A totally avoidable diplomatic crisis
“When two water buffalos fight in a little pond, it’s the frogs who get hurt.”
Those words were spoken to me many years ago by an Iranian friend, whom I’ll call Halleh.
I met Halleh online about 14 years ago. I’ve long been interested in the Middle East, and particularly Iran, thanks in part to its constant threats to destroy Israel. As a Jew, that nasty rhetoric caught attention. Genocidal threats aside, I had read that Iranians typically do not share the hardcore anti-Semitic views common in much of the Arab World and Pakistan.
I had to find out for myself. I went onto Yahoo Chat (Facebook was a wee baby then) and navigated to Persian Chat to engage Iranians.
Sure enough, when I revealed my identity, most of my Iranian interlocutors couldn’t have cared less that I was Jewish. Some were just as curious about me as I was about them.
One of these educated, open-minded Iranians I chatted with was Halleh. We’ve been chatting ever since, and have developed a strong and meaningful friendship.
What does this have to do with Turkey?
For many years, Halleh and I wanted to meet in person. But Iranians can’t get visas to many countries. Plus, I didn’t have particularly well-paying jobs—and I’m terrible with money. As a result, we’ve never met in person.
But things changed. My new job pays better, and some side writing gigs have given me the means to go abroad. I asked Halleh what countries she could visit. She said Turkey was no problem. I said, “We’ve waited long enough to meet. Let’s do it, and do it soon, in the next few weeks!”
I booked a ticket on Turkish Airlines a week and a half ago. My departure date was supposed to be Saturday, Oct. 15. To say I’ve been excited is a huge understatement. I was going to see one of the world’s most famous cities—Istanbul—accompanied by Halleh and two of her siblings—a double cultural experience!
But diplomatic tensions had been brewing recently between Turkey and the United States. A Turkish national who worked in the U.S. Embassy was arrested by Turkish authorities. According to American Ambassador John Bass, no reason was given for the arrest.
In a display of displeasure, the U.S. suspended visa services for all non-immigrant Turkish nationals. Unsurprisingly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s hotheaded authoritarian president, retaliated in kind.
And because of that, I had to cancel my flight today, Monday, Oct. 10.
Narcissistic water buffalos
Who is to blame for this sad state of affairs? Well, it certainly takes two to tango; but I think the Trump Administration bares most of the blame.
I spoke with a retired State Department hand tonight. Here is what I learned:
Quiet, level-headed diplomacy could have possibly resolved the issue before it turned in to a full-blown crisis. But that didn’t happen. Why?
It may be in part because there are hundreds of unfilled State Department positions, thanks to Trump’s total ineptitude as president. Is the State Department now so weakened that it can’t engage in effective diplomacy? I don’t know.
I was also curious about who made the decision to suspend Turkish visas to the U.S. Was it something the ambassador to Turkey is authorized to do?
According to my source, the State Department does not have the power to implement policies on its own. The State Department reports to the National Security Council and the president. From there policy is formulated.
Does this mean Trump ordered the suspension? I have no clue.
But there’s one aspect of the crisis that has definitely been exacerbated by American incompetency. It’s well known that Erdogan is thin-skinned and quick tempered (a lot like Trump). It was obvious Erdogan would retaliate in kind—and he did—and the crisis has deepened.
And so two water buffalos—two truculent, egomaniacal buffalos—are fighting in a small pond. And the little frogs—me, Halleh and tens of thousands of innocent Turks, Americans and others—are the ones paying the price.