyone interested in modern events in Turkey should enjoy the first couple chapters of this book which deal with Spain's early days in Turkey and the coup of September 12, 1980. The unrest and evacuation of American families in 2016 pales in light of the killing of several Americans in Turkey in the late 1970s, including one who had spent years in service to the consulate in Istanbul:
"(A)ttitudes toward personal security had changed (since 1974)...By February of 1980...seven U.S. citizens had been killed in the previous year--and one more, an old friend, was to die before that awful winter was over. Now, things were being taken seriously." (Spain doesn't mention it, but I think some of the 1979 deaths during the uprisings after the capture of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni radicals, for which America and Israel were wrongly blamed; there were attacks on US consulates in Turkey and elsewhere.)

The Turkish constitution at the time made it difficult for a ruling coalition to last and bring stability. As inflation and violence spiraled upward (at one point it seemed that every Turk was carrying a gun), civil services and political cooperation spiraled downward and it seemed inevitable the military would intervene. Spain's staff spent much of 1980 ferreting for information and sending it back to Washington. On the night of the coup, his team actually neglected a chance to tell Washington it was underway because there had been several false alarms.

He puts to bed the notion that the Embassy or CIA was somehow behind the coup, which was claimed by Soviet media and is almost accepted as fact by most today. (Probably won't change any minds, but American capabilities are always far less than conspiracy theorists dream up.) While the coup happened too late to be printed in Soviet morning newspapers, they were out the next day in the US. Soviet propoganda ignored the time zone differences, it was easy for US news channels to cover word of the coup on television as the event happened in the afternoon/evening in the US. But what was less easily deflected is that the Turkish General Staff that directed the coup were all acquainted with the Ambassador and had attended parties at his residence. As his wife remarked "I never knew even one member of a military junta before, and all six of these have been in our house the past couple weeks."

Spain writes about the relief of law and order that arrived with curfew. Gone were the marches, strikes, and violence. Soldiers worked to scrub grafitti off buildings and streets could be cleaned. He notes that "several hundred more terrorists were rounded up, including some from the Marxist-Leninist armed propoganda unit (which had killed a US Navy officer just prior)." While he writes that at least 50 parliamentarians were arrested, and several leaders put under house arrest, Spain does not delve much into the long-lasting implications of this. I doubt he could imagine that decades later Gen. Kenan Evren would stand trial (he was elected President with 90 percent of the vote in 1982), and the arrests and torture of citizens would become a focal point of Turkish art and culture in the early 21st century; the memories of the coup perhaps dooming 2016's attempt from the start.

From Washington's standpoint, stability had arrived. "Long-standing debts" were paid, long-stalled treaties were finally ratified. It suddenly became easier to provide security for US sailors and visiting parties. But Spain and other visiting US Congressmen (and other NATO partners) pressed the Turkish government on a timeline for a return to free elections, as well as better relations with NATO ally Greece, enough to be annoying. Spain notes that the new draft constitution put "restraints" on the press and universities but left "considerable domestic freedom... (and) what most Western nations call democracy."

The junta left Turgüt Özal in his post in charge of the economy and supported his plan of privatization, eliminating subsidies, a flexible exchange rate, reducing barriers to foreign investment, and bringing down inflation. The subsequent economic growth allowed Turkey to negotiate better credit arrangements.  Spain writes that "a few thoughtful Turks" pointed out that Atatürk's disciples had opposed such reforms due to the lack of contextual understanding of Atatürk's time. Atatürk had indicated he looked forward to the day when Turkey was attractive enough for foreign investment. Özal and Spain conversed on several occassions, and Spain was able to get Özal to listen to US business concerns when CEOs visited (Spain cheekily gives credit to "Allah, always a powerful force in both business and diplomacy"). Özal ran in opposition to the regime in 1983 and was elected Prime Minister.

