Washington’s Stockholm syndrome

Washington’s Stockholm syndrome

Over the past five years, US-Turkey relations have featured a consistent attempt at “hostage diplomacy” by Ankara. Turkey has been critiqued in the pages of every major American newspaper for this cynical tactic and for applying it to everything from Pastor Andrew Brunson, to State Department employees, to Incirlik Air Base, to Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership. But just in time for Sweden’s accession to NATO, a devastating effect of this consistent use of “hostage diplomacy” has been discovered: The US government has developed Stockholm syndrome.

In 1973, a six-day hostage drama inside a Swedish bank led to the psychological diagnosis known as “Stockholm syndrome.” One of the world’s best hospitals – the Cleveland Clinic – defines this syndrome as “a coping mechanism to a captive or abusive situation. People develop positive feelings toward their captors or abusers over time.”

The “over time” caveat is important in the case of US-Turkey relations. Ankara’s ability to hold American foreign policy hostage has developed over the past 70 years, ever since its geography made it a key chess piece in great power politics. That geopolitical advantage allowed Turkey to escape serious consequence for a whole host of transgressions ranging from consistent bouts of dictatorship, human rights abuses, denying genocide, repression of religious freedom and a five-decade occupation of Cyprus.

To be fair to those suffering from Washington’s version of Stockholm syndrome, imagine that YOUR education contained heavy doses of Halford John Mackinder’s view of geopolitics, which overemphasizes Turkey’s geographic advantages. Then spend decades working in a system where Turkey consistently bordered America’s enemies/adversaries (including the Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq and Syria) and provided hard assets in dealing with those adversaries (e.g. Incirlik Air Base). And while today’s realities are very different, imagine a time when the pro-Israel community and corporate America were part of the “pro-Turkey lobby” and today’s reliable strategic partners and allies in the region were either formally non-aligned (Cyprus) or so rife with anti-Americanism that the importance of Souda Bay was kept quiet (Greece).

All of this is meant to provide an explanation – not an excuse – for the victims of Washington’s Stockholm syndrome. However, the actions that result from this syndrome are indicative of a massive policy failure, one that must be rectified immediately.

There are certain bureaucratic fixes that can be implemented easily and can start the US down the road to a better policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. To begin with, stop treating Turkey as “too big to fail.” During the US financial crisis, this is what the Obama administration did with certain financial institutions, and inadvertently made them BIGGER and made the economy more vulnerable to the fate of these institutions.

How do we avoid a similar result vis-a-vis Turkey? A cursory survey of State Department personnel would suggest that the “Turkey desk” at State is too large in comparison with other Eastern Mediterranean countries. This bureaucratic presence in effect gives Turkey a “lobby” within the State Department, the size of which is wholly undeserved by a country that has at best become – as Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations put it – “Neither Friend nor Foe.”

The existing personnel at the Turkey desk and their superiors also must overcome their (well-earned) reputation of cherry-picking which Turkey experts they consult. I am not suggesting that State should consult Greek or Armenian Americans, or Greek diplomats and analysts. However, the universe of Turkey experts in Washington is large and it is an open secret that State is avoiding most of Turkey’s strident critics.

Finally, having a deputy assistant secretary of state with jurisdiction over the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean AND the Caucuses is inadvisable, no matter how good that official may be. That geographic jurisdiction places Turkey at the epicenter, and any DAS with such jurisdiction – and with a disproportionately large Turkey desk – will constantly be trying to accommodate Ankara. In the previous administration, the jurisdiction of the DAS was the Balkans/Eastern Mediterranean – a jurisdiction that allowed for a more positive agenda and, in fact, achieved far more positive results.

President Joe Biden’s public messaging regarding F-16s to Turkey was the exclamation point on this Stockholm syndrome – and lest anyone suggest this syndrome is partisan in nature, Biden’s stance was reminiscent of President Donald Trump’s openly lobbying for Turkey to receive F-35s. While the bureaucratic fixes may take some time, public signaling from top political – especially elected – leaders should be addressed immediately.

The consistent, bipartisan tradition of refusing to publicly catalogue what Turkey must do to restore its alliance with Washington has run its course. President Biden may insist there was no quid pro quo with regard to F-16s, but his failure to address that such a sale violates the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and threatens stability in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean undermines his credibility.

Stockholm syndrome became part of America’s popular lexicon in 1974 when newspaper heiress Patty Hearst used it as a defense for the crimes she committed while assisting the Symbionese Liberation Army, with whom she started sympathizing while being held captive. Lower-level State Department officials may resemble the Swedish bank hostages, but if F-16s are transferred to Turkey (which has already demonstrated a propensity to employ its existing F-16s to commit crimes – AND has declared the intention of committing additional crimes with F-16s) President Biden and Secretary Antony Blinken risk becoming American foreign policy’s version of Patty Hearst.

Endy Zemenides is executive director at the Hellenic American Leadership Council.

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