Former Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, passed an important hurdle last week when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced to the full Senate for a vote on his nomination to be America’s next ambassador to Turkey. Under normal circumstances, such a vote would be a formality. It still might be but, if President Joe Biden still wants to put diplomacy first, he should withdrawal Flake’s nomination and offer him another post.
At issue is the effort by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s autocratic president, to potentially expel ten Western ambassadors including U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield for signing a letter calling for the release of imprisoned civil society activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala.
By any version of the law, including Turkey’s, Kavala’s detention is illegal. Erdoğan first ordered his arrest in 2017, accusing him of masterminding the 2013 Gezi Park protests. In 2020, a court acquitted him of these charges. That very same day, the Istanbul prosecutor ordered him arrested for supposed complicity in the 2016 “Reichstag Fire” coup. He spent another month in prison, but again was acquitted only to be re-arrested on new, even more tenuous charges.
That Erdoğan accused Kavala of being a pawn of philanthropist George Soros is even more ironic because the only major Turkish politician in Erdoğan’s Turkey ever to court Soros was Erdoğan himself. Satterfield was on solid ground to join in a group letter calling out the mockery of justice.
For the Biden administration to accept Erdoğan declaring its outgoing ambassador to be persona non grata only to send a replacement would be both to indulge Erdoğan’s temper tantrum and to humiliate the United States to the Turkish audience. U.S. national interest should trump Flake’s feelings. Withdrawing Flake’s nomination to Turkey need not be a slight to Flake; rather, Biden can simply re-nominate him for another post. Consider, for example, the case of Harry B. Harris, Jr. A distinguished admiral and an expert in Pacific and Indian Ocean security, Trump slated Harris to be ambassador to Australia.
At the last minute, however, Trump and the State Department decided that it could better take advantage of Harris’ expertise on the Korean peninsula; he sailed through his confirmation hearing and served honorably for two-and-a-half years as the U.S. ambassador in Seoul. Biden has several ambassadorial postings to fill. For example, he could offer Flake the choice of postings in Belize, Jamaica, or Kenya.
Sometimes, effective diplomacy requires both playing hardball and doing the right thing. If Erdoğan acts on his threat to expel Satterfield, the United States should respond by declaring Murat Mercan, Turkey’s ambassador in Washington, to be persona non grata. Biden and the U.S. Senate should then make clear that the only way to restore full relations would be Kavala’s unconditional release.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).