Untruths about Turkey hurt diplomacy


29 January 2012

Orrin Ford
Orrin Ford

(This article was first published at The Birmingham News on January 29, 2012 and republished under Orrin Ford’s permission)

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Rick Perry said Turkey should be expelled from NATO, and he called Turkist leaders “Islamic Terrorists.”

The absurdity of that remark demonstrates the ignorance of some of the Republican presidential candidates and the willingness of some of them to spout untruths with no apology for having done so. Perry made that statement at the FOX News presidential debate on Jan. 16 and doubled down on his statements on CNN on Jan. 17 when Wolf Blitzer gave him an opportunity to walk back his comments.

I lived in Ankara, Turkey, from 1968 to 1970. I am a member of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, a founding director of the Turkish American Association of Alabama and was the chair of the Birmingham International Center’s Spotlight on Turkey 2010-2011. I am engaged on a daily basis with the interests of Turkish Americans and Turkey in the United States.

I assure you nothing Perry said could be farther from the truth. He confirmed he is not qualified to sit in the Oval Office.

On Jan. 19, Perry withdrew from the race for the Republican nomination. Unfortunately, Perry’s statements, both their quality and quantity, cannot now be withdrawn. The improper condemnation of the United States’ most important ally in the Middle East is out there and has been heard.

Perry is not the only candidate to make statements out of ignorance. Virtually every Republican candidate has made ad hominem attacks on our allies and enemies with whom the Department of State and Department of Defense are actively engaged. For example, Rick Santorum has called for an attack on Iran, a direct affront to Department of State and Department of Defense initiatives and positions.

But this article is not meant to defend Turkey from such an ignorant and incendiary onslaught. Our relationship with Turkey since the early 1950s is an open book; the truth is readily available for everyone to see.

The more damaging result of Perry’s and others’ comments is their detrimental effect on U.S. diplomatic efforts. The Department of State works daily to forge a legitimate and lasting peace among the family of nations. Diplomacy is a slow and delicate process. Uninformed and intemperate candidate statements can undermine years of work in a single moment. Diplomatic activities depend on the cooperation of allies and enemies alike in the region. Having someone who aspires to the highest office in the United States carelessly throw roadblocks in front of these efforts is certainly counter-productive.

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It isn’t just a problem for the Department of State, however. Comments such as Perry’s have a detrimental impact in Alabama and in Birmingham. There is a very strong contingent of Alabamians who act as Citizen Diplomats for the International Services Council of Alabama. These volunteer diplomats act to host international visitors who are in Alabama on programs that are sponsored by the Department of State and the National Council of International Visitors.

Our Citizen Diplomats hosted more than 150 emerging leaders from around the World in 2011. Our volunteers are the face of the United States for these visitors.

Our Citizen Diplomats are often meeting with visitors who have a poor view of the United States and our citizens. Our mission is to correct that bad view.

A few months ago, a Yemeni visitor posed the question: “How can we achieve world peace?” One of our volunteers, Peggy Bonfield, asked a question in return: “What did you think of the United States and Alabama before you came here, and what do you think now?”

The response was, of course, predictable about what this person expected to find: the traditional ugly American. The response to the second part of Bonfield’s question was different: “You are a warm and caring people and have been totally open and friendly to us; we will always remember you as friends.”

Bonfield then answered the woman’s question about how to achieve world peace: “Take what you have learned about us to your homeland and tell everyone what the American people are really like.”

So much work is being done by so many local people to improve diplomatic relations with so many countries. From a symposium on American law I moderated for some Turkish lawyers last year, to a discussion with a local journalist about freedom of speech in America, to a casual dinner in someone’s home, we continue to welcome international visitors daily. Yet, one thoughtless and ignorant comment by one presidential candidate can destroy all that work.

Providing a national stage on which extremists can vent their false ideals is dangerous for the United States and its interests around the world. Can’t we raise the level of knowledge and intelligence and judgment of these people? Or can we somehow just get them off the stage?


Orrin Ford, a Birmingham lawyer, is a member of board of directors of the International Services Council of Alabama and the board of directors of the Birmingham International Center. Email: bonford@mindspring.com.

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