As the crisis with Turkey evolves, it is important that we expose the aspects of a parallel war of information and influence taking place thousands of miles away from home – more specifically in Washington. This is very crucial, because we have to know our enemy, as Turkey has started to take advantage of public dialogue in Greece in order to promote its positions in the United States.
We often use terms such as “the Turkish lobby” without fully realizing the range of the agencies and the tactics involved in this war for influence. This war involves states competing against each other to develop ties with members of Congress and former officials that are about to climb back to power; experts and think tanks that are trying to promote the interests they serve; journalists who manipulate data and facts in order to advance their agenda. And from some corner of this Machiavellian town, we had until recently been standing as plain observers that fail to grasp the world in its full complexity.
Thankfully, both on a state and private level, efforts are being made (which are unprecedented for Greek standards) to upgrade our status from plain observers to strategic participants. Right now, an effort is being made to make up for decades of oversights while our eastern neighbor has been busy cultivating a network of do-gooders pretending to be his objective supporters.
This Turkish network of influence more or less includes the following players:
1. Professional lobbyists
These are mostly law firms, former officials and party acolytes who cooperate with the embassy or some other official Turkish agency. Their activity is more or less known as they are obliged to give a detailed briefing to the Ministry of Justice, and it is registered in a public database. However, despite all the money Turkey spends, its formal lobbyists do not particularly focus on Greece-related issues. Experience meanwhile shows that they have been mostly ineffective. Most of the work takes place behind the scenes by other agents of the broader Turkish lobby.
2. US think tanks
These are experts who act as moderate do-gooders who advocate, with a profound assumption of superiority, the principles of good-neighborly relations and peace in the region. These people deftly whitewash Turkey’s aggression while promoting a dogma for tolerating its lawless behavior. Interestingly, the same people will hear nothing about similar violations when they come from US rivals such as Russia, China or Iran. Many think tanks have obsolete views about what Turkey is today, while others are driven by evident financial interests because Turkey is financing branches of such think tanks on its territory, offering sponsorships, trips and other benefits. Funding is often non-transparent or carried out through companies and entrepreneurs who are supposed to act as individuals, when in fact they are Erdogan’s intermediaries. Moreover, some experts make a career out of the information and exposure they receive from their relationship with the Turkish Embassy. It should be noted that the Greek diaspora has begun to be very active in this area. For example, many recent positive articles about Greece written by American experts were the result of systematic work by individuals such as Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), who has managed to gain direct access to the deep US foreign policy establishment.
3. Influencers with non-transparent financial ties to Turkey
Their role is difficult to identify and substantiate, as prominent Americans, former officials, occasionally work for investment or consulting firms in Turkey. These officials do not, of course, disclose their secret agenda when expressing public opinion in favor of Turkey.
4. Turkish-American party or candidate sponsors
Political donations in the US are registered in a public database. According to a quick estimate, contributions by Turkish-American donors exceeded $5 million over the last decade. The actual amount is probably much higher than that.
5. Various nonprofit American-Turkish organizations
These organizations have immediate contact with and are often financially dependent on the motherland. This particular type of organization is very active and has recently made efforts to approach Greek experts who, perhaps driven by the appeal of exposure or by innocence, regrettably become an instrument in the promotion of Turkey’s positions.
The same organizations are implicated in Turkey’s propaganda machine, which should be known to anyone with a public say in Greece: This network often isolates phrases out of context only to use them later in the arguments put forward by the embassy and Turkey’s wider influence network. For example, if a Greek expert participating in an online debate hosted by a Turkish organization admits something that is in Turkey’s interests, then the Turkish lobby will later invoke the comment made by the Greek analyst who has unintentionally acted as a validator of Turkish positions. Meanwhile, the remark is incorporated in a Turkish message amplification mechanism which works as follows: Initially, the comment is mentioned in some pro-Turkey American blog. Subsequently, the blog is quoted as a source in some nationwide US media. Eventually, Turkish agents will promote that supposedly credible article to Congress. A simple comment thereby becomes part of the public debate in the US and can influence elected officials, who are the target of this information war.
Up until recently, Greece was a stranger to all that. Now we have good knowledge of how Turkey operates. Thus, regardless of our intentions, we should all filter what we say in public, particularly at times of crisis. After all, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.
Nikolas Katsimpras is a lecturer at Columbia University’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program. He is a veteran officer of the Hellenic Navy.