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Lord and Kliman: Ambassador to Turkey Should Be Confirmed

The Senate is inexcusably holding up President Barack Obama’s nominee for the next ambassador to Turkey. This is a fragile moment in U.S.-Turkish relations, and one in which the United States should not be without an ambassador. Yet Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has nevertheless put a hold on the nomination of Francis Ricciardone, accusing the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt of failing to uphold the Bush administration’s democracy promotion policy. These accusations are unjustified, and take America’s focus off what should be its true strategic priority: mending and reinvigorating an essential alliance. The hold on Ambassador Ricciardone’s position is also symptomatic of a larger problem in which the Senate obstructs the assignment of career diplomats to strategically important posts.

[IMGCAP(1)]A member of NATO, Turkey remains one of America’s most important allies and a partner America will only need more in the future. It is an influential regional power, with close and improving ties with most countries in the Middle East. Turkey can contribute positively to the long-term stability of Iraq and is a linchpin in resolving lingering tensions over the status of the Kurds. And the U.S. air base at Incirlik, which supports American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is part of a broader security partnership.

Turkey’s importance transcends its contributions as a U.S. ally. Long a bridge between West and East, Turkey offers a region plagued by authoritarian and theocratic regimes a visible example of Muslim democracy. Further, Turkey’s galloping economy and investment across the Middle East drive prosperity in a region desperately in need of growth fueled by industry, not oil. Already a leader in the Middle East, Turkey has the potential to emerge as an influential global power as the 21st century unfolds, along with other rising democracies, such as India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa.

Yet America’s ties with Turkey are increasingly strained. Ankara’s unwillingness to support additional sanctions against Iran triggered much consternation in Washington. Handling Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza remains a delicate issue.

Perhaps more concerning than short-term policy disagreements, public opinion in Turkey has turned dramatically against the United States. In 2010, only 17 percent of Turks viewed the United States favorably, down from 52 percent earlier in this decade. Moreover, in 2009, slightly more than half of Turks believed the United States might one day pose a military threat, a remarkable percentage for a NATO ally. Overall, Turkish attitudes toward the United States remain distrustful, defying the Obama administration’s concerted effort at public diplomacy in the Middle East.

Against this backdrop, Sen. Brownback’s hold on Obama’s intended envoy to Turkey is indefensible. One of the State Department’s most distinguished diplomats, Ricciardone has served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt and held postings in Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. He speaks Turkish, an incalculable asset for any U.S. ambassador to Ankara. Ambassador Ricciardone is also a skilled and committed public diplomat and made public engagement, in Arabic, a cornerstone of his ambassadorship in Egypt.

So why is the right man for the job in limbo? He is accused by Sen. Brownback of failing to advocate democracy promotion and human rights with adequate vigor, particularly while serving as U.S. ambassador to Egypt. Such claims are unfair. In Egypt, Ricciardone was charged with overseeing a Bush administration policy fraught with contradictory objectives: work closely with the government in Cairo on counterterrorism while aiding the regime’s opponents through democracy promotion. Counterterrorism and democracy promotion are worthy concerns, but even Ricciardone’s boss, Condoleezza Rice, struggled with the balance. Ricciardone made the best of an impossible assignment.

Sen. Brownback should avoid ideological litmus tests and release his hold on Ricciardone. The United States needs Ambassador Ricciardone in Turkey now, dedicating his full energies and talents to rebuilding a critical relationship. Sen. Brownback should understand this well, having displayed a longstanding commitment to public diplomacy.

U.S. relations with Turkey stand at a tipping point. Turkey can become one of America’s indispensable 21st-century partners, or a rising power that increasingly goes its own way. Washington can influence Turkey’s choice, and it can start by appointing Ricciardone as ambassador.

Dr. Kristin M. Lord is vice president and director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. Dr. Daniel M. Kliman, a visiting fellow at CNAS, is completing a book on rising powers.

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