What we know about Biden’s pick as Turkey ambassador Jeff Flake

U.S. President Joe Biden has selected former Republican senator Jeff Flake to serve as his ambassador to Turkey.

In a blog post following the announcement, Flake emphasised “the strategic importance of the United States’ relationship with our long-time NATO ally, the Republic of Turkey.

“If confirmed by the Senate, I will be pleased to join a strong, experienced and capable team representing U.S. interests abroad,” he said.

Flake represented the U.S. state of Arizona as a Republican in the Senate from 2013 to 2019, having previously served for more than a decade in the House of Representatives, and the pick has received bipartisan praise from his former colleagues.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy described Flake as an “outstanding choice” to serve in Ankara.

“Our relations with Turkey’s government have been fraught in more recent years by tensions over security matters and human rights policies," Leahy said. “Jeff is a perfect choice to work toward a more constructive relationship that would be good for both of our countries, for the region, and for the world.”

The new ambassador will arrive to a busy in-tray.

The Biden administration hasn’t shied away from criticising their Turkish counterparts over a crackdown on student-led protests, an abrupt withdrawal from an international convention on gender-based violence, and anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT rhetoric, including from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself.  

Deep disagreements also remain over Turkey’s 2019 decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system and subsequent U.S. sanctions, as well as Washington’s ongoing military support for Syrian Kurdish fighters that Ankara accuses of links to terrorism.

Meanwhile, legal action against Turkish state-owned lender Halkbank over an alleged multi-million-dollar scheme to circumvent sanctions on Iran continues in the New York City courts.

At the same time, Flake is likely to also find new grounds for cooperation. Turkey has preliminarily agreed to take responsibility for Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan after the U.S military finishes its withdrawal from the country in September, a deal that was cemented at the first face-to-face meeting between Biden and Erdoğan in June.

Flake is no stranger to international relations, having served on the foreign affairs committees in the Senate and the House for close to two decades. In his youth, he worked as a Christian missionary in South Africa and he helped lead a pro-democracy campaign in Namibia after its independence in 1990.

The likely new ambassador’s views on Turkey are less well known. However, clues can be gleaned from his voting record in Congress where, as a member of the House in 2007, he co-sponsored a resolution condemning the murder of three Christian workers at the Zirve Publishing House in Turkey’s Malatya province. The resolution called on Turkey to ensure religious freedom and protect religious minorities.

In 2011, Flake sponsored a resolution that directed the U.S. president to prohibit foreign financial institutions from opening correspondent bank accounts in the United States if they were found to be knowingly doing business with the Central Bank of Iran. Although the resolution didn't explicitly reference Turkey, the on-going Halkbank case involves exactly this form of sanction-busting.

Flake also voted in favour of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The bill targets entities that knowingly engage with Russia’s defence sector and provides the legal basis for current sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of the s-400 missiles.

However, Flake is perhaps best known in the United State as a leading Republican critic of former President Donald Trump. Speaking shortly after he retired in 2019, Flake assailed Trump’s embrace of autocratic strongmen, including the Turkish president.   

"All over the world the authoritarian impulse is resurgent, the bad guys are flexing their muscles, and they are being given encouragement by the leader of the free world," Flake said, adding that Trump gives Erdoğan “very high marks”.

It remains unclear how far Flake will maintain this publicly critical view if and when he arrives in Ankara. Erdoğan has reacted aggressively against outspoken U.S ambassadors in the past, damaging their diplomatic work.  

But despite Flake’s defence of democratic ideals, some U.S. civil society figures have reacted negatively to his nomination. Alex Gallitsky, the communications director for the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), said Flake’s record “does not inspire hope” in his capacity for confronting Erdogan’s Turkey.

According to ANCA’s scorecards for U.S. Congressmembers on Armenian issues, Flake received an F-grade for consistently voting against designating the mass killings of Armenians during the final days of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide.

Gallitsky said Flake was one of only five members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to reject recognising the Armenian genocide when a vote on the matter reached the body for the first time.

Flake’s opposition was not particularly unusual given the traditional U.S. stance of non-recognition in the name of preserving good ties to Turkey before this changed under Biden in April.

“The fact that the only experience Biden nominee Jeff Flake has with Turkey is voting against U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the House and Senate should be an immediate disqualifier for a post that demands someone able to confront Erdogan's disdain for human rights,” Gallitsky said.  

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
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