In his official capacity, Spain attends and hosts several parties a week. (In this sense, the junta's curfew was a godsend.) He explains the pecking order of diplomats and some of the awkward occassions of conversing with a PLO representative or other sort. Parties are the chance to pass along messages to the Turkish government and bring up issues of importance. The US was looking for all the cooperation it could get on the Iranian hostage crisis, and Turkey was loathe to do much.

Any "tense" moments in the book are instances like when Spain pushes back on an official letter from President Carter, expressing concerns about wording and suggesting edits (via telegram) hoping for quick turnaround before he has to present said letter to Gen. Evren or others. In 1981, Spain and his team help during an airline hijacking and hostage taking by Dev Sol (The Revolutionary Left). At some point, a mysterious group of Dept. of Defense employees arrive in Turkey ostensibly in regards to scouting an operation in Iran to free the hostages (p. 201). Spain gets concerned about their mucking about without the Embassy or the Turkish government aware of what they're doing and he sends them packing; he later learns this annoyed unnamed people in DC but was wise in hindsight. (One wonders what this almost-chapter in history was.)

If you're a foreign affairs/diplomacy wonk you will also enjoy the tales in this book from his posts in Karachi and Dar es Salaam during the Nixon Administration and his dealings with Henry Kissinger. Spain happened to accidentally get in the middle of the Pakistanis' secretly carrying Nixon's overtures to China in 1969 before Kissinger secretly visited said country (p. 196). (Kissinger also once saved Spain from a Secret Service agent.) Kissinger had a strong personality known for sending strongly-worded telegrams on various subjects to be communicated to the powers-that-be, Spain's wording is diplomatic but you can tell his displeasure. I would enjoy Spain's later autobiography, this book contains few personal details about his life and early service days.

From a hopeful Foreign Service standpoint, there is much about embassy operations in this book. Hosting and coordinating visits of various US delegations is one difficulty, as is arranging various meetings with foreign dignitaries. Much of the work involves writing official communiques with Washington. There was one airline hijacking/hostage situation the Embassy had to work around-the-clock on in the book. The Ambassador makes decisions to benefit the most where possible, requires Solomonic wisdom in divvying up available housing, and they occassionally has to spend from his own pocket to host parties for US staffers or even to pay some of the staff at the official residence.

Spain had previously served at two posts in Turkey from 1970-1974 and clearly wanted to be appointed to return when the opening came up during the Carter administration. That whole process is as amusing as archaic bureaucratic processes can be-- you get used to it in working for the State Department. Spain's nomination is held up by an apparently well-meaning Senator Javits who is concerned about Spain having once had some connection in his early career to the CIA. Spain notes that such concerns by Congress were becoming less frequent; foreign policy has been increasingly centralized in Washington, DC and Ambassadors do not have as much autonomy as they did in, say, the late 1890s. He writes that JFK was the last President to regularly communicate with envoys going to and from Washington. "(T)he more decisions that are left to embassies, the better U.S. foreign policy interests are likely to be served," he moans (p. 207).

Spain and his wife desired a post in Turkey for a reason-- it is magical and important. They enjoy "'being in Turkey' more than the formal duties of our stay there" (p. 121).
There are always sights to see, new archaeology being discovered, no shortage of beaches, mountains, or other destinations. It also borders Iran (this is during the US hostage crisis) and the USSR, making the Embassy hugely important. The Ambassador is a Turkophile and seems to be well-read in old books he finds in the British Embassy's library and elsewhere. He writes that he could speak an "elementary school" Turkish, which was enough to give long toasts and put most other Western Ambassadors to shame. He fills many of the pages with stories of outings with family, shopping, etc. that seem more for his own family than a general audience. As such, the book lacks any information about the majority of Turkish people, you only get a view into the lives of the "elite."

When the Reagan Administration made controversial appointments to embassies upon taking office, Spain is one who is surprisingly replaced. He is diplomatic in his disappointment, not mentioning his replacement by name and only stating that he had pulled considerable political strings to get the job. (The fallout results in Congressional action to strengthen the career Foreign Service.) I give this book 4 stars out of 5, mainly because I want people to find it and read it.

